Max Verstappen looms large as four-time champions lock horns

Max Verstappen prepares to drive in practice for the Australian GP. Picture: Getty
Max Verstappen prepares to drive in practice for the Australian GP. Picture: Getty
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The golden age in sport is something rarely glimpsed in real time but wrapped in ribbons long after the moment has passed. However, down in Melbourne this weekend, Formula 1 serves up a contest worthy of a sepia retrospective yet happening under our 
noses, a coming together of forces never before witnessed in grand prix racing.

We are talking not only of the unprecedented face-off of four-time world champions Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel going at it in their historic marques, Mercedes and Ferrari, but also of the 20-year-old hot shoe filling their mirrors. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen is the variable from heaven who could turn out to be better than both.

Verstappen carries none of the baggage of the older men. Hamilton’s talents need no embellishing here but at 33 his head is full of wider considerations beyond racing. Witness the seismic riff he detonated around Albert Park about the lack of diversity in his sport. He is bang on, of course. Formula 1 remains an industry peopled largely by the white middle classes. That he chooses to utilise the opening race as a platform is marvellous in one sense, but perhaps indicative of a world view not singularly connected to the pursuit of points on track.

Vettel, too, is a man of keen political persuasion asked to carry the burden of leading the sport’s signature team. The history, culture, positioning and values of Ferrari are at the other end of the spectrum to the fun-loving, jitterbugging, freestylers at Red Bull, for whom the uncomplicated and fearless Verstappen is the ultimate expression of brand. We saw last season how Vettel’s sense of entitlement led him into the wheels of Hamilton in Baku, a misguided act of retribution after a passage of play behind the safety car that had none of the cynical meaning he inferred from it.

Where Hamilton and Vettel score heavily is in experience, which in moments of maximum duress yields, in most cases at least, the necessary clarity. The season is long, and the cars evolve. What happens in Melbourne bears no relation to Barcelona five races in, never mind Spa-Francorchamps, where the season reconvenes in August following the mid-summer recess.

Hamilton and Vettel have demonstrated the capacity to manage the vicissitudes, the ups and downs, the unexpected and even the mundane. Only at the back end of last season when he won twice over the closing five races has Verstappen had a car with skin in the game. His youthful insouciance has yet to be tested by a season at the front defending a position. Hamilton and Vettel have been hunters and hunted, Verstappen only the former. In his mind Verstappen is still karting, throwing his car at corners for the hell of it.

The weekend threatens rain, certainly in qualifying, likely in the race, too. For Verstappen the wetter the better. Divinity in the wet is, of course, the sign of a great driver. Senna and Schumacher lapped the field when water was in play. Hamilton, also. Vettel famously took his maiden victory from lights to flag for Toro Rosso in a hooley at Monza a decade ago. Verstappen entered fable with his drive from 14th to third in Brazil with Interlagos under water.

The challenge isn’t altered by negotiating a title race, but the demand is. While Verstappen was turning heads that day in 2016, Hamilton was out front, just as commanding in horrendous conditions but without the fanfare. The first Friday session of this season revealed how close the cars appear, Hamilton setting the early pace a tenth quicker than Verstappen with the Ferrari’s of Kimi Raikkonen and Vettel a further two and five tenths adrift.

The cognoscenti reckon the Red Bull to be the equal, if not quicker around Albert Park, than the Mercedes over long runs with fuel on board. Mercedes is not necessarily equipped for street circuits like these, but over a season will not be found wanting. You will recall how Vettel won here last year but after the summer break struggled to sustain the Ferrari challenge. The Scuderia come here with a longer wheelbase following the Merc template to narrow the gap on power circuits. Vettel, in particular, was in fiddling mode, searching for optimum set-up on the opening day. “I think we still have quite a lot of performance in hand,” he said. “I’m not too worried because I know if I get everything right, we should be in better shape.”

Hamilton was quick out of the box. No dramas. He hears the siren song about the head-to-head with Vettel, about what the number five means in Formula 1, sharing sacred space with Fangio, etc. He also knows that nothing is won in Australia. “Our car is great, there is stuff to come so there is plenty to look forward to, but usually around this point you don’t know where the others are, so that is why it is pointless to come here and say you will blow everybody away. Based on testing, we are in good shape. We could be in better shape, but it is always like that.”

As for his state of mind, his drive, the hunger for more? “I plan to go to another level and that is what I have been working towards,” he said. “I hope I haven’t reached my peak. I am sure there is a peak for a driver’s fitness levels and when your interest starts to decline your drive starts to decline. I guess that’s when you’re over your peak, but I definitely don’t feel I’m at that stage. I’m in a good range right now and I need to continue to extract the most I can from it.”

Romain Grosjean in the replica Ferrari of Haas was the quickest of those outside the top three teams, seven tenths adrift of Hamilton, with Fernando Alonso a further half a second back in the reconstituted McLaren.