Max Verstappen can take a hit — but he’s more thrilling than Vettel


Right now, Max Verstappen is the most important guy in Formula 1. He is the only driver who is a favourite of all the giants of the sport — his own team, Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes’ bitter rival McLaren. Not only that, he is also part of a trio of high-profile challengers to Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel for the title. (Hamilton has a comfortable 29-point lead in the standings, but his five championships and Vettel’s five runner-up finishes are two of the few engine-related highlights in Hamilton’s 10 years with the McLaren-Honda partnership.) And all that is before we even get to the fiery-hot March superfight that has arrived in Barcelona, where the Valtteri Bottas-Max Verstappen collision (or rather the non-collision, because both drivers put their cars in the crash attenuator and refused to drive off the scene) has seized the headlines.

Yes, it has been a strong start to the season for Verstappen, who is only 18 years old and a kid. Yet he has raced in almost every single grand prix since he got to F1 in 2014, and he has had to rebuild a reputation before he got here. He became a poster boy for polluting Formula 1 by smoking marijuana on his Twitter feed. He was disciplined by his team, Red Bull, after posting photos of himself smoking weed. He dared to wear his Tommy Hilfiger tuxedo to the Paris-Lyon season opener last year. And perhaps most controversial of all, he was filmed racing Mercedes teammate Daniel Ricciardo behind his luxury Maserati after doing so during pre-season testing.

All of which comes back to today. But in actuality, it really shouldn’t. The details of this collision might have been a game-changer for Verstappen, but the facts are that Verstappen is still a driving hero. (He was good enough to turn world-class by watching video tapes of his Red Bull teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, and rebounding into the lead in Malaysia and Bahrain to keep Ricciardo from winning the drivers’ titles in 2014 and 2015.) He also had enough bad luck to wreak havoc on the Red Bull constructors’ championship last year. Without that, Lewis Hamilton would have won a third straight championship.

Given the cooler climate and less jarring conditions in Barcelona, Verstappen has struggled to make his car play to his strengths. It is a shame, too, because his mastery of balancing speed and physicality is exceptional. (He has also added to his wow factor by inventing his own trick — flinging an arm-powered syringe of liquid nitrogen into his podium celebrations to reduce his vomit-like afterburners in order to maintain pace.)

But where Verstappen is thrilling to watch, Vettel can look downright ridiculous in a straight line. There is already speculation that Verstappen could be moving to Mercedes at the end of the season and Vettel will be moving up to rival Mercedes. Even he might find it difficult to give the young Dutchman some space in Barcelona today. Meanwhile, the European motor racing circuit is again the most equal out there, and in any case, I wouldn’t be surprised if Vettel grabbed his Mercedes candy bar early to give to Verstappen before leaving the circuit.

No matter what happens in Barcelona, Verstappen should remain the man of the moment.

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