As he settled down to watch the start of the race last Sunday, our Sky Sports F1 presenter Simon Lazenby got into conversation with our floor manager for the weekend, Marc, a man normally known for his above average organisational skills, rather than his mystic predictions.
However in this case, the boy came up with a 6 Lotto Ball pearler of a prediction as Si asked him who he thought was going to win the race. “Both Mercedes to come a cropper and Max Verstappen to win,” was his reply. Sadly, by now it was way too close to ‘lights out’ to get a bet on the result but it’s safe to say that Marc now has the respect of all his colleagues and never will we argue with him again when he tells us to be somewhere at a certain time. An instruction that is harder than it looks, just ask Johnny Herbert.
For the neutral F1 fan it was a perfect scenario. In fact for anyone other than a Mercedes fan it was wishful thinking, but surely it couldn’t come true, could it?
As you know by now, it did come true and so potentially one of the greatest sporting stories of the year, if not the decade, was written.
In the latter stages of the race, Verstappen was holding off Kimi Raikkonen, a man twice his age and who when he made his F1 debut Max was only 3 years old. Behind Kimi was Sebastian Vettel, the man who currently held the record for the youngest driver to win a Grand Prix, and behind him, his team mate Daniel Ricciardo, who had led the race right up until his final pit stop. Something he really had no right to do, but he had driven flawlessly and earned that right.
Ricciardo was a touch perplexed and I think a little more miffed after the race as he questioned the 3 stop strategy his team had put him on. I don’t blame him. Red Bull gave him far too much to do to get back that lead, having to overtake three cars in the process and by leaving it 5 laps later to cover off Sebastian Vettel’s final stop, put him in something of a strategic no-man’s-land.
I spoke to Daniel on the Thursday in Barcelona and he was very much looking forward to the challenge of a new team mate. I asked whether he thought the decision to replace Daniil Kvyat with the young dutchman was the correct one for Red Bull to take. He answered that “whether it was right or wrong, it was now up to Max to prove that it was the correct way to go”, just as he’d done ever since he was given an F1 drive at the age of 17.
Up for the challenge or not, I do hope that any ambiguity over his race strategy doesn’t leave Ricciardo feeling that his team mate is being favoured by Red Bull. Never a healthy situation, just ask Mark Webber.
And it’s not like the end of the race was a walk in the park for Verstappen, who managed to run his final set of medium tyres for a marathon 32 laps. I’d hate to think how little grip he had by the Chequered Flag and the way he kept Kimi at arm’s length for the closing stages. Denying the Ferrari driver a chance to attack him with some flawless throttle control out of the chicane and into the final corner – where a bad exit would have left him vulnerable down the straight – was simply magnificent.
He’d really not put a foot wrong all weekend long, in and out of the car, but here he was justifying Dr Helmut Marko’s decision to promote him, at Daniil Kyat’s expense, in style. On the subject of whether it was right to promote him or not? Case closed I think and, even before the win, if you took the emotion out of the situation, it was clear that, sadly for him, Daniil Kvyat wasn’t fast nor consistent enough for the team’s requirements. Sure, he could get a podium from time to time, but that has never been the demands of the Red Bull driver programme. They’re after finding the next Sebastian Vettel. It’s ruthless but top level sport always has been and always should be.
Can I just add at this stage that I thought Daniil Kvyat handled a tough weekend brilliantly. I do feel for him, he’s a lovely guy and a decent driver, who I hope still has a long future in Formula 1. During commentary I did wonder what might have happened had Daniel Ricciardo let him unlap himself and chase after Vettel to do the same. In a race whether the script had long since ended up in the waste bin, another collision between these two wouldn’t have been the greatest surprise.
But back to Verstappen. “You can’t win anything with kids” Alan Hansen once said on Match of the Day. He was wrong. Red Bull, with their approach to bringing on the stars of the future, are most definitely right and in Verstappen they possess a young man who Mercedes and Ferrari courted and who, with a timely promotion, they have now tied down for the long term.
Those with far more experience and knowledge of what it takes to perform at this level will shower Max with praise I’m sure, and his next media session will be way more attended than his Thursday afternoon chat in China which featured just 4 journalists. Lucky enough, I was one of them who’d made the trip down to Toro Rosso to hear from a guy that you knew would be writing big headlines one way or the other this season, just not in the way he did in Barcelona.
Before he turned 18, I used to get so many tweets to #AskCrofty asking if Max was allowed Champagne on the podium. Obviously you guys had as much faith in him than Dr Marko. But to win his first race for his new team, 11 days after he joined them and beat two former world champions to the top step of the podium, well, you’d probably need a magnum of the bubbly stuff to believe that was possible.
A real feel good story for the sport, so if you’re bringing your kids to Silverstone this year you might want to tell them that in a few years’ time, they could be winning races too! And the next in line to become the youngest driver to win a Grand Prix could be sat right beside you.