Inexperienced Verstappen still learning lessons the hard way

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    Formula One is going from strength to strength at the start of what is shaping up to be an exciting season, but one of its stars, Max Verstappen, has been turning heads for all the wrong reasons.

    The 20-year-old has had an inauspicious opening three rounds, scoring just 18 points and sitting eighth in the championship for Red Bull Racing.

    Few would’ve picked that Verstappen’s teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, would be 19 points ahead in the intra-team battle so early in the season, but while the Australian already has one win to his name, Verstappen has been more likely to spray carbon fibre across the track than champagne on the podium.

    Starting in Australia, he damaged his diffuser running off the track in a fruitless pursuit of Kevin Magnussen for fourth place and later spun exiting the first turn, dropping three places.

    Never mind – Melbourne’s street circuit has always been a difficult one for overtaking and the Bahrain Grand Prix was just two weeks away.

    But Verstappen’s weekend at the island kingdom never really took off, with a crash borne of driver error in Q2 relegating him to P15 on the grid and a clash with Lewis Hamilton on the second lap earning him a puncture that ultimately forced his retirement.

    Roll on China, then, where Red Bull Racing felt it had the opportunity to exploit what it believes is the best chassis on the grid in pursuit of its first win of the season.

    The team was poised to do exactly that after a fortuitous mid-race safety car. Verstappen and Ricciardo, running fourth and fifth respectively and equipped with new soft tyres, began a charge for the podium, and their pace quickly made obvious that Ferrari and Mercedes resistance would be futile.

    Why Verstappen felt a need to hang onto Hamilton around the outside of turn seven, well off the racing line, is therefore unclear. The Dutchman went wide off the track and lost a place to Ricciardo, who subsequently made short work of Hamilton into the hairpin.

    Race winner Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing

    Race winner Daniel Ricciardo (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)

    While Daniel was powering to the top step of the podium, Verstappen was slogging his way back past Hamilton and then Sebastian Vettel – or at least that was the plan. A clumsy attempt to pass the championship-leading Ferrari at the hairpin ended in contact that sent both tumbling down the order.

    “That was of course my fault,” a downtrodden Verstappen told Sky Sports F1 after the race.

    “It’s easy to say afterwards that I should’ve waited. It probably would’ve been the best idea, but unfortunately it happened.”

    Vettel contended that in situations like this, particularly given the RB14’s pace advantage, a more measured approach was needed.

    “I wasn’t planning on resisting,” Vettel said. “I think in that situation he has to [change his style], otherwise it happens again.”

    This is hardly the first time Verstappen’s racing style has been questioned. His tenure in the sport has been controversial for his aggressive, non-compromising attitude that has both attracted comparisons to some of the sport’s all-time greats, including Ayrton Senna, and also put his competitors offside on multiple occasion.

    Verstappen is rightfully recognised as one of the most exciting talents of his generation, but his raw impetuousness behind the wheel was on full display in Shanghai. He lost a sure-fire win by making amateur errors and as a result was thoroughly outclassed by a teammate who’d been on the back foot all weekend.

    “His judgement today, he was too impatient,” Red Bull Racing principal Christian Horner said. “He will have for sure learnt from that, I have no doubt of that.”

    Unlike in previous altercations, when Verstappen has been able to power through criticism without changing tack, one gets the sense that seeing Ricciardo take the top step while he ended with a time penalty for his mistakes is forcing him into some genuine reflection. Most impacting is that he’ll have recognised that this was no minor misjudgement made in the heat of a wheel-to-wheel; it was a rookie error from a driver with the pedigree to know better.

    Daniel Ricciardo

    Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

    Indeed, Vettel believes the accident could have been avoided had Verstappen simply factored in the weather conditions as they sped down the straight.

    “We had a bit of tailwind the whole race, and you have 41 laps to know that it’s tricky to stop the car there [at the hairpin],” the German said.

    The first three races of the year are testament to the fact that Verstappen’s place at the point end of the grid belies his experience. He may be past his half-century of grand prix race starts, but he had just one season of car racing under his belt beforehand, making him one of the least experienced drivers on the grid.

    It adds an intriguing dimension to this year’s title race if indeed Red Bull Racing proves a contender. Verstappen has never been one to crack under pressure, but could his own eagerness be his undoing?

    Christian Horner proffers one potential answer:

    “Yes, he’s made some mistakes, but I remember when we had Sebastian [Vettel] at a similar stage of his career it wasn’t uncommon that he also made some mistakes.”

    And we all know how that turned out.

    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart - but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.

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    The Crowd Says (16)

    • Roar Guru

      April 17th 2018 @ 8:51am
      Rellum said | April 17th 2018 @ 8:51am | ! Report

      Verstappen is fast but maybe he is just not a good racer whilst Dan definitely is.

      • April 17th 2018 @ 2:34pm
        Dexter The Hamster said | April 17th 2018 @ 2:34pm | ! Report

        Remember in the rain in Brazil when Max was tearing everyone to shreds. I thought he was a pretty good racer that day. Anyway, I think your point stands, Daniel has the experience and the skill, while Max is still coming along.

        • Columnist

          April 17th 2018 @ 4:32pm
          Michael Lamonato said | April 17th 2018 @ 4:32pm | ! Report

          I think that’s the best way to put it, yep. Ricciardo is a polished talent whereas Verstappen is still raw. He’ll learn a little from every mistake he makes — what’ll be interesting is how many mistakes he make when the pressure’s on. I don’t think he’d crack under pressure, to be clear; I just think, as in China, he gets too keen.

    • April 17th 2018 @ 12:31pm
      Simoc said | April 17th 2018 @ 12:31pm | ! Report

      Nothing unusual here. He’ll cruise a WDC before to long and all his critics will say they saw it coming. That’s the way it is. When you’re super quick you get cut a bit of slack. Great win for Daniel though.

      • Columnist

        April 17th 2018 @ 4:34pm
        Michael Lamonato said | April 17th 2018 @ 4:34pm | ! Report

        He needs the car first! But you’re right, he’ll get there one day. For the record, I don’t think he has any (or at very least not many) critics who believe he isn’t championship material.

    • Roar Pro

      April 17th 2018 @ 12:35pm
      anon said | April 17th 2018 @ 12:35pm | ! Report

      I feel like Verstappen is a little bit unlucky.

      Hitting Vettel was stupid and it was a poor decision.

      Ricciardo on the other hand looks like a superstar (he is one), even though that move on Bottas was very aggressive given Ricciardo’s pace advantage and given he was inevitably going to pass Bottas.

      • Columnist

        April 17th 2018 @ 4:37pm
        Michael Lamonato said | April 17th 2018 @ 4:37pm | ! Report

        It was aggressive, but Ricciardo isn’t really a spur-of-the-moment kind of overtaker — you can’t be when you’re braking from those sort of distances. He had that planned out as far as he could’ve. He probably didn’t count on Bottas wriggling towards the apex in the braking zone, but he also clearly had it under control.

        Not sure how Verstappen is unlucky in this situation, though. Perhaps that he underperformed in the same stint his teammate excelled, but I think his errors speak for themselves regardless of Ricciardo’s race because it was clear both had the pace to challenge for the victory before he made them.

        • Roar Pro

          April 19th 2018 @ 3:54pm
          anon said | April 19th 2018 @ 3:54pm | ! Report

          I think Verstappen is unlucky in that Ricciardo has been way more aggressive in his overtaking but has yet to have paid the consequences — and he will.

          Don’t get me wrong, he’s probably the best overtaker out there but his opposition have been very co-operative at the same time. Maybe it’s because he’s a nice guy they subconsciously be lenient.

          It’s going to just take someone a little bit more stubborn and with less to lose to finally close the door on Ricciardo and people will start saying “Ricciardo was a little bit aggressive there”. Do it again and they’ll say “the pressure is getting to Ricciardo”. That will erode some of his natural confidence, he won’t be so bold in his passing, etc.

          Look at what Alonso did to Vettel late in the race on Sunday.

          If Verstappen did that to Vettel we’d be talking about how dangerous he is out there.

          • Columnist

            April 23rd 2018 @ 1:30pm
            Michael Lamonato said | April 23rd 2018 @ 1:30pm | ! Report

            Quite possibly. Hamilton, for example, is one of the least forgiving drivers in the business when overtaking or defending. Maybe a duel with Lewis would give Daniel more to think about, but then again, like you say, there must be a certain degree of knowing the driver you’re racing against coming into play. I don’t think drivers give Ricciardo more room because he’s nice, but I think they play fair because he does likewise.

            It sort of goes back to what Vettel said about the tailwind. Vettel was thinking about what kind of move Verstappen was most likely to make and made allowances in his defence accordingly; Verstappen just overcooked it.

    • April 17th 2018 @ 1:06pm
      KenW said | April 17th 2018 @ 1:06pm | ! Report

      Horner’s quote rings true. Vettel was once the young driver taking himself and others out in unprofessional circumstances (remember him hitting Webber under safety car once). But they clearly saw something in him and it turned out pretty well.

      • Roar Pro

        April 17th 2018 @ 2:00pm
        anon said | April 17th 2018 @ 2:00pm | ! Report

        The criticism of Vettel as being the “crash kid” was an invention of a bitter McLaren team.

        The only real crashes Vettel was involved in was hitting Webber under safety car in atrocious condition (wasn’t even Vettel’s first full season of F1), and Vettel hitting Button Spa 2010.

        Hitting Webber was no more stupid than Hamilton hitting Raikkonen in the pits Canada 2008, and hitting Button was no more stupid that Hamilton hitting Rosberg Spain 2016.

        • Columnist

          April 17th 2018 @ 4:38pm
          Michael Lamonato said | April 17th 2018 @ 4:38pm | ! Report

          Perhaps, but he did (and still does to a somewhat lesser extent) have an impetuous streak that we’re also seeing a bit of in Verstappen.

          • Roar Pro

            April 19th 2018 @ 3:57pm
            anon said | April 19th 2018 @ 3:57pm | ! Report

            And Hamilton doesn’t?

    • April 17th 2018 @ 2:41pm
      Dexter The Hamster said | April 17th 2018 @ 2:41pm | ! Report

      Michael, off topic a bit, but this race showed how important it is for us fans that teams are on contra strategies. Every race should have cars out there with different tyre strategies (and fuel loads, but that’s another argument for another day), some trying to hold on with track position, others steaming through the pack. It was compelling viewing.

      On Max, he is just good for F1. Would be frustrating for other drivers at times, and for himself and his team, but for the fans, its what we want to see.

      • Columnist

        April 17th 2018 @ 4:42pm
        Michael Lamonato said | April 17th 2018 @ 4:42pm | ! Report

        Absolutely right! It’s been Pirelli’s stated aim this season to bring tyre compounds to each race that’ll generate equally fast one and two-stop strategies. Bahrain was perfect in this regard, but the wildly different weather conditions on Friday and Saturday compared to Sunday means we didn’t really get that before the safety car intervened, after which things really lit up.

        Yeah, I caught Martin Brundle saying something to the effect that we’d rather have him attempting those moves than holding station. I think that’s true in this case because he obviously pulls off far more than he botches. You wouldn’t say the same about Maldonado, for example!

        • April 17th 2018 @ 5:48pm
          Dexter The Hamster said | April 17th 2018 @ 5:48pm | ! Report

          And to show my bias, while he is bumping into Seb and Lewis I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. If he bumps into his teammate I might have something else to say about it….

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