It was a shocking, frustrating beginning to the 2018 season for young gem Max Verstappen and all those who supported him, believed in him more strongly. A solitary spin in Melbourne dropping him down to 6th instead of an achievable 4th place, a race-ending puncture provoked by a clumsy contact with Hamilton on lap 2 of the Bahrain Grand Prix, utter disaster in China where the Dutchman ruined Vettel’s and his own fight for the race win by means of a hopeless move into turn 14, ending up as low as 5th while his teammate clinched a masterful victory. That all seemed already overly disappointing for a precious talent at risk of getting lost.
Then though came the internal clash with Ricciardo in Baku, a colossal misadventure for the Red Bull team, which clarified – if it was necessary – that some situations needed addressing. Four races into a season where the team expected to have some shots at the title, it was already a massive loss of points in the table. And that most of all had come from the team’s protégé.
But the peak of all that was just near. It was reached only in Monaco, only at the most challenging venue for a driver’s skills, only at the time when Verstappen, having badly misjudged the ‘Piscine’ chicane and wrecked his RB14 into the opposite wall during Saturday morning practice, was forced to sit out a battle for pole where the Bulls stood out as favourites, as confirmed by Ricciardo’s phenomenal pole position.
Even though he managed to climb from dead last up to 9th the following day, that Saturday was the crucial moment. It was that gloomy expression while seeing his teammate snatch pole moored in the garage that defined Verstappen’s season. The discussion about Verstappen having to develop a stronger, more appropriate mentality to live up to his potential had been around for long, ever since his step up to Red Bull more precisely. But now it really was time for a change, or rather an evolution, once and for all.
Said series of events was promptly followed by a much more careful approach in Canada, where the #33 tried his best to find a way past Bottas at the start, but kept distance from the risk of crashing and eventually brought home a positive result in 3rd place. Even cleaner was his first lap in the French Grand Prix as he kept clear of the mayhem triggered by Vettel’s trip over Bottas, Ferrari’s blunders enabling the Dutchman to climb up to 2nd while Hamilton had life far too easy to be matched.
Reaching the peak of his form at the subsequent Austrian Grand Prix, where the #33 exploited Mercedes and Ferrari’s lapses to an unpredicted fourth personal and Red Bull’s first home victory, Verstappen kept the momentum up ever since, only a couple of mechanical woes in Britain and Hungary staining a string of seven top five finishes, including five podiums and one win, in the nine events between Monaco and last time out in Singapore. And one of the non-scores, the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, came after yet another stellar showing from the Dutchman, engaged in a memorable wheel-to-wheel duel with Kimi Räikkönen from which he could very well come out as a winner without some considerable top-speed disadvantage. Even a further mistake like the one which lost him 4th place in Monza through a penalty could pass relatively unnoticed in a context of clear improvement from the golden boy.
Thus, having carried out a solid comeback in the standings amid Ricciardo’s reliability issues and established himself as the definitive team leader, Max Verstappen has made very good use of the current season to raise his game quite a bit higher, which will definitely be relevant should he find himself locked in a title fight anytime soon.