Austria was a weekend that was dominated both on- and off-track by Max Verstappen. His masterclass in Sunday’s race, charging back from as low as eighth on the opening lap to take the sixth – and by far the most impressive – victory of his F1 career to date was special, delighting the tens of thousands of Dutch fans who turned Spielberg orange for the weekend.

As outstanding as Verstappen was, the performance was merely a continuation of the excellent form we have seen from him at the start of the 2019 season. He has rarely put a foot wrong, maximising the Red Bull-Honda’s potential at every opportunity. Austria is the first weekend the team has even had a sniff of contending for victory – but Verstappen grabbed the chance with both hands and refused to let go.

There was a good case even before Austria that Verstappen was the driver of the season so far, eclipsing even runaway championship leader Lewis Hamilton.

But is there now a case for Verstappen being the best driver currently in Formula 1?

The 21-year-old once again showcased the immense amount of maturity he has gained in the last 12 months with his canny drive through the field. As great as his tyre advantage may have been, he still had to get the moves done. He was content to wait three laps to pass Sebastian Vettel for third, biding his time until he knew he could get ahead. The Max of early 2018 may have gone for a spectacular effort at the first attempt, risking it all.

The same approach paid off in the fight with Charles Leclerc, even with the laps ticking down. Verstappen took three laps to get the move done, learning from his failed attempt on the second effort to squeeze Leclerc out and leave him unable to respond.

There does not appear to be a weak point with Verstappen right now. He’s strong in qualifying, strong in races, plans moves well, hassles the front-runners despite not having the fastest car. The chink in his armour we saw previously – his composure and tendency to overdrive – has now been repaired.

Verstappen is already one of the most complete drivers out there, operating on a level that only Hamilton seems to be near at the moment. The other front-runners all have spots where they have fallen down through 2019 so far.

Asked after the race if he had the best driver in F1 on his team, Red Bull F1 chief Christian Horner said: “I have thought that for a little while…”

Unsurprisingly, keeping Verstappen is therefore a key part of Red Bull’s F1 future, with that matter being one of the big off-track topics in the Spielberg paddock.

Because in the lead-up to the Austria weekend, there were some concerns brewing about the prospects for Red Bull and Honda moving forward. Verstappen’s excellent form to begin the year had only been rewarded with two podium finishes, hardly befitting the performances he has put in. Sitting in a Ferrari or a Mercedes, there’s a good chance he’d be well in the title fight.

This led to suggestions that Verstappen’s camp was looking at the exit clause in his contract, signed towards the end of 2017. The deal locked Verstappen in at Red Bull with a big pay hike, but had provisions for him to leave depending on the team’s performance. Such a clause is how Vettel was able to leave Red Bull at the end of 2014 for Ferrari.

The presence of such a clause was denied by Horner on Sky Sports earlier in the week, but confirmed by Helmut Marko to various outlets over the weekend. Talking with a Dutch colleague on Friday, the suggestion was that unless Red Bull and Honda could show serious signs of improvement soon, a switch to Mercedes or Ferrari would be considered – even if it remained unrealistic given the teams’ respective plans – as early as 2020.

The prospect of seeing Verstappen up against Hamilton in the same car is one most in the paddock would relish, especially in a time of such dominance for Mercedes. The idea was put to Hamilton during Saturday’s post-qualifying press conference, where he said it was not something he’d considered given the good job being done by Bottas, but that he’d be open to go up against anybody.

Mercedes was keen on signing Verstappen as a junior when he in Formula 3, only to be beaten to doing so by Red Bull as it could not promise him an F1 seat immediately. But while there is history of interest, would it be worth risking upsetting the harmony that has been so strong with Hamilton and Bottas together, even if it created the strongest possible line-up right now?

Alas, talk of an exit clause has now been shut down following Verstappen’s win in Austria, which appears to have ticked the box to lock him in for at least another year. It proves Red Bull-Honda is a winning package, capable of fighting with Mercedes and Ferrari.

“There has been speculation about Max’s contract, it’s purely speculation,” Horner said. “He’s very happy in the team, he believes in this project and days like today only endorse that. I have no doubts about Max.”

Verstappen himself said after the race that the victory would clear up some doubts that may be held in the Red Bull-Honda project.

“This is very important for us and for the future, and for Honda as well,” he said. “I’m just very happy that it happened today. It just gives a lot of confidence as well to the boys.

“Maybe a few doubts are going away because of it. At the moment, it’s an amazing feeling.”

With these fears being allayed, Red Bull will now be looking to build on its first success with Honda and keep cutting the gap to Mercedes and Ferrari ahead. And so long as it has Verstappen spearheading its charge, the project will be in very, very good hands.

Is Max the best in F1 right now? It’s either him or Lewis. Hopefully we get to see them settle the debate on-track a few times this year.

 

Comments

Loading Comments...