Amongst a plethora of other items, one of the interesting stories that came about as a result of the enthralling season opener in Australia a little under a fortnight ago, was the ever intensifying battle between two of the young starlets of the sport; Toro Rosso’s Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz.
Two drivers who are close to polar opposites. Sainz, the more conservative of the duo who carries his great, eponymous father’s deft touch of the wheel and has a consistent, casually confident air about him, whereas Verstappen has captured many a heart with his ballsy, edge-of-your-seat style of driving, proving in his eye-catching debut year that he wasn’t particularly bothered about your reputation, he’d try his luck anyway. Like his father too, really. He even managed to frustrate Lewis Hamilton in the opening stages of the Australian Grand Prix, a three time World-Champion no less, with the Briton exclaiming: “There’s no way past this kid”.
Surprising, coming from a driver like Hamilton.
But every now and then, the young Dutchman can let his emotions get the better of him on track (and off it, if you’re Felipe Massa), leading to spectacular crashes, awkward tangles and rather blue rants down the radio.
This came to fruition back in Melbourne. To get the whole context of the saga, you have to revisit the Singapore Grand Prix last September, to see where the spark started. Sainz – recovering from a gearbox malfunction at the start, is the faster of the two and faces losing out on points as he trails Verstappen, on the slower strategy. As the Spaniard pokes and weaves, desperately looking for a way through, Franz Tost takes matters into his own hands, ordering Xevi Pujolar to prompt his driver into letting Sainz through.
Cue a stubborn, prickly “NO!” from car number 33, and the race carries on as it was – Sainz stuck behind Verstappen. Luckily, a double points scoring finish is the end result, the two coming home in 8th and 9th.
Fast forward six months and take a 6,051 kilometre flight to a mild weathered, but roused Albert Park for the latest chapter in the saga. The result is almost the same, but the “villain” is reversed. After a botched pit stop, Verstappen finds himself in 12th, sniffing the gearbox of Sainz like an excitable terrier as the Spaniard bides his time behind the Renault of Jolyon Palmer – eager to impress on his debut akin to Sainz and Verstappen 12 months earlier. For 20 laps the Ferrari powered cars are caged, the Bulls raking their feet along the ground in frustration; Verstappen pleading that Sainz either makes his move or sacrifices his track position. No positive answer from the pit wall, or Sainz. Moments later, a frustrated Verstappen descends into a blunt moan to Tost, Pujolar and the watching world. “You don’t let me past, it’s a f*****g joke”. He’s snubbed once more. Out of spite? One would assume (and hope) not.
Come lap 53, the Renault of Palmer had long been passed by both after the exit of Turn 2 eleven laps previously and the two had cottoned onto the pack of Romain Grosjean’s Haas, Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India and Valtteri Bottas’ Williams. After an intractable race, Verstappen has a look up the inside of Turn 15, the slowest corner of the circuit. He ends up with a broken endplate and facing the wrong way. Fortunately, just like Singapore, the two brought home two points scoring finishes for the team. But it was anything but easy.
What if the situation had ended differently. At any other corner on the track, it may well have done, both could have ended up careering into the barriers or at least having to hobble round with a puncture, or half a wing. Then things would have become interesting.
A certain amount of leeway and understanding has to be applied here. Starting with Christian Klien, how many talents have enrolled onto the Red Bull talent conveyor belt? Some have made it – look at Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo, Vitantonio Liuzzi and Daniil Kvyat – all of the aforementioned made the step up to the senior team at some point in their career. But then again, for every Vettel, there’s an Antonio Felix da Costa, Jean-Eric Vergne, Dani Juncadella, Scott Speed and Filipe Albuquerque. The ones who don’t quite make it – either through lack of talent, desire or simply being in the right place at the wrong time.
So you see, what I’m trying to say is that it’s bound to be tough. These young drivers are fighting for their careers, fighting to stay in or earn any one of those four seats. Aggression, channeled or not, is needed and hardly unprecedented in a typically bullish and charismatic team – a team that’s endeared itself to us over the past ten and a bit seasons. A team that inhabited the Faenza base that used to be Minardi’s – everyone’s favourite perennial back-marker.
How the battle pans out over the course of Formula 1’s longest season to date is to be seen, but I wouldn’t bet on it being a smooth journey.
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