Abu Dhabi 2021: finding the limits

Suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was kind of driving by instinct, only I was in a different dimension. I was way over the limit, but still I was able to find even more. It frightened me because I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding”.

Ayrton Senna, qualifying nearly two seconds ahead of his team mate on pole at Monaco, 1988.

Max Verstappen’s qualifying performance in Jeddah culminated in what Christian Horner described as “the lap of the year”. It ended, a corner early, in the barrier. If it hadn’t ended prematurely, comparisons would have been made with Senna’s performance at Monaco in 1988. Verstappen’s lap was only set to be around 0.5s faster than the rest of the field but the commitment, the aggression, the refusal to be on anything other than intimate terms with the limit, was similar.

Senna fans sometimes quote the Monaco 1988 lap from Senna as proof of greatness. If it was greatness then it was mixed with fallibility for it gained him nothing. 53 seconds ahead of his team mate the next day, he lost concentration, hit a barrier and – unlike Verstappen last weekend in Jeddah – scored no points.

Good drivers can push to the edge. The greats can push to the edge and then a little beyond, almost far enough to glimpse into immortality before they return to reality. Fangio, racing in a time when one wheel wide on a corner was a death sentence, peered over the abyss and was so spooked that he never won a F1 race again. Twenty-two years after his win on the Nurburgring Nordschleife in 1957, he told Nigel Roebuck:

sitting here with you all these years later, when I think of that race I can feel fear.. . I knew what I had done, the chances I had taken – I believe that day I took myself and my car to the limit, and perhaps a little bit more. I had never driven like that before, and I knew I never would again.”

Juan Manuel Fangio, 1979
Fangio, Germany 1957, CC BY 3.0

An extended relationship with the limit is part of the makeup of a champion driver. So also is an awareness of when not to pursue that limit. The former is easy to spot, to write and to rhapsodise about; the latter, less so. It might have been the lap of the year but Max could easily have checked the sector times on his dash, taken it more easily, scored pole, and watched the weekend take a different shape.

Fangio won five championships, all in his forties, won almost half of the F1 races he started, yet prefaced his remarks above with “I was never a daredevil, never a spectacular driver. I would try to win as slowly as possible.” Senna’s yardstick Alain Prost once made up an entire lap on the rest of the field to finish 7th in the first grand prix at Suzuka, yet gained the back handed compliment of being nicknamed “the professor”.

What Hamilton did there goes beyond all boundaries, he is completely mad. If the FIA does not punish him, I do not understand the world any more. At some point there has to be an end to all the jokes. You cannot drive like this – as it will result in someone getting killed.”

Niki Lauda, Canada 2011

Max Verstappen’s approach to the race in Jeddah was similarly uncompromising to his approach to qualifying. There was no negotiating, no room for contemplation that he would not win the duel, no plan B.

On the final lap of the 2009 Italian Grand Prix, there was a substantial accident. Lewis Hamilton, running third, didn’t want to accept third. “I got every tenth out of the car and I didn’t make any mistakes… until the last lap“, he said afterwards. Last lap, last corner, last tenth, there’s always a siren calling on the other side of the edge, always fans ready to acclaim the full send.

Of everybody on the grid, he’s the guy who really has that ‘gift’. Like me, I think that he probably coasted on that talent at first, and like me, I think it might have taken him a while to realise that he had to work at it an, and despite having won a championship at McLaren he was still getting to grips with that”

Jenson Button on Lewis Hamilton as he left McLaren in 2012

Colin McRae’s motto “if in doubt, flat out” has served many a driver. What’s noticeable about the post-2012 Lewis is that he’s worked out that being in doubt in the first place is a bad place to be. He has realised that you don’t merely have to drive at and beyond the limit; “you have to be the smarter one”.

Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, 1991 Mexican Grand Prix

Like his idol Senna, Hamilton worked this out partly by being schooled by a team mate in the art of being smart. Prost was already flirting with the championship when Lauda taught him how to win one; Hamilton already had a championship when Jenson Button showed him how to drive with his head as well as his heart.

Hamilton had some additional expert coaching: his dad carried him all the way to F1 (sound familiar, Verstappen fans?), but Niki Lauda – the man behind that “completely mad” quote above – helped turn him into a multiple champion. As, I think, did Nico Rosberg. Remember when Lewis used to slack off towards the end of a season?

It’s all a lot of hot air and I don’t think it’s right to interfere with the championship like this. All this theatre is rather stupid.”

Michael Schumacher, 1994

So, back to Max. Maybe a championship can be won by maintaining an “against all odds” view of the world that brooks no compromise. That takes a lot of energy and becomes increasingly isolated as time goes on. Repelling the forthcoming onslaught of Leclerc, Russell, Norris, Pourchaire and others for the next decade will be a different task.

Max has less pre-F1 car racing experience than almost any driver in recent history, with the exception of Kimi Raikkonen. The teammates who could, at least occasionally, mix it with him – Carlos Sainz, Daniel Ricciardo – are long gone and replaced with teammates who play second violin in order to keep their seats. He dances in territory far beyond anywhere that his dad, or Dr Marko, can recognise. Where will he look in order to develop?

We have to go out there and have the battle. However, I think there are some important principles for me in engaging and waging that. One was respect for my competitors. They could frustrate and annoy the hell out of me, but I always respected them. I always assumed that they could be doing some things better than I was doing – and asked myself what could I learn from them, how could I take that into consideration? …what are they doing better than me?”

Ross Brawn, Total Competition.

Ross Brawn was Technical Director of Schumacher’s Benetton team in 1994 and 1995, and no stranger to F1 conflict. History shows that drivers as fast as Max are usually sharp enough to look around and develop but that they need some impetus, a whetstone against which to sharpen their talent, to do so. Prost had Lauda, Senna had Prost, Hamilton had Button, Vettel had Webber, Schumacher would encounter Mika Hakkinen a few years after the controversy of 94. Is it possible that, in 2031, Max will be “the smarter one”?

[Header image: by Morio, CC BY-SA 4.0]

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