Formula One

Learning from mistakes – The six-race stretch that changed Max Verstappen

Max Verstappen exits his car after crashing during qualifying for the 2018 Bahrain GP.
Photo by XPB / Icon Sport

The start of 2018 was very troublesome for Max Verstappen, as a number of mistakes and collision drew the ire of his fellow drivers, the media and the fans, with many questioning his maturity and even his potential to be a World Champion in the future.

However, can a bad six-race stretch be a positive for a driver? On a first outlook, one might say no, the cost of points over such a big stretch of the season is too big to overcome and it can set both himself and his team back for the rest of the year. For Verstappen, such a six-race stretch and the lessons learnt from it helped him launch his career to new heights and have opened up the roads to him becoming a two-time world champion, as he looks to add his third crown in 2023.

The build-up

It was August 2014 when Max Verstappen signed a contract with Red Bull to join their academy for the remainder of the season and, more crucially, to race for Toro Rosso in 2015. At the time, the Dutchman was just 16 years and 10 months old, raising questions regarding the move and especially his maturity. He was in the midst of his first -and only- season of junior single-seater racing, competing in the FIA European Formula 3 championship, where he would finish the campaign in third place, behind Esteban Ocon and Tom Blomqvist.

Seven months later, he became the youngest driver to start a Grand Prix, in Melbourne. Sadly for him, a late-race retirement from a points scoring position meant he wouldn’t score on debut, but the feat was accomplished in the next race, with an impressive seventh-place finish in Sepang. The rest of the season saw plenty of highs, such as fourth-place finishes in Hungary and Austin. Mistakes and accidents happened too, but nothing out of the ordinary, especially considering his rookie status.

The 2016 season started well for Verstappen, but a shock was around the corner. Red Bull announced his promotion to its senior team ahead of the fifth round of the year, in Barcelona, replacing Daniil Kvyat, after the Russian committed some errors. The decision was heavily criticised at the time, but they were soon shut down. The pair scored a memorable victory, more on which you can read here, making him the youngest Grand Prix winner in Formula 1 history.

The criticism returned in the next round though, as Verstappen crashed during both the qualifying session and the race in Monaco. Controversy was not absent for the rest of the season either, as clashes with both Ferraris in Spa-Francorchamps and Sebastian Vettel in Mexico earned him penalties and plenty of drama, as he drew the ire of his rivals because of his aggressive driving.

Max Verstappen comes into contact with Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix
Photo by Marca / Icon Sport

In 2017, Verstappen took two wins towards the tail end of the season, but he was often let down by reliability issues. Still, the Dutchman, now at 20 years old, was seen as error prone, mainly on account more tangles with other drivers, the highest profile one being a collision with his teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, on the opening lap of the Hungarian Grand Prix.

Mistakes, mistakes, mistakes

In 2018, Verstappen looked to change things, having been beaten in his first two seasons with Ricciardo as his teammate, by 52 points in 2016 and 32 in 2017. In the season opener at Melbourne, the Dutchman came out on top in qualifying and was two places ahead of the Australian during the opening stint, until he spun on his own, while pressuring Kevin Magnussen for fourth. Even though he rejoined the race, he lost time and places, eventually finishing sixth, two places behind his teammate.

Next up was the Bahrain GP, where Verstappen made an unforced error and crashed during Q1, so would start fifteenth. In the race, he made a good start and challenged Lewis Hamilton -who also started down the order- on the second lap, in the fight for tenth. At the exit of Turn 1, with the pass almost completed, he left little space for the Mercedes and they collided. The Dutchman paid the price for it immediately, as a puncture dropped him dead last. He pitted for repairs, but his race ended with gearbox issues two laps later, likely a consequence of the earlier impact.

Then came the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai. After qualifying fifth, Verstappen climbed to third on the opening lap and maintained his position, until a safety car intervention past the halfway mark of the race changed the complexion of the race. Of the top six, made up by the cars of Ferrari, Mercedes, and Red Bull, only the latter elected to pit their cars for a second time and Verstappen rejoined in fourth, one place ahead of Ricciardo. In the restart, the Red Bulls attacked the cars ahead and Hamilton was first up. Verstappen made a daring move around the outside of the fast Turn 7 and went off, losing a place to his teammate in the process. After passing Hamilton, Vettel was next and the Red Bull driver tried to overtake him in the hairpin, but contact followed and the pair spun. With fresh tyres, Ricciardo made three clean overtakes and emerged victorious, with Verstappen seeing the chequered flag in fourth, but dropping a position after a penalty for his clash with Vettel.

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Photo by Hoch Zwei / Icon Sport

The fourth race of the season took place at Baku, where the most infamous chapter of that opening part of 2018 was written. The Red Bulls were battling for fourth for the majority of the race. Verstappen was ahead from the start until about two-thirds of the way through, when Ricciardo overtook him, but the pair swapped places again in the ensuing pitstop phase. The Australian attacked again and tried to pass him. However, Verstappen blocked him and they collided, both retiring from the race!

For the fifth race of the season, things looked to have calmed down. Verstappen not only beat Ricciardo for the first time in 2018, but climbed on the podium by finishing third. It didn’t come without incident though, as some contact while lapping Lance Stroll put his podium under threat, but the damage proved to not have an effect on the performance of the car.

The sixth and final race in this rough stretch for Max Verstappen was at Monaco. Red Bull appeared to have the best car in the tight and twisty streets, but for the Dutchman it was another lost opportunity. Shockingly, it all came undone in FP3, when a crash at the Swimming Pool complex damaged his car severely. So bad was the damage that it could not be repaired in time for qualifying and he would start last. On Sunday, he climbed to ninth, but the spotlight was on Daniel Ricciardo, as he dominated both qualifying and the race for his second victory of the season.

So, did Verstappen really change after that?

Following this stretch, Verstappen matured and became a much more consistent driver, with ten podiums and two wins in the remainder of the year, and fourth in the standings, comfortably ahead of Ricciardo. Things became even better in 2019 and 2020, with consistent very podium finishes and five more victories, as he ended both seasons in third. In 2021, we witnessed an epic title fight with Lewis Hamilton, which was marred in controversy in the Abu Dhabi showdown. Verstappen ended up with the crown, before dominating en route to his second title in 2022 and he seems to be on his way for his third this season.

His progress in terms of maturity is very apparent in his record over the past five seasons. For the rest of 2018, the promising youngster, still at 23 years of age, had no other unforced errors leading to accidents or spins during qualifying and the races, while crashing only once during practice, all over the span of fifteen race weekends.

In 2019, despite lots of battles with the Ferrari drivers and -occasionally- the Mercedes ones, none of them led to crashes. In fact, in all the official sessions of the season, he only had two mishaps! The first was an inconsequential spin during the German GP, which he went on to win, and the second was a tangle with Kimi Raikkonen on the opening lap at the Belgian GP, which was deemed a racing incident.

Max Verstappen celebrates winning the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix.
Photo by Hoch Zwei / Icon Sport

As for the following year, he showed very similar results in terms of mistakes. Aside from a couple of spins in the very slippery surface of Istanbul Park, a racing incident with Sergio Perez at the start of the Portuguese GP and a very surprising crash on his way to the grid in Hungary (where his mechanics fixed the damage and he finished second), it was another very clean season for Verstappen. The progress was obvious and mistakes were very much limited.

Through his battle with Hamilton in 2021, Verstappen had some clashes with his title rival, mainly in Silverstone, Monza and Jeddah. We will leave the judgement on who was at fault for those up to you, but even if the responsibility for some of those incidents lies with the Red Bull driver, one could claim that they came down to him being aggressive and unyielding, but not error-prone. His only other significant accident came during Q3 of the Saudi GP, when he crashed at the end of a lap that looked stunning up to that point and limited him to second on the grid. A three-place penalty for ignoring yellow flags during Q3 of the Qatar GP was his only other offence during the season.

As for the current season and the last one, things have been very calm, as Red Bull has been the dominant force. Verstappen made a couple of errors, in Spain and Hungary, but neither cost him the victory, while a minor clash with Hamilton in Brazil earned him a five-second penalty from the stewards.

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