I really should be sat here writing about a Max Verstappen win at the Mexican Grand Prix, not a Lewis Hamilton one.
Verstappen was in superb form for much of the weekend in Mexico City, which shouldn’t really have come as a surprise given his recent record at the venue. But one error proved massively costly, and also revealed what is perhaps his one real weakness.
When Valtteri Bottas crashed at the end of qualifying and the yellow flags came out, the game was up for anyone else on track. Hamilton got lucky that he was so close to the incident that there were no yellow flags, but he appeared to lose a little bit of time anyway.
Sebastian Vettel backed off completely, because there was a car in the wall and yellow flags on track, but Verstappen didn’t. In fact, Verstappen stayed completely flat, and set the fastest final sector as well as improving his lap time.
Now, there were mitigating circumstances. Bottas’ crash actually severed the chord that linked the marshal post to the light box that would display the yellow flag, and also to race control. That meant that no matter how many times the marshal pressed the button to display a flashing yellow light and alert drivers and teams on their dashboards and pit walls, nothing was happening.
Similarly, the final corner is a right-hander that drivers are accelerating through at full throttle, so their eyes are looking across to the right rather than up to the left where the yellow flag was then waving. But Vettel saw it and backed off, and everyone had seen the crash, so Red Bull could still have radioed its driver.
But it’s not Verstappen’s driving that was the big error here. Look at Hamilton. He also tried to complete his lap. Racing drivers are competitive beasts and have huge faith in their abilities, so in making a split-second decision not to lift – as dangerous as that was with a car in the wall – I can kind of understand it.
The problem was that when asked about that decision afterwards, Verstappen showed a complete lack of understanding about what he had done.
I’m a big fan of Verstappen. He’s great to watch. He’s aggressive, fast, takes no prisoners and says it as it is. In so many ways, I don’t want that to change. But he needs to learn where he crossed the line last weekend.
Asked whether he lifted, he smirked that he didn’t and that he knew what he was doing. He belittled the questions – pushed by ESPN’s Laurence Edmondson on numerous occasions – that the FIA might take issue with his final sector on safety grounds.
“I think we all know what a yellow flag means,” Verstappen said.
“Why didn’t you back off then, if you saw the yellow?” Edmondson countered.
“Well, it doesn’t matter, does it?”
“Well it might, if the FIA look into it.”
“Well, then delete my lap. The second. The other lap was fine as well.”
“Not from a safety perspective? Any concerns?”
“Do we have to go there? To safety? I think we know what we are doing – otherwise we would not be driving an F1 car. It’s qualifying, and yeah, you go for it. But like I said before, if they want to delete the lap, then delete the lap.”
Firstly, deleting the lap was never an option. It was a little arrogant to suggest he could get away without punishment for such an infraction, himself referencing that his first lap was quick enough.
But the bigger issue is the fact that he suggests the rules don’t apply to him. He almost suggests they don’t apply to anyone who drives in F1, because they ‘know what they are doing.
Bottas drives an F1 car, too. He knows what he’s doing. And he made a mistake, because they all push to the absolute limit and sometimes mistakes happen. Verstappen himself has even crashed at the very same corner – albeit much further back, and as a much less experienced driver.
Admittedly, Verstappen was not asked if he saw a yellow flag and ignored it, but for him to suggest he could ignore the incident because he’s good enough to is not an attitude that can be allowed to stand. It’s not about his talent. For all he knew, debris could have given Bottas a puncture and caused his crash, and could still have been on the track and done the same to him. Or a component on his car could have failed. There are multiple aspects that are out of his hands.
It’s the sort of attitude that alienates Verstappen at times, and then leads to him being unfairly judged. He did nothing wrong in the rest of the race. His incident with Hamilton at Turn 1 was close racing at its best, and Hamilton must know the dangers of risking a move around the outside against any driver. Plus it was Hamilton’s own oversteer moment – whether initiated by a slight touch with Verstappen or not – that led to both going off at Turn 2.
Verstappen didn’t complain about it afterwards, but Hamilton was critical of being “torpedoed” by the Dutchman. Hardly.
Similarly, his move on Bottas was opportunistic, aggressive, but clean until the very end of the pass. Both cars had space on track when contact happened, and it was late in the corner when Bottas had clearly seen the move unfolding. A racing incident at worst.
Yet both were referenced by the Mercedes drivers as examples of where Verstappen is aggressive and needs to be given a wide berth. Vettel agreed with both, with a knowing smile from Hamilton alongside him. Yet Verstappen was the one hit by Vettel at Silverstone, and at Suzuka last year. Bottas was the one who pushed too far and paid a costly price in qualifying. Hamilton was even angered by a potentially dangerous defense from Vettel on the straight at the start in Mexico.
When asked about Verstappen (and to be fair, it must be remembered they were directly asked), it was easy for them to criticize. But if he had the right of reply, Verstappen could easily even up the argument.
That’s why it’s not his driving that’s the problem. It’s his attitude. It makes him an easy target, because while all the drivers push the boundaries in the same way and always feel they are in the right, Verstappen seems to lack the ability to acknowledge when he’s wrong, even if it is rare.
If he had admitted he was wrong in Mexico on Saturday, it wouldn’t have saved him from a penalty as the FIA insists an investigation was coming anyway given his sector time. But it would improve the perception that he has a greater tendency to be in the wrong than others that his rivals spoke of.
Keeping that aura of needing to be given space is good for Verstappen on track, but showing the disregard for the rules off it that he did in Mexico needs to be addressed to help him in future.