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The Max Verstappen Case: A Big Driver For a Little Team

Max Verstappen is one of the stars of Formula One today. He holds six official records (among them the “youngest Grand Prix winner”), is highlighted in exciting races, and has several podiums and victories in a few years of experience. However, the Dutch driver surprised fans by announcing on January 7th, 2020, that he had renewed his contract with Red Bull Racing until 2023. While some praise the decision, others criticize the choice, wondering why Verstappen did not accept proposals from better teams. Here’s the analysis of this case.

 

1- Max’s career: a star appears

 

The eldest son of Dutch former Formula One driver Jos Verstappen and Belgian former kart driver Sophie Kumpen, Max Verstappen started his auto career at 4, in regional kart competitions. At 17, after finishing the European Formula 3 2014 in third place, he was hired by Scuderia Toro Rosso to compete in Formula One the following year. In his debut at the Australian Grand Prix, he broke the record for “youngest driver to debut in a Formula One race,” which previously belonged to Jaime Alguersuari. In the next race in Malaysia, he broke the record for “youngest driver to score in Formula One,” which was previously owned by Daniil Kvyat. Verstappen ended his debut year by scoring ten times, totaling 49 points in 19 races, in addition to being awarded by the FIA ​​as “Rookie of the Year” and “Personality of the Year” and his overtaking over Felipe Nasr in Belgium earned him the “Action of the Year” award.

These achievements were essential for Red Bull to choose Verstappen in 2016 to replace Kvyat, whose results were below expectations. The Dutchman did not disappoint and achieved his first victory in the Spanish Grand Prix, breaking the records of “youngest leader, by at least one lap in Formula One”, “youngest driver to achieve a podium in Formula One” and “youngest Grand Prize winner.” They all previously belonged to Sebastian Vettel. In Belgium, he broke the record for “youngest driver to start from the front row”, which Lance Stroll surpassed the following year. In Brazil, he broke the record for “youngest driver to make the fastest lap in Formula One,” which previously belonged to Nico Rosberg. At the end of that year, with Rosberg’s retirement, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff was looking for a replacement for the German. The media reported that he contacted Jos Verstappen several times to talk about Max, but the young man continued with Red Bull. Wolff hired his sponsor Valtteri Bottas, who was racing for Williams, to take the second seat.

 

Max’s victory on the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix.

 

If 2016 was a fantastic year, as Verstappen was able to expose his skills, 2017 was disappointing. In 20 races, he had seven retirements, but none because of him. The first was in Bahrain, where a brake problem took him out of the race; the second was in Spain, where Bottas collided with Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen, taking both of them out of the race; the third was in Canada, where an electrical failure shut down his car. The fourth occurred in Azerbaijan due to an oil problem. The fifth was caused by Kvyat, who collided with the Dutchman and Fernando Alonso in Austria. The sixth took place in Belgium, where his car shut down in the middle of the race. In Singapore, the seventh and final retirement, Verstappen was crushed by Ferrari drivers, Vettel and Raikkonen, and then was thrown off the track by the former’s dangerous re-entry. Disappointed by the inconsistency of his car, in contrast to the better performance of the car of his teammate Daniel Ricciardo, Verstappen had moments of fury with his team. Aware of the situation, Toto Wolff and Maurizio Arrivabene, Ferrari’s team principal, contacted Jos to discuss the future of the young prodigy. It was clear that Red Bull had no competence to produce a winning car for its two drivers as well, and Max was being sacrificed. Wolff was not satisfied with Bottas’ inability to compete on an equal footing with Lewis Hamilton (giving Ferrari a rebirth as a title contender). Arrivabene was looking for someone to replace Raikkonen, who was close to leaving the team. However, Verstappen preferred to give the Austrian team a chance and signed a contract with an exit clause. Despite the difficulties, he managed two victories, one in Malaysia and one in Mexico.

 

 

2017 Singapore Grand Prix accident.

 

In 2018 the situation changed. Red Bull knew that Max gave up good proposals to continue with the Austrians, and disappointing him would mean his departure. The car showed more stability, but it was not yet powerful enough for Red Bull to establish itself as a threat to Mercedes’ domination, achieving only two victories – in Austria and Mexico. However, Ricciardo’s car had many flaws, compromising the Australian’s performance. The announcement that Red Bull would use Honda engines from the following year caused suspicion in Ricciardo, who signed with Renault for the 2019 season. Verstappen preferred not to use the exit clause and remained with the team, which promised hard work with Honda around the Dutchman.

Red Bull fulfilled the promise in a lukewarm way because even though Verstappen was promoted to the position of the first driver, Mercedes did not feel the tip of the rival’s claws. To make matters worse, the hiring of Pierre Gasly became a failure, as the Frenchman was unable to face the Ferrari drivers, who were not in a good phase at the beginning of the year, and prevented Red Bull from winning the runners-up championship. With Verstappen carrying the team on his back, director Helmut Marko decided to replace Gasly with Alexander Albon, from (Toro Rosso), similar to what happened between Kvyat and Max in 2016. Despite three good victories in Germany, Austria, and Brazil, Verstappen faced a lack of power in races that could make up for the deficit caused by Gasly, as in Russia, where his car failed to reach Charles Leclerc’s. His contract was due to expire in 2020, but the Dutchman decided to renew it for 2023.

 

2- Red Bull: glorious in the past, decadent in the present

 

Red Bull Racing emerged as a Formula One team in 2004 after the eponymous company bought the Jaguar team, whose partner was the three-time champion, Jackie Stewart. The team’s peak occurred between 2010 and 2013, in which Sebastian Vettel secured the fourth championship for the team, defeating McLaren of Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari of Fernando Alonso.

During this period, the category employed turbo in their cars, and Red Bull assembled a chassis that would respond to the engine’s work. Vettel dominated the seasons, feeling little danger from his opponents. Hamilton was disappointed with McLaren, and Ferrari felt the bitterness of not winning a drivers’ championship since 2007 and a constructors’ championship since 2008. In 2014, with the ban on the turbo, the scenario of Formula One changed considerably. Australian Mark Webber, until then Vettel’s companion, gave way to fellow countryman Daniel Ricciardo, while Austrian Christian Horner assumed the role of team leader. The four-time champion’s car went through a sequence of breaks that prevented his score. Despite his first career victory, Ricciardo did not achieve much, and Red Bull saw Hamilton’s rise in Mercedes and the dominance of the German team that lasts until today.

For those who do not remember the sequence of technical failures in Vettel’s car, it is the impression that Ricciardo beat his teammate for having more talent. Critics of the German use the 2014 season onward to defend that Vettel should retire and that his titles are more a product of the turbo engine than his talent. However, the failure in 2014 does mean Vettel’s downfall. Feeling betrayed and neglected by the team, he signed with Ferrari for 2015, with the Italian team committing to pay for his breach of contract with the Austrian team.

 

Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel in Red Bull. The German’s exit was the beginning of the teams downfall.

 

With Vettel at Ferrari, Red Bull hired Daniil Kvyat to race alongside Ricciardo. However, neither brought back the glory of German times. Kvyat gained the reputation of being a “Sunday driver,” and his accidents cost him the seat on the leading team and the leaders’ confidence. Ricciardo gave the impression of being a “bureaucrat driver,” as he did not usually fight for higher positions. Max Verstappen was not just a substitute for Kvyat in the eyes of Red Bull, but an opportunity to return to be the champion since the Dutchman had all the virtues found in Vettel: determination, boldness, courage, persistence, among others.

However, winning championships is only possible if there is a balance between driver’s talent and the engineering department’s work. The athlete cannot be afraid of challenges but must also be prudent to avoid accidents. The car needs to match the driver’s performance, so electrical failures in the engine, brakes, oil, or elsewhere are unacceptable. What seems evident to fans seems not to be for Red Bull. Max’s boldness is constant, as it is clear that he always tries to overcome his opponents, no matter the situation. He is a driver who is not satisfied with points or podiums, as he seeks victory. His car, however, is the weakest among the so-called “top teams.” The question that remains in the air is: “How in good conscience can anyone claim to be a fan of Max Verstappen and forgive Red Bull for the crashes in 2017 and for giving him an average of just two wins a year?”.

 

3- Loyalty vs. Achievements

 

Max Verstappen’s first contract renewal with Red Bull in 2017 had already been a big surprise. In that year, some press outlets began to question the Dutchman’s talent, ignoring the real responsible for the retirements. That happened because the memory of an incompetent sports journalist is the same as the memory of a voter: short. Unlike Sebastian Vettel, who realized the team’s difficulties and moved to Ferrari, Verstappen gave the team one more chance that provided an artificial atmosphere of distrust around a driver who doesn’t need to prove anything else.

Max never detailed why he chose to stay with the Austrian team, limiting to say that he trusted what the team planned for him. The contract offered was very interesting: the Dutchman would remain with Red Bull until 2020, but an exit clause gave him the freedom to choose another team if they couldn’t fulfill his expectations. In other words, Red Bull was aware that Verstappen had refused great chances on other teams and would be willing to bear the consequences of the Dutchman’s choice.

 

Red Bull’s car instability costed victories and points to Verstappen. Anyway he refuses to leave the team.

 

Soon, in 2018, some people believed that Red Bull would work hard to produce a car that matched Max’s talent so that he had a chance to compete for the title with Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. Although his results were satisfactory, Verstappen was a little far from expected to become a champion: he had only two victories (Austria and Mexico) and nine more podiums. Hamilton had 11 wins, and Vettel won five times that year. At the end of 2018, Verstappen varied the answers he gave to the press about expectations for 2019: sometimes said they were ready to fight for the championship, sometimes said they had no chance. Only one thing was irreducible: he would not leave Red Bull.

In 2019, the season was a little better but still far from the top: Max had three wins and six more podiums. Jos Verstappen even threatened to ask his son to leave Red Bull if the team could not to compete for a title. Formula One fans were curious to know the young prodigy’s fate with the end of his contract approaching. Since Verstappen did not indicate he was willing to leave the team, Toto Wolff renewed with Valtteri Bottas. It was then that on January 7, 2020, Verstappen gave Lewis Hamilton a great 35-year gift: he renewed with Red Bull until 2023. From what has been observed since 2017, Max’s loyalty binds him to his current team, but that alone does not guarantee achievements, as he lacks a competitive car (which he sometimes admits that Red Bull does not know how to do).

 

4- Myths and Truths

 

  •   Myth: Daniel Ricciardo left Red Bull in 2019 because the team was prioritizing Verstappen

 

Ricciardo himself contradicted his absurd theory created by Verstappen haters several times, but now and then, someone appears to say this on the internet. The fact is that the Australian driver left Red Bull in 2019 because he was unhappy, but it was not because of his teammate.

In 2017, Max started the year ahead of his teammate, reaching third place in the championship after the second race, the Chinese Grand Prix. However, the series of retirements that started at the Bahrain Grand Prix allowed Ricciardo to surpass him in the scoring. However, it does not mean that the Australian had an easy year: despite his victory in Azerbaijan and eight more podiums, Daniel accumulated six retirements, the worst being in Mexico, where he had achieved pole position. The following year, he won twice (in China and Monaco) but had eight dropouts. Those who accuse Red Bull of providing Ricciardo with a worse car in 2018 to benefit Verstappen should at the very least be consistent and admit that it seemed that in 2017 the team had done the opposite: damaged the Verstappen car so that Ricciardo overcame him in the championship.

 

Verstappen and Ricciardo keep their friendship after the Australian’s exit.

 

Still, in 2018, Red Bull executives announced that starting in 2019, the team would switch from Renault to Honda engines. The news surprised fans, as the Japanese supplier was at war with McLaren when it used its engines at the time of Fernando Alonso. The Spanish driver had several dropouts due to engine failures. Ricciardo said he did not want to have the same fate as Alonso. Being aware that neither Mercedes nor Ferrari were interested in hiring him, the Australian traded Red Bull’s uncertainty for Renault’s likely stability. Unfortunately, the French team performed poorly in 2019, but it was impossible to guess that this would happen.

Ricciardo and Verstappen have already said they miss each other and have been seen in moments of relaxation several times. So, if Max were the reason Daniel left Red Bull, they would not have this healthy relationship after his departure for Renault.

 

  •    Truth: Mercedes had been showing interest in Verstappen since 2014

 

Toto Wolff does not hide his admiration for Max. In interviews, the Mercedes team principal revealed that in 2014, when Verstappen was still in Formula Three, the German team had tried to sign him for the future. However, Red Bull planned to put him in Formula One earlier than proposed by Mercedes. Max and his father Jos were more interested in the Red Bull offer, and the young man debuted for Toro Rosso in 2015.

Virtually no driver in Formula One history has raced in just one team during his entire career (except in cases where the driver died or was fired in his debut year). The idea of ​​Verstappen leaving Red Bull to race for Mercedes in the future does not seem absurd. But the analysis of this possibility depends on demystifying yet another untruth that Verstappen haters love to utter.

 

  •   Myth: If he leaves Red Bull, Verstappen has nowhere to go

 

Toto Wolff called Jos Verstappen to talk many times. Logically, he would not meet Max’s father to talk about a soap opera chapter or the last football game. Especially when it comes to the person who was already interested in hiring the young man when he was still was not in Formula One.

The current Mercedes drivers are champion Lewis Hamilton and Finn Valtteri Bottas. The latter has a peculiarity: all contracts signed so far have been valid for only one year. If Mercedes rejects Verstappen as the haters claim, why doesn’t it hire Bottas to run for at least three years? The answer is simple: the German team knows that the Finn cannot face Hamilton as Rosberg did, so he uses the driver as a buffer while Max remains at Red Bull. Some question whether Hamilton would allow the youngster to join Mercedes, but the fact is that the Englishman has no decisive power in the team. If he had, Rosberg would have been fired in 2015.

Another option for Max, although this is more unlikely, is Ferrari. The Italian team currently has Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc, two drivers Verstappen does not get along. The Dutchman has already stated that he would not mind running alongside Leclerc, but the Monegasque does not hide that he would not like to be his teammate. Vettel is a notorious rival to Max, with whom he has had several conflicts. Those are the reasons why Verstappen is less likely to go to Ferrari, despite the team showing interest in him in 2017.

 

  •    Truth: Verstappen’s lack of titles in Formula One is his team’s fault

 

Drivers are not responsible for the performance of their cars. That is the task of the engineering department, and consequently, of the engineers. Blaming Verstappen for engine, electrical, or brake failures is stupid. Only in cases of accidents can the driver be blamed, and even then, accidents are analyzed to determine whether it was his fault.

Max started 2017 as one of the title favorites. He lost the championship due to the retirements caused by car failures or collisions caused by other drivers. In 2018 and 2019, there were several opportunities for lost victories because the car’s performance did not make it possible to overcome opponents of the top teams. Could it be that a driver who had broken six records at 19 years old and can run so well in the rain (as in Brazil in 2016, China in 2017, and Germany in 2019) indeed does not manage to be champion for “lack of talent”? Or is the “competent” Red Bull’s car only capable of guaranteeing a maximum of three victories per year?

 

5- Conclusion

 

Max Verstappen is one of the most extraordinary talents in Formula One. His skills have been proven in several races; just look for the videos. However, his team, Red Bull Racing, has not yet provided him with a competitive car that matches his determination. Who doesn’t remember the 2017 Mexican Grand Prix, in which the team asked him to slow down and not overload the car?

Verstappen has a good chance of being as successful a champion as Lewis Hamilton. He already has one of the keys to success in Formula One: talent. Only the other is missing: the car. If he continues to give chances to a team that keeps delaying his dream, it risks being postponed for many years. Then, he reaches a point where he would find himself in a situation similar to Ricciardo: already at a certain age and without hopes of a title.

 

 

 What do you prefer? Winning eleven times with Mercedes or three times with Red Bull?

 

6- Sources

 

 

Photos

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