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Formula 1

Inside Verstappen’s ‘phenomenal’ year as F1’s third wheel

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
10 min read

Ahead of the Formula 1 season finale in Abu Dhabi, Max Verstappen jokingly stole a chair from the press conference room. He’d threatened to keep the seat for the third-placed driver in qualifying and the race as a souvenir from the season he had previously quipped he’d spent as the “third wheel” alongside the dominant Mercedes duo.

Dec 21 : Your F1 season verdict

But that was only really the case in qualifying. He started nine of the 17 grands prix third, the only remote challenger to Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas on anything like a consistent basis, yet only finished third on three occasions.

He was second six times and won twice, as many times as Bottas. Four of his five DNFs you can make a very convincing case should have been a top-two finish as well, and it was only this misfortune that denied him a runner-up finish.

In short, Verstappen did about as well as he could with firmly the second-fastest car in qualifying. And in the races he often went above and beyond. This was not the title challenge it was meant to be but it was a phenomenal effort in the circumstances.

Which is why when he sits down (virtually, such is 2020) with The Race to reflect on his year and contemplates whether this is a difficult season to judge given the pre-season expectation faded into another year feeding off scraps, Verstappen replies: “Well, not really. Because I think you have to look at yourself, your own performance to rate how the season has been going.

“I do think that for most of the races we got the maximum out of it, or overperformed. That is always very nice.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Race Day Abu Dhabi, Uae

“Of course, things can always go better. I would never be satisfied. That’s how it has been since I started racing and that’s also how my dad brought me up.

“There are always areas where you can work on. It’s not a specific area but it’s just analysing stuff, how maybe by starting the weekend differently how you could have maybe gotten more out of it, or decisions of the race strategy-wise or driving-wise, how you could have done things better.

“But overall, of course, it looks maybe not as good because of the three wins I’ve had in previous seasons, but you also have to just be realistic in the material you had to be able to fight.”

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Austrian Grand Prix Race Day Spielberg, Austria

With that material, Verstappen gave it a very good go. There’s even an alternate 2020 reality in which he entered the final round of the season in title contention. And no, it’s not one in which he drives a Mercedes.

A bit of blue-sky thinking from his team boss Christian Horner has Verstappen in a final-round title shootout with Hamilton in a cleaner season.

“Max has driven phenomenally,” Horner tells The Race. “Austria [where Verstappen suffered a mechanical failure], he could well have won, he had a better strategy than Mercedes ahead, Silverstone he could have won if we hadn’t had the pitstop [before Hamilton’s last-lap tyre failure].

“The three Italian races, Monza was probably our weakest, but he’d have been top four [without an engine problem]. Mugello, he would have won, for sure he would have won that race. Tyre-wise everything was just better for us than Mercedes that weekend [but Verstappen never made it past the first lap after being wiped out, and he’d encountered an engine problem anyway].

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Emilia Romagna Grand Prix Race Day Imola, Italy

“And Imola, he was in great shape he would have at least been second [without a tyre failure].

“And then with Lewis having COVID for these last two races we’d have probably been within about 25-30 points.”

If we play along, and adjust the championship based on the scenarios Horner outlines above, then Verstappen does indeed enter the final two races in good shape: 31 points behind Hamilton with the championship leader on the sidelines for the penultimate round.


Revised standings pre-Hamilton COVID case based on Verstappen’s ideal season

1 Lewis Hamilton, 314
2 Max Verstappen, 283
3 Valtteri Bottas, 184

Who knows if this fictional run-in still features a Verstappen wipeout on the opening lap of the Sakhir GP, or Hamilton and Verstappen go into the final round a few points apart? But who cares. Reality has already been bent enough, given this world assumes Verstappen has a season without dramas but the issues that befell Hamilton and Bottas remain. So it doesn’t matter. It’s simply an alternative way of viewing Verstappen’s excellent personal season, one in which he grabbed almost everything available to him.

Motor Racing Formula One Testing Test Two Day 1 Barcelona, Spain

As Horner says: “Ifs, buts and maybes! He has driven extremely well. The only blot on his copybook was Turkey. With our performance relative to the Mercedes, I think he’s extracted an incredible amount out of it.”

That Verstappen came so close to grabbing second in the actual championship is a testament to that.

“Of course, Valtteri had a bit of bad luck but I think we even have more bad luck,” says Verstappen.

“So, to be still that close to them I think that just shows that in terms of consistency and maximising results and points, we did a very good job as a team.”

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Hungarian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Budapest, Hungary

There’s an air of modesty around Verstappen’s view this was a collective success but his role was, of course, pivotal. He qualified lower than the second row just twice: at the Hungaroring, where Red Bull was totally at sea in practice and qualifying, and Monza, where Red Bull simply was not competitive enough. More impressively he started from the front row five times, and a four-race run early in the year not finishing lower than second showed how opportunistic and efficient Verstappen was.

In fact, Verstappen’s first half of the season when Red Bull’s RB16 was so far adrift of the Mercedes W11 was so good that the results don’t look like anything changed during the year. Of the 12 races he finished, 11 were on the podium so the record book just reflects a full season of Verstappen being either second or third, with a win early on and at the end.

But he was particularly excellent at F1’s new tracks – scoring more points than Bottas across those races despite his Mugello, Imola and Sakhir DNFs! – and when Red Bull introduced improved suspension for the Eifel Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, Verstappen made a step again.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Emilia Romagna Grand Prix Race Day Imola, Italy

In the last seven races he was an even more sustained thorn in Mercedes’ side, beating at least one W11 in five of them. Rather than picking up the pieces when one of them (usually Bottas) had a setback, Verstappen forced the issue more and more and was a direct competitor on merit.

Red Bull has remained coy over what the exact nature of that Nurburgring upgrade was, but it was vital. Essentially it completed the long process of unpicking the problems caused by a major upgrade for the season opener in Austria, after Red Bull continued to develop through F1’s coronavirus-enforced hiatus. That meant it arrived at the real first race having leapfrogged the various iterations that had been planned for the early months of the original schedule.

“Obviously aerodynamics are a key element on these cars but it’s also how it integrates with the mechanical side as well so it’s a combination of how the two elements work in harmony,” says Horner.

Motor Racing Formula One Testing Test Two Day 2 Barcelona, Spain

“Some elements were self-inflicted. We went from a Barcelona-spec car, we never got to run the Melbourne spec, and then that was superseded three times, all through the virtual world.

“We had to unwind that back a bit to understand what we’d actually introduced because numerically everything within our tools was saying it was better it actually made the characteristics of the car worse.

“It was trying to then unpick and understand what it was that we’d introduced and I think having done that we’ve then made good progress.”

Verstappen supports this theory. He says the car was at its worst during winter testing but Red Bull was confused when the championship actually started “because we had quite a lot of new parts on the car we expected a lot of”.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Eifel Grand Prix Race Day Nurbugring, Germany

“I do think there were a few positives but still it was not all correlating like it should have should have been,” he says. “I think since we knew ‘OK, we have a problem’ it was just a matter of time putting it all together.

“I think the bigger step was in Germany, where I think the rear felt quite a bit better.”

But the process of waiting for Red Bull to unlock the potential of its car was a familiar, frustrating pattern to a lot of people, given the team started the year as the only realistic hope of a threat to Mercedes’ modern-day F1 monopoly. And it required a new level of patience for Verstappen, who had been sold the dream of his first F1 title fight.

To his credit, he handled that challenging situation with what looked like a new-found maturity. The rash Verstappen of two years ago has largely disappeared, with an almost complete absence of lairy on-track behaviour.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Race Day Abu Dhabi, Uae

He had greater confidence that early setbacks could be overcome by a combination of his ability and Red Bull generally having the second-fastest car, which eliminated a lot of risk-taking, especially in the opening laps. And he also took a step in team leadership too, understanding the need to adjust his objectives and motivate Red Bull for what was possible rather than whining over the team failing to deliver what it promised, yet again.

“Of course, you come into the year, you’re hoping that you’re going to be challenging the Mercedes and then it was very obvious very early on that they’d made a significant step, and you have to recalibrate and readjust,” says Horner.

“He just focused on getting the best out rather than overdriving.”

Turkey was the only time the ‘old’ Verstappen reared his head, as he cut a disappointed and frustrated figure after missing out on pole because of a mistake in qualifying – though he directed his anger towards the team’s decision to run on intermediates – and then a race Horner calls “messy”, because of a spin while trying to hurriedly pass race leader Sergio Perez and further errors, compounded by a massive Red Bull set-up error when a front wing adjustment at a pitstop left Verstappen with one side of the wing seven degrees out.

That race was the only time Verstappen seemed in too much of a hurry to get something done. It was an anomaly in a season he otherwise felt he did not “need to risk 110% all the time” and admits to adopting a different, more patient mindset.

Perhaps that is just a reflection of Turkey being a rare combination of Red Bull having the out-and-out fastest car for most of the weekend in oddball circumstances, with Mercedes looking totally out of contention as well. It drew an old ‘all or nothing’ mentality out of Verstappen, which remains his only clear weakness against Hamilton, who never seems to fall into that trap anymore.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Turkish Grand Prix Qualifying Day Istanbul, Turkey

Otherwise, this was a season in which Verstappen evolved further. His progression as a driver is now down to “microdevelopments”, he believes, but he is moulding himself into an ever more consistent and effective performer on-track and a leader off it.

Verstappen says “you only make yourself frustrated, you make the people around you insecure and also unhappy” by dwelling on how the year could or should have been. We talked earlier this season about how he’d found his funny side, and that ended up being a vital part of how he tackled the challenges of the campaign. A bit of light relief went a long way in everybody, including Verstappen, keeping their heads up.

“It’s better to sit back, relax a bit, take a step away and just say, ‘OK, what can I do?’,” he says. “And that is sometimes second, if I really absolutely get everything out of it and they make mistakes. And most of the time it’s going to be third. And with a lot of luck, or on a very special day, you win a race.

“That’s a bit what it is this year. You just have to deal with it, and you have to accept it. There is no other way around that.”

Verstappen practiced what he preached, and thus found motivation in a narrow window of opportunity.

From there he pieced together a campaign of almost metronomic quality, treading a fine line between making peace with his limited circumstances and settling for the results they seemed to demand on paper.

Third best, a third wheel, the perennial third-place qualifier: joking or not, none of those do Verstappen’s first-rate season justice.

Mar 30 : How good is Max Verstappen?
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