Max Verstappen has skills and the machinery to contend for the championship but lacks the on-track backup to seal the deal.
This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.
For perhaps a handful of laps on Sunday afternoon Max Verstappen seemed likely to deprive Lewis Hamilton of the chance to convert his historic 100th pole position into victory.
The Dutchman had got the better start and muscled his way past the Briton into the lead. At a track like Spain’s Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, where overtaking is difficult and track position is crucial, Red Bull Racing had seized the initiative.
Verstappen’s optimism didn’t last long. Once the race settled into a rhythm Hamilton found he could close with relative ease to the back of the leading car. Even in this early stage of the grand prix it was an imposing sight.
Verstappen, chewing through his tyres in defence, dived into the pits for fresh rubber in what he forecast as his only stop of the race. Hamilton slammed down four more rapid laps in clear air before doing the same, and the six-second deficit he rejoined with was obliterated in no time in another show of force.
But for all his speed Hamilton couldn’t find a way through. Some teams estimate a driver needs an advantage of 1.2 seconds to pass around the aerodynamically loaded circuit, and with tyres just four laps fresher, even the Briton couldn’t bully his way back through.
So Mercedes rolled the dice again.
Hamilton was unexpectedly brought in for another set of tyres with 24 laps to go. He rejoined with 22 seconds to make up but was so quick with new rubber that he caught and passed Verstappen with six laps to spare to win his third race of the season and take a 14-point lead in the standings.
“Great, great teamwork from all of us,” Hamilton said, summing up the race. “We were here until late most evenings discussing strategy … I think it was the right one in the end.”
Teamwork was key to Hamilton’s win — to the strategy call, to the choice of tyres, even to Bottas letting Hamilton past on a different strategy without holding him up for too long — and inversely is costing Verstappen his chances to take the fight to the reigning champion.
Since 2019 Red Bull Racing has lacked a consistently competitive driver in its second car to support Verstappen strategically. Neither Pierre Gasly in 2019 nor Alex Albon in 2019 and 2020 were able to get to grips with the knife-edge Red Bull Racing-built cars or the Verstappen-centred environment and were duly turfed.
This season the team hired from outside its stable of contracted drivers to induct race winner Sergio Perez, and while the Mexican has shown flashes of qualifying speed and decent race pace, too often he has been too far down the field to cover Verstappen from Mercedes’s tactical aggression.
Simply having Perez in the top four with Bottas would have been enough to cause Mercedes to think twice before pitting Hamilton for his race-winning second stop. Having to pass an opposition car with an order to hold him up would have undermined his strategy; instead he had clear air and only ally Bottas to get passed, which allowed him to fully unleash the performance of the car.
For example, knowing he would have to pass Bottas was a key reason Verstappen couldn’t cover Hamilton’s second stop.
Bottas may be off the pace of the title protagonists but has been close enough to be decisive in influencing both championships in his four years with Mercedes so far.
Red Bull Racing has spent the last two season with effectively one car in the race.
Sergio Perez remains highly rated and has a body of work that cannot be disputed. But Red Bull Racing is contending for the title now and cannot afford the Mexican many more races to adjust to life in the high-pressure championship-winning environment.
Verstappen needs a wingman if he’s to stand a chance of dethroning Hamilton this season.