Rain is the great equalizer in Formula 1. F1 cars are on the razor edge in the best of conditions. When it rains chassis or engine advantages are erased. The cream of the driving crop rises an asserts themselves. Senna and Schumacher are arguably the 2 greatest drivers in F1 history and it is no accident they were also 2 of the best in the rain. While Lewis Hamilton cruised to an easy victory over his teammate to keep his slim championship hopes alive, the true star in Brazil was without question Max Verstappen. Had it not been for complete Red Bull strategy Snafu Mad Max might have found himself on the top step of the podium.
“Well they don’t get much better than that,” said Horner. “I think what we witnessed today was something very special.” Red Bull boss Christian Horner said after the race.
Comparisons to Senna at Monaco in 1984 or Schumacher in Spain 1996 were even made. Horner said: “I think it’s right up there. You have to compare it to those great moments. You don’t often witness a motor race like that and I think what we saw today was something very, very special.”
Verstappen had made a great pass to take 2nd from Nico Rosberg early in the race. He was pulling away from the Mercedes driver when he approached the final corners. The section of track that caused problems for drivers all day. Almost everyone had issues there, many crashing. When Verstappen had his moment he handled it with what may well be the save of the year.
After Verstappen came so close to spinning into the wall near the entry to pitlane, Horner admitted that things had got pretty nervous on the pit wall. “I think that almost necessitated an underwear change for most of the pit wall. But again he was extremely calm the way he came on the radio. He seemed in control apart from that moment, all afternoon.”
Verstappen’s calmness extended to the post race. Claiming that the save was 50% skill 50% luck.
“I don’t know, maybe I clipped a bit of the curb, and I had a massive moment, locked all four wheels, and managed to keep it out of the guard rail and continue still in second,” Verstappen explained on the podium. “Then we decided to pit for intermediates but unfortunately it started to rain afterward so it didn’t work out. But then after that, I think I was 15th, 14th, I don’t know where I was, and then some great overtakes and then to get back on the podium is amazing. I couldn’t see when I was straight behind so I had to take a different line.”
Verstappen would hold onto 2nd place until Red Bull made what might be considered the blunder of the year. The Pirelli extreme wet tires came under criticism during the race for not being able to adequately handle the very wet conditions. Red Bull pitted Verstappen’s teammate Daniel Ricciardo to switch from wets to intermediates. After some encouraging pace Red Bull decided to pull Verstappen in from 2nd to make the tire switch. Shortly thereafter it became apparent that decision was the wrong one. As conditions got wetter Verstappen’s pace slowed. After the last safety car period Red Bull had no choice but to pit Verstappen again to switch back to full wet weather tires. The resulting stop dropped Verstappen back to 12th position. When the green flag dropped only 14 laps remained, Red Bull hopes were reduced to scoring points as a podium appeared out of reach.
Showing the same tenacity exhibited by some of the all time greats he set out in pursuit. Not content to simply score points, he began searching for alternate lines. Daring to go where no one else was willing to go. The end result was Verstappen rocketing up the field. Quickly he found himself in 10th, the last points paying position and yet he kept clicking off passes.
“He was just exploring,” said Horner. “Even behind the safety car you could see him having a look at different parts of the tarmac, just looking for grip.You know all these guys come from karting and it looked very much like a karting approach that he was taking – going to the outside line, the cutback, the outside line around Turn 3, the outside line onto the straight. And he was just finding grip in different parts of the circuit, which was great to see. I didn’t see anybody [else do it] to the extent that Max was. They’ve all come the same route through karting, but Max was in a league of his own today.”
Eventually Verstappen found himself behind Ferrari ace, Sebastian Vettel. Vettel was running in 4th position when he found himself under fire from the fast charging Verstappen. On lap 67, Vettel held off Verstappen when the Red Bull driver attempted a pass in turn 4. Verstappen kept applying the pressure, eventually Vettel was finally forced to concede on the exit of the final corner. Verstappen dove to the inside giving Vettel very little room on the exit thus forcing him to concede the position. As has become the norm Vettel took to the radio to complain. Stating that he was pushed off the track.
“I think I was racing him side-by-side,” said Vettel. “He saw me, I still had a little bit of my nose ahead and he was much faster. So it was about the corner where he gets past, not if he gets past. But I don’t think it was correct.”
Vettel is obviously frustrated with this season. Ferrari was supposed to challenge Mercedes this season with all their upgrades. As we approach the final race of the season, Ferrari has not only failed to provide much of a challenge to Mercedes but they find themselves in a heated battle with Red Bull for 2nd place honors. Couple that with some questionable decisions by race control and it’s fairly understandable to understand Vettel’s position. However, his constant complaining, constant calling out other drivers, his constant moaning and groaning is starting to wear thin.
This is a conversation for another day. As yesterday clearly belonged to Verstappen because shortly after dispatching Vettel he set sights on an improbable podium. All that stood in his way was Force India’s Sergio Perez. At this point there was little doubt, Verstappen was about to make the impossible a reality. Perez did not stand much, if any chance. Verstappen made short work of Perez claiming the last step on the podium. Verstappen claimed driver of the day and received raucous cheers on the podium for his heroic drive.
It is easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment. Watching Verstappen pass driver after driver on lines nobody else had the hutzpah to try was nothing short of epic. But now that we are a day removed we have had time to sit back, reflect and try to figure out where this drive ranks in the pantheon of great F1 drives. For me, It sits behind Senna’s ’84 Monaco Grand Prix. Senna charged in the wet to an improbably 2nd place finish and probably should have won the race had politics not intervened. Senna did his magic in a Toleman-Hart car. Toleman was not a top team, not a top car het Senna worked his magic to come home 2nd. For all of Verstappen’s efforts he still drives a Red Bull, arguably the 2nd best car in today’s F1.
Verstappen’s ’16 Brazilian Grand Prix sits very close to Schumacher’s victory at the 1996 Spanish Grand Prix. Schumacher’s victory earned him the nickname “Regenmeister” aka Rainmaster. It was also his first win for Ferrari. I don’t need to tell you the pressure cooker that is driving for Ferrari. I tend to place value in wins, probably to a fault. Historically you don’t often talk about the great efforts that almost won. That said what Verstappen did Sunday is extremely hard to ignore. It is very difficult to pass in today’s F1. Often the “hard charger” passes 1 or 2 cars in a given F1 race. For Verstappen to pass 9 guys in 14 laps on slippery track is hugely impressive.