Max Verstappen has emerged as the clear team leader at Red Bull, and took them to three victories last year.
Verstappen explained how he has grown into the role since arriving in F1 with Toro Rosso in 2015.
“When I just joined in Red Bull I was first of all listening and following Daniel’s direction a bit more,” he said. “Of course you have your own driving style, so you’re anyway always different. But I didn’t know what certain things on the car could do because it’s different to the Toro Rosso.”
Over the years he’s come to learn “what I want from the car [and] what we are going to change”. The team’s faith in him was vindicated last year, when he saw off both Ferrari drivers with a car which usually wasn’t as quick as the SF-91.
Although 2019 looked like his most accomplished season yet, and was marked by noticeably fewer errors than his 2018 campaign, Verstappen believes there’s still more to come.
“I am definitely not a rookie anymore,” he said. “[But] of course I only did one year in F3 and then getting into F1 it was a big jump. So I guess you make a few mistakes which maybe other people have made in F2 or wherever they have driven, 3.5 back in the day. But I’m still getting better.”
Qualifying: Lap time
The lower the lines, the better the driver performed
Verstappen’s qualifying form was hard to fault. During 2018 he had been frustrated by the characteristics of Renault’s power delivery, but he was clearly far happier with the improving Honda.
He consistently strung together his best sector times when it mattered, and was never really out-qualified by either team mate on merit all year long. A red flag thwarted him in Canada, and Gasly’s quicker lap time in Azerbaijan was later deleted due to a technical infringement.
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Race: Start versus finish
Qualifying strongly allowed Verstappen to consistently get in among the Ferraris, and occasionally the Mercedes too. He consistently capitalised on opportunities to beat quicker cars.
This was especially true of his rivals in red. “We just seem to execute the weekend better than them,” said Verstappen following his superb victory in a rain-hit German Grand Prix one which any driver from the ‘big three’ teams might have won.
Being able not just to push a car to its limit, but to stay alert to the opportunities afforded by changing conditions and strategies while doing so, is a trait of F1’s top drivers which Verstappen exhibited in his best performances this year.
“You need extra capacity, of course, than just focussing on driving,” he said. “That’s always the case, not only in the wet but also in the dry.
“If you are fully focussed [only] on driving the car I don’t you are going to be very successful. You can do a fast lap but that’s about it. So you practice that over time as well, and I guess a bit of that is just a natural talent.”
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Race: Share of points
Race: Results versus other drivers
His excellent start to the season meant that by the summer break not only was Verstappen ahead of both Ferraris but just seven points behind Valtteri Bottas’s Mercedes. He and the team faltered when the season resumed however: Verstappen crashed at Spa and had to start at the back at Monza due to a power unit penalty, then tangled with Sergio Perez.
“Actually when you look back after the summer break, we were very competitive in Monza, which you wouldn’t expect. So it was not all that bad. But of course, we also had to take engine penalties, so starting from the back the best you really could do was fifth and then, of course, it doesn’t look like an amazing result.
“Then we made a set-up mistake in Singapore,” he added, though it didn’t stop him beating the Mercedes pair to third. “And then Suzuka was always going to be a bit of a tricky one because you can nail the set-up for qualifying or not, and then immediately it can be a big difference. And I was not very happy with the set-up we had in qualifying so it didn’t look amazing.
“But still I had a good start, was virtually in [third], but then I got taken out of course. But that would have been a nice result as well for us.” Mexico was another case of what might have been, partly due to his error in qualifying, followed by an unlucky run-in with Bottas on race day.
He ended the season with three more podiums including a superb win in Brazil under fierce pressure from Hamilton. It was another of those days which demonstrated what Verstappen is capable of, and that he needs only a slightly quicker car than the one he had last year to be a championship contender.
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Race: Reasons for retirements
Quotes: Dieter Rencken
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