What must Max Verstappen really be thinking after the intense triple-header that initiated the 2020 Formula 1 season in Austria and Hungary? Back in January, he committed to Red Bull with a new contract that ties him to the team until 2023, but he now finds himself already 30 points behind Lewis Hamilton in a season when expectations, including surely his own, suggested he would have a genuine shot at the title.
At Mercedes-AMG, Hamilton is now just five wins away from equalling Michael Schumacher’s record of 91, a mark that we once thought was beyond the reach of anyone. After a misfire in the Austrian Grand Prix, Hamilton bounced back brilliantly a week later at the same circuit and then dominated at the Hungaroring. His team-mate, Valtteri Bottas, is currently following the pattern he set in 2019, proving in race one that he has it in him to conclusively defeat Hamilton but then reverting to number-two status thereafter. Even his mask couldn’t hide his shell shock in Budapest, where he came a lacklustre third and lost his championship lead.
It’s the British Grand Prix this weekend, the first of a Silverstone double-header. Bottas took pole here last year only to lose to Hamilton on race day. Now five points down on the team leader, it’s imperative that he reverses the swing this weekend and next if he really has it in him to thwart the Brit’s bid for a seventh crown. On the evidence of what we’ve seen so far, he’s the only driver who has a car that’s capable of doing so.
Will Verstappen ever join Mercedes?
Schumacher couldn’t remember all of his 91 wins when put on the spot, and that’s likely to be the case for Hamilton too. He can’t even remember all of his cars. When asked in Hungary how his current W11 compares with his five other Mercedes title-winners, he drew a blank. So much success that they’re all beginning to blend into one another…
However, as Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff pointed out, previous cars, including last year’s W10, had a “diva” tendency, being fast but tricky on the limit, whereas the W11 has so far combined benign, driver-friendly handling characteristics with an astonishing level of superiority. Mario Andretti used to talk about his ground-effect Lotus being “painted to the road”, and that phrase springs to mind about this year’s black car.
You never know, Red Bull might hit back. But on the evidence of the three races so far, Verstappen doesn’t stand a chance.
He would never admit to the merest hint of regret, of course, but was the young Dutchman right to commit so fully to Red Bull at the start of the year? There’s no doubting Verstappen’s fire and ambition but, if he wants to be champion, he currently needs a Mercedes. From the other perspective, the best teams always desire the best drivers: it’s the natural competitive order. And besides Hamilton, there’s no doubt Verstappen is a cut above the rest right now.