While this Formula One season has been immensely watchable, last week’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix highlighted something else that has been brewing all season. And that is Max Verstappen’s driving standards. Be in no doubt, Max Verstappen is an immensely talented driver who is rightly at one of the best teams in the sports and who will be world champion at some point in his career. How many times he will achieve that throughout his career, who knows? But I am virtually 100% confident Max Verstappen will be a world champion in the future. Of course, if events go his way over the weekend, he will be world champion by about three o’clock on Sunday afternoon. He and Red Bull have put up the hardest fight that Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes have had to contest in the whole of the hybrid engine era. There was the Silver Arrow civil war in 2016 as Hamilton and teammate Nico Rosberg’s relationship fell apart completely and tore the team apart. Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel ran them close in 2017 and 2018 but team and individual errors cost them titles that both car and driver were good enough to win. It’s not been completely plain sailing for Mercedes in these last eight years. And now, we enter the final weekend of the season with neither championship decided and the two drivers at the top of the leader board totally equal on points.
If it goes to countback on Sunday, Verstappen would win the title by virtue of winning nine races to Hamilton’s eight. That alone shows how much of a challenge Max has put up for Lewis’ crown this season. Last season, Lewis won 11 of the 17 races held, while Max won two. Because of the new regulations being delayed a year, all the teams have been effectively been running B-spec cars, evolutions of the 2020 cars. Whatsmore, the technical directives issued at the start of the season put Mercedes at a disadvantage for the longest time this season; until about halfway through the season, Red Bull clearly had the faster car. However, Mercedes were consistent enough points scorers to stay in contact before they clawed back that performance deficit back.
But for me, Max has shown some rather worrying characteristics this season. Max has made no bones about the fact that he races hard. This has been evident from the moment he first entered F1 as a 17-year-old in 2016. He was immensely fast right away, but just as like to crash into a barrier or another car as set a fastest lap. Those general mistakes have been ironed out and he has taken this season by the scruff of the neck, for the first time looking like a real contender for the world title. But too often, he has forced Hamilton to concede a corner by not giving him room or putting both of them in a situation where if neither backed out, they were going to hit each other. And for me, his antics at Jeddah came dangerously close to crossing the line. Not only did he force Hamilton and himself off the track, he then used that as an advantage to get back into the lead. And when he was told to give the position back, he braked so suddenly that Hamilton couldn’t react in time and crashed into the back of him. When he finally did give the position back, he then threw himself into the corner to get it back. Little wonder he was given three penalties that comfortably knocked him back to second place. And after the race, Verstappen asked if there was a double standard with the application of the penalties, and complained that F1 seemed to be more about penalties than about racing. Well, if you want it to be more about racing than about penalties, don’t do things that result in you getting penalties.
We’ve seen world championships be decided by collisions between title rivals. 1989 and 1990 between Aryton Senna and Alain Prost at Suzuka, Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill at Adelaide in 1994 and Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve at Jerez in 1997. The FIA will not want this title fight to go that way. That’s why race director Michael Masi has issued reminders of the sporting regulations concerning fair racing and sportsmanship, and the possible penalties for breaking them. And all this is not to say that Lewis might not do something similar in the heat of the moment. He might. But Lewis has been in the sport for 13 years. He is one of the most experienced drivers on the grid who has never really been prone to losing his cool in high pressure situations. Verstappen is a much more combustible character all round. Not just because of his comparative youth to his opponent, but because that is simply who he is. So if you asked to point to the one I thought would be more likely to resort to something like deliberately running another driver off the road, it would be Verstappen. And that would be such a disappointing end to what has been a fantastic season.