COMMENT: Max Verstappen is maturing quickly

Matt Majendie 15:30 09/04/2017
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Max Verstappen.

It was a showreel of overtaking manoeuvres that at least a handful of Max Verstappen’s peers on the grid might have been content with over the duration of a season.

But the flying Dutchman passed a total of nine cars on the opening lap alone of the Chinese Grand Prix having started an uncustomary 16th place after an engine misfire in the first qualifying session.

It led one commentator to liken it to a teenager on a video game such was the ease with which the 19-year-old picked holes through the field.

His launch of the grid was near perfect but, in the opening split second, the space in the road looked like closing in front of him amid heavy spray from the still damp but drying Shanghai circuit.

But he picked exactly the right pockets of Tarmac, knowing instinctively where the dry patches of the road were.

By turn one, he already had the Force India of Sergio Perez, which had qualified in eighth, within his sights, while arguably the pick of his moves on that lap came on turn eight as the cars around him wobbled with grip and his Red Bull was seemingly glued to the track, wet or dry.

Verstappen has made no secret of his love of the wet, so often an indicator of natural talent behind the wheel, and once again he drove as though he had webbed feet in those early exchanges.

The wet helped him in that it created a concertina effect, closing up the field more readily than the norm and enabling him to at least be at the business end of the race when the real thinking is that the Red Bulls are probably about 45 seconds off the overall race pace of defending champions Mercedes.

The Red Bull has always been aerodynamically strong, a trademark of Adrian Newey’s cars that they boast more downforce than most.

But for all the machinery at his disposal, this was all about Verstappen and understandably he was named driver of the day by the watching public despite a masterclass from Lewis Hamilton in winning from lights to flag.

If there was to be a move of the day from the entire race, the Red Bull driver’s on his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo in the same machinery was it. Stuck behind him going into turn five, he picked up his slipstream, threw a brief dummy and scythed up the inside.

Verstappen has long been known for his aggressive driving. In his opening season, it was often seen as over-aggression, his moves deemed too dangerous by his more experienced peers. Not so in China.

And there appears to be a new-found maturity from him this season, highlighted in two distinct but differing moments.

First came in the dying laps of the race when he started barking his grievance at Romain Grosjean, who himself produced a litany of fine overtaking moves in the Haas, compromising his race late on.

In truth, Grosjean was doing no such thing, clear enough up the road to not create any turbulent air for the following Verstappen.

But what the Dutchman was doing was thinking ahead, alerting race director Charlie Whiting to a potential situation that might ensue in the laps ahead to affect his race outcome, a sign of his burgeoning maturity.

So too, the manner in which when struggling with understeer late in the day, he managed to keep Ricciardo at bay to hold onto a thoroughly deserved podium place.

The only sadness amid it all is that Red Bull are too off the pace right now to be truly competitive, Verstappen needing wet races at present to give him a sniff of clinging to the coat tails of both Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel.

That pair clearly rate their rival highly, both in their post-race interviews alluding to what he had pulled off on track, Hamilton joking – but with a serious edge – he would be looking back at Verstappen’s performance to see if there was anything he could learn.

Hamilton has made no secret of the fact that he relishes having as many title protagonists as possible to make the world title that much sweeter when it comes.

Repeated back slaps and references to “this guy” in the post-race celebrations shows he puts Verstappen in that bracket as a key challenger. F1 is in the midst of a two-way battle for the title between Hamilton and Vettel.

How salivating a prospect and deserving a one for that particular tussle to include Verstappen.

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