Column: The season Max Verstappen went from super talent to superstar

02-12-2019 17:10 | Updated: 02-12-2019 18:05
by Nicolás Quarles van Ufford
General
Column: The season Max Verstappen went from super talent to superstar

In previous years, Max Verstappen was widely regarded as a rising star but with a lack of consistency and maturity. This season, he has proved he has both of those things as he has arguably become the best pound-for-pound driver on the grid. What has changed?

Engine performance and 'overdriving'

Engine performance and driver performance are heavily tied together. Not only in the sense that a driver obviously does better with a more powerful engine; it can also change the way someone drives. Verstappen is an excellent example of this.

Ahead of the 2018 season, Aston Martin Red Bull Racing set out to challenge for the title. Although Daniel Ricciardo won two of the six races, it quickly became apparent Red Bull weren't going to meet their target.

What this initial target did to Verstappen, quite clearly, is to cause the youngster to overdrive his RB14. He knew about the Renault engine's lack of reliability, he knew about its severe lack of straight-line speed compared to Mercedes and Ferrari. In an attempt to compensate for this, he drove on the limit, sometimes going over that limit (like FP3 in Monaco and his many spins in weeks before that).

Remember last season's Italian Grand Prix? Valtteri Bottas was chasing down Max and finally went for a move around the outside of the first chicane. Verstappen left him less than a car's width and forced the Finn off. A slam-dunk penalty, and a slam-dunk example of overdriving - he was too aggressive defending from Bottas because he knew the Mercedes was way quicker.

Fast-forward to present-day Max. Yes, he's still aggressive, and he'll always be that way, but he's not overly aggressive like in 2018. He doesn't have that under-powered Renault in the back of his RB15 anymore, and this gives him confidence. Case-in-point: Pierre Gasly drag-racing Lewis Hamilton to the finish line in Brazil.

Max is a hard but fair race driver, and I haven't seen him over-stepping the line once this season, since his engines are at least comparable to Ferrari and Mercedes' power units.

Maturity

The other big step forward from Verstappen I've noticed this season is in his maturity. In the Renault days, particularly last season, Max would have a *proper* go at the French manufacturer if the power unit failed. 

As the undisputed number one driver this season, Verstappen maybe has realised how hard his words can hit back in the factory where engines are developed, and how this can impact morale and therefore quality. With new engine partner Honda, the 22-year-old has never spoken ill of the power unit, even when he was severely lacking straight-line speed at times during the season. 

Of course, it helps he hasn't had an engine randomly blow up like would happen with Renault at times. However, pointing at the Honda logo when he won his first race of the season in Austria and going out of his way to compliment the engine where applicable; these are things we've never seen Max do before. It's very mature, and despite the occasional comment he makes where you think 'Did you really have to say that?', you can tell he has a much more confident and mature head on his shoulders than 12 months ago.

Being the top dog

The last major factor has to be Ricciardo's departure. Given it's not ideal to have a new teammate like Gasly who doesn't push you at all is not ideal (Max lapped him in Austria despite being behind him after the start, I'm still not over that), knowing you're number one within a team must give Max peace of mind.

Going back to overdriving, Ricciardo must have been another cause of that. This time, let's bring up FP3 in Monaco last year as the example. 

Red Bull were the unquestionable favourites heading into the weekend, and they dominated all free practice sessions. In FP3 on Saturday morning, Ricciardo was beating Verstappen by 0.001 seconds, which shouldn't matter too much.

Still, Max went out for a flying lap at the end of the session to prove he's worth his salt and he ended up clobbering the arm coat at the swimming pool section. He desperately wanted to prove to Helmut Marko, Christian Horner and company he was the better driver at the Bulls. Overdriving. 

Can you name me one single mistake like this Max has made in 2019? Exactly. He doesn't do it anymore. He doesn't need to prove himself anymore. He knows he has Red Bull's full backing, he knows he's their Golden Boy, and he knows he has a reliable and quick engine in the back of his car.

Conclusion

So, a quick and reliable engine compared with peace of mind and job security equals stunning performances, pretty much. That's what this whole thing boils down tool, if you couldn't be bothered to read it all.

I hope this explanation made sense. It's odd to think how a different engine can impact a driver's actual driving style so much, as well as his teammate, but the proof is in the pudding here. Max Verstappen being the pudding.

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