Feature: Verstappen's rapid rise blunted

Feature: Verstappen's rapid rise blunted

17 June 2017 – Max Verstappen's stunning ascent from karting talent to F1 winner in just over two years captured the attention of the world, as he put in some outrageous displays, punctuated by on-the-line driving. However, as with many talents, he has hit a brick wall, and not through fault of his own, as GPUpdate.net explains.

In most sports, the upwards trajectory of a talented teenager typically flat-lines, either through limited opportunities, injuries, lack of application or so forth. The response to setbacks often defines a sportsman as much as their pure career statistics. In Formula 1 there is a similar tangent, though a youngster's rise is heavily influenced by matters outside of their control: machinery.

Drivers used to success in junior formulae have to become accustomed to a different level of competition. Take Formula 1's current three 'rookies'. Esteban Ocon, Stoffel Vandoorne and Lance Stroll are all used to winning multiple races and titles but their prospects are markedly different this season. What they achieve this year, and how they adapt, will define them as much as their pre-F1 CV.

Max Verstappen is in a slightly different predicament, for his career has been squeezed into such a short timeframe that it is scarcely believable for him to still be awaiting his 20th birthday, while he is only in his fourth season of car racing. Verstappen's trajectory has been almost continuously upwards, bar a mere handful of dips, between 2014 and 2016.

Verstappen's stardom was such that Red Bull was prepared to offer him a Formula 1 seat aged 17, and in 2015 he applied his craft in Formula 1's midfield, thrilling with his race craft, while a set of circumstances aligned after four Grands Prix in 2016 that allowed him to join Red Bull. Victory on his debut in Spain merely heightened the sense of aura around Verstappen; as the season wore on his one-lap pace gradually improved, and he profited from Red Bull's blossoming pace to regularly compete for podiums. Few will ever forget his wet-weather exploits in Brazil.

Hopes for 2017 were high. Helmut Marko commented that Red Bull was "convinced" it could fight for both titles, emboldened by new technical regulations and anticipated Renault gains.

The reality has turned out quite differently. Mercedes and Ferrari have battled for victories, with Red Bull firmly third-quickest, occasionally able to challenge the teams ahead, though sometimes being threatened by the chasing midfield.

Verstappen has still provided glimpses of the talent which captured a legion of enthusiastic fans; his starts in China (from 16th to seventh) and in Canada (from fifth to second) were virtuoso displays, the former as if he'd Playstation-ed the first lap. But whereas his China start proved to be the building block for a podium finish, his equally stunning getaway in Canada came to a shuddering halt just 11 laps later.

Remove Verstappen's podium from the equation and he has a trio of fifth places and a trio of retirements, summing up Red Bull's lack of pace and substandard reliability. Verstappen had more points at the corresponding stage last year, and that included a four-race stretch at the junior team.

Having referred to his Canada exit as "absolutely rubbish", Verstappen expanded further on current struggles to Dutch broadcaster Ziggo Sport.

"It's clear to see the car got better, now we have to wait on engine power," he said. "As you might have heard, there will not be any updates this year, and that's something I worry about, because Renault promised that. We haven't received a lot of updates in 2017, which is a pity, and causes me to worry about next year. I want to win and I think the team is capable of winning. This year we wanted to fight for the title, but we are far away from are target now, which is of course not something you want to happen, so we have to work."

The layout of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve naturally highlighted the RB13's weaknesses; previous events in Spain and Monaco were more encouraging, if not worth shouting about from the rooftops. Red Bull still has a deficit to make up if it is to challenge Mercedes/Ferrari on a regular basis this year; for Verstappen, a driver accustomed to flamboyance and relentless improvement, this is about mental recalibration.

This is hardly a new phenomenon. Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso have all had difficult moments, learned from setbacks, and re-emerged from the other side stronger, with their reputations enhanced. There is every reason to believe that Verstappen will soak up the lessons of 2017 like a sponge and add further elements to his armoury, making him an even more potent threat once he is equipped with machinery capable of fighting for the title. It's what the great drivers do.

Dealing with the setbacks of 2017 may well define how Verstappen approaches the future…

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