Do you remember when you turned 19?
For some of us that’s a lot easier to answer than for others. I vaguely remember waking up with something of a furry head the day I turned 19, and I certainly remember a brilliant day of celebrations with my family.
Whatever you did, or are intending to do when you turn 19, I hope that’s it’s truly epic.
I dare say though that when we did reach that milestone, none of us were able to claim that we were the youngest man to win a Grand Prix, appear on an F1® podium, score points and even qualify on the front row of the Formula 1® grid. But hey, we’re not Max Verstappen, are we? And when he reaches his 19th birthday at the end of September, I guess he’s earnt the right to some mighty celebrations. Chances are though, he’ll have a quiet one with his family and he’ll quickly be back focusing on the next race.
If there’s one thing about Max Verstappen, it’s that he’s focused. And talented, that makes two, so I’ll chuck in single minded as well and as a 4th, he’s pretty important to Formula 1® right now. You only had to be at Spa last weekend to witness the impact that this young man is having on his sport. The crowds were up even before he put his Red Bull on the front row, and according to some reports, another 5,000 tickets were sold off the back of his qualifying effort. The banks and grandstands around the circuit, normally housing a plentiful supply of British pilgrims, were suddenly a sea of orange. A Dutch invasion had made its way over the border to cheer on their new hero. A hero that was actually born in Belgium travels with a Belgian passport, but who considers himself to be Dutch and who’s to argue with that, certainly not me.
As my mate Dave put it, “Normally it’s 50% Brits here; today the fans are all supporting some bloke called Max!”
Supporting him, because from the moment he arrived in the sport as the youngest driver ever to line up on the gird, you knew he had what it takes to not only make an impact, but one day, given the right car, to go on and win many, many races. His race in Shanghai last year for instance, you still marvel at some of the moves he pulled off that day, utterly brilliant.
So last weekend, the scene was set in Spa for another fairytale story, victory was in his sights in front of that orange clad legion. Sadly for Max there was no fairytale ending. Did the occasion get to him I wonder? With so many people desperate to see him succeed, and paying good money to witness his exploits, did he go all out to impress and in doing so, did he lose a bit of that focus, and his calm, but often brilliant driving ability?
It’s a question only Max can answer and I get the feeling that when we get to Monza this week, he’s going to be answering a lot of questions about what happened in Spa. Not just from journalists, but from his peers as well, who have expressed their opinions about his on track aggression in the past, but behind the closed doors of the Friday drivers briefing, might just be inclined to do so again.
Because for all his talent, questions are being raised now as to whether he crosses the line from time to time. I’m not talking track limits here, but he does cross that particular line as do many others of course. But the line between what’s fair and what’s pushing it, what’s acceptable in wheel to wheel racing and what could be viewed as dangerous.
Certainly Kimi Raikkonen, who’s had more experience than others in this field recently, is fast losing patience with the Dutch driver. And it’s hard to argue against him after he was forced to hit the brakes and avoid an accident at 200mph plus on Sunday, because once again Max left his defensive move until the car behind had committed itself first.
It’s certainly a deliberate way of defending from Max, he makes his choice late and reacts to what’s coming behind. You could argue that he sometimes moves around in the braking zone, a big no no of course, but in Spa it was just before. He’s also quite prepared to get his elbows out and force another driver off the track, as we saw with Kimi once again, these two really are a magnet for each other at the moment.
It’s all subjective of course, although after this weekend I noticed more comments on social media against Max than praising him. But if you look at how Sergio Perez and Felipe Massa raced each other through the Les Combes chicane, hard, centimeters away from each other, but always fair you wonder why Max couldn’t have afforded Kimi the same respect.
And it’s that word that I think is the key here, ‘respect’.
Mercedes Benz Head of Motorsport Toto Wolff, a man who tried to sign Verstappen of course, praised him for being “refreshing” but also pointed out that he was one who “puts his elbows out” and who came to the sport with ‘no fear and no respect’.
Now that lack of fear and ability to get his elbows out, helps make him the talent he is. But if there is no respect, that has to be a bad thing, surely? Because with no respect, the chances of him crossing the line again and again and causing an accident, will surely grow?
I like watching Max and I think he’s a breath of fresh air I really do. He’s quite happy to state his view, especially in Press Conferences when other drivers try to pick him up on something. His answer to Felipe Massa in Montreal last year when the Brazilian criticised the crash with Romain Grosjean in Monaco was just priceless. Verstappen, without hesitation thanked Felipe for his opinion and then mentioned that he might be better off looking at a replay of the previous Canadian race and how he could avoid running into the back of somebody again. It was his confidence that he had to deliver a line like that, in the full glare of the world’s media, without caring for reputation, that I thought was thoroughly impressive.
But did it point then to a lack of respect? Or was it just the attitude of a teenager backed into a corner? He came out fighting whether he was in the right or wrong. I’m not sure, it’s been a long while since I was a teenager, and of course I never got bolshy with anyone at that age!
We see rivalry in the sport we love and as fans and observers we encourage it, but beneath the fierce competition there has to be respect, and in the case of the drivers, respect for each other, as all are aware of the dangers they face every time they sit in the cockpit. And if Toto Wolff is right, if Verstappen doesn’t have that respect, where does it end up?
The fear of course is that sooner or later it ends up with a big accident. Certainly Raikkonen has expressed that concern. Sebastian Vettel too has come out and said that maybe now is the time to have a word with the youngster. “We need to talk to each other, we need to have respect” he said. That word again, respect, it’s not just Aretha it seems that wants some at the moment.