I was struggling to make up my mind about how to feel after the Brazilian Grand Prix.
I definitely felt bad for Max Verstappen losing what would have been a great win. He had driven superbly until Esteban Ocon wanted to unlap himself, and then it all went wrong.
Verstappen could have left more space, but I think almost everyone would agree the majority of the blame falls on Ocon’s shoulders. As the car a lap down, if he’s going to unlap himself, it has to be done cleanly and without impeding the other driver. That’s the point of a blue flag – to ensure the leaders are not compromised too much.
The bit I was struggling with is what happened after the race. Verstappen was obviously livid – rightly so – and the frustration was probably at its peak once he crossed the line and knew he had failed in his attempts to reclaim the lead from Lewis Hamilton, confirming the full cost of the incident.
So I have some sympathy for his emotions still being extremely high as soon as he got out of the car. The radio exchange with his race engineer said it all.
“Hey, I don’t know what to say, mate,” came the message after the checkered flag. “I don’t know what to say about that.”
“Yeah, I know what to say,” Max replied. “I hope I can’t find him [Ocon] now in the paddock because then he has a ****** ******!”
The pushing and shoving that followed has divided opinion, and there is an argument to be made on both sides, but the main message I would give to Verstappen on this occasion is: Don’t change.
My own reaction was that Verstappen shouldn’t have got physical with Ocon because he would get in trouble, even if I was glad he did from a journalist’s perspective. But given time to reflect on it, I think I’m glad he did it from a human point of view, too.
Sport needs controversy. Sport needs rivalries. Sport needs talking points, debates and moments where it becomes clear just how much it means to the participants.
Verstappen got out of his car and delivered all of those things. And while it was easy for other drivers to be critical of his aggression, none of those on the grid have ever been taken out by a lapped car while leading a grand prix. It’s a rare occurrence.
It’s the sort of reaction you see week-in, week-out in so many other sports, to such an extent that I’m struggling to understand the outrage that has come from some quarters. Fine, drivers need to set an example to impressionable young athletes – as all elite sportspeople do – but they also need to act as inspirations by showing just how much motivation they have.
On any given NFL Sunday, pushing and shoving is commonplace after a play. In baseball, a wild pitch can incite a brawl. Hockey is full of scraps; even basketball has its moments. And I can list these examples even as a Brit living in London, because some capture global interest when they happen, while others are so regular they don’t warrant a second mention.
It happens in soccer and rugby, too, where standoffs and pushing and shoving demand intervention by officials. It’s a manifestation of passion among teams during a game. But a driver has no opportunity to vent directly at an opponent until they’re out of the car and the helmet comes off. Unless, of course, they choose to use their car as a weapon…
While Verstappen was largely restrained until out of the car – save for a gesture towards Ocon as he rejoined the track – one of the main reasons I’ve found myself keen to defend him more stems from the sights I saw leaving Brazil. All over Sao Paulo there are reminders of Ayrton Senna, including the highway to the airport being named after him, and multiple pieces of street art of Brazil’s hero. He’s inescapable.
And yet he punched Eddie Irvine after being unhappy about the rookie unlapping himself during the 1993 Japanese Grand Prix. Different times, yes, but it was a far more serious reaction that revealed a part of Senna’s psyche that made him so fascinating.
Fast-forward to Sunday, and Max found himself in a very similar situation. Angered by an incident with a backmarker, the difference last weekend was that Verstappen lost what looked to be a certain victory, compared to Senna still winning his race.
Verstappen eventually walked away from Ocon after repeatedly pushing him and exchanging words, but he was still called to see the stewards and ordered to do two days of public service by the FIA. All for pushing another driver – with whom he has history from his F3 days – immediately after losing out on victory.
This is the same Verstappen who said he was so angry in Mexico that “I could literally do some damage if somebody would say something wrong to me after qualifying”. And that’s a quote that has been used as evidence that the 21-year-old is not able to control his temper, but the reality is he didn’t snap, and channeled that anger into an excellent race victory the next day.
After the investigation on Sunday, there was a very unconvincing handshake between the two drivers in the paddock, and it was clear Verstappen was still unhappy. It was a symbolic gesture to try and downplay the situation, but it’s unfair to expect young drivers to get along all the time. And don’t even think about suggesting you simply don’t like each other…
There is always going to be a line that can’t be crossed, but last weekend, Verstappen didn’t cross it. If he’d done what Senna did to Irvine, that would be a different story, regardless of whether such behavior had been acceptable in the past.
James Hunt also punched a marshal once, reacting badly to being touched immediately after a crash, and both he and Senna are remembered fondly for their passion and approach to racing. And yet Verstappen got heavily criticized for his reaction.
Max shouldn’t let it bother him. He didn’t get anywhere near as physical as Senna did, and Senna rightly remains a national hero in part because his passion ran close to the surface.
We need those emotions to come through, and need characters for people to become fans of. If Verstappen is going to become a great in future, and perhaps have paintings of himself all over city walls like Senna has in Sao Paulo, then he should stay outspoken and emotional. It’s who he is, and it’s why people will want to watch him, and F1.