Max Verstappen reignites spirits of Senna and Schumacher in Brazil

The young Red Bull driver steers through a sodden field to take third place in Grand Prix

Max Verstappen of Red Bull on his way to a podium finish at the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos, São Paulo. Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Max Verstappen of Red Bull on his way to a podium finish at the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos, São Paulo. Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty Images

 

One of the abiding images from a wonderful Brazilian Grand Prix on Sunday was the crowd, dancing and cheering with ecstasy at the end.

Earlier, in their giant ponchos, they had booed and given the thumbs-down as two red flags and five safety cars threatened to ruin their afternoon. They represented a study in abject misery.

This is a difficult financial time in Brazil – it usually is – and they had paid inflated ticket prices to stand in the torrential rain and watch a no-show. At least, that is what they thought when the race got under way behind a safety car, a most anticlimactic way to start any grand prix.

By the end, though, after three hours of high skill and considerable bravery, the crowd were partying. And they know how to party in this part of the world. For sentimentalists there was the sight of Felipe Massa, vainly trying to fight back the tears as he embraced his wife and son at the end of his last Brazilian Grand Prix.

But the greatest memory of all is that of Max Verstappen and his magnificent drive through the field to take third place. It was one of the great performances of Formula One and for a sustained effort in atrocious conditions it must rank alongside the best we have seen from Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher.

Lewis Hamilton was terrific too, and didn’t make a mistake. But it was much easier for him, up front on his own, without the traffic and visibility problems that Verstappen had.

Max Verstappen's overtakes at Brazil GP

Real deal

If you want to understand just how good Verstappen is, look at Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian is the real deal, someone who regularly outshone the four-times world champion Sebastian Vettel when they raced together for Red Bull. Behind that smile beats the heart of an uncompromising competitor. He has pulled off some classic overtakes and is one of the best drivers on the grid.

But even he now realises that he is playing second fiddle to a 19-year-old who is destined for greatness. Even Max’s father, Jos, was startled by his son’s precocious mastery of a soggy Interlagos.

So was Verstappen’s boss, Christian Horner. “Well, they don’t get much better than that,” he said, shaking his head in wonder. “I think what we witnessed today was something very special.”

Some people compared Verstappen’s drive with those “arrival” displays from Senna at Monaco in 1984, or Schumacher’s in Spain in 1996. We knew he was good before this, of course, but this was the finest hour of his short career.

He should have been rewarded with second place. But Red Bull, who are normally very sharp with their strategy calls, brought him in for inters and then had to bring him in again to put him back on wets when the rain got worse. That dropped him back to 14th place, before he carved his way through the field for his podium finish.

Nervous

Horner admitted that it had been a nervous Red Bull team. “I think that almost necessitated an underwear change for most of the pit wall,” he said. “But again he was extremely calm the way he came on the radio. He seemed in control all afternoon.

“He was just exploring. Even behind the safety car you could see him having a look at different parts of the tarmac, just looking for grip.”

It’s a pity that the noisy circus of F1 doesn’t complete its schedule here. No one will ever forget the thrilling, title-deciding climaxes in Brazil in 2008 and again in 2012.

The circuit has a capacity to deliver great racing. Even when it’s dry its bumpy surface, tight corners and elevation changes make for great racing. And when it’s wet – wow! They say this event is in danger, that Brazil may not be able to afford to stage the race. But Formula One without Brazil – or Monza, or Silverstone – simply wouldn’t be Formula One.

The sport needed this shot in the arm. It’s been a long year – the final race in Abu Dhabi at the end of the month will be the 21st – and for the most part it’s been predictable. A totally dominant Mercedes team have won every race bar two. Remarkably, they have won 50 out of 58 since the new 1.6-litre hybrid engines were introduced in Melbourne in March 2014.

But few of those wins can compare with Verstappen’s drive here. Sunday’s Brazilian Grand Prix was the best show we have seen all year.

– (Guardian service)

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