In every generation of Formula 1 there is a standout driver, who becomes the benchmark for the others and he is always on the look out for the young challenger who will take his crown away.
Inevitably one day a new challenger comes along and eventually takes over. It’s happened with kings and princes in history and likewise in sports.
The interesting time is the early stages of the overlap, when the established guy spots the challenger in question.
I saw it clearly in 1991/92 with Senna when he clocked Michael Schumacher. He couldn’t help clocking him, to be fair, as Schumacher made it his business to get in Senna’s face from the early stages of his F1 career.
These were the days when drivers would take each other off the road (a la Senna and Prost) and play games of chicken at 200mph; it was a man’s game and a fresh-faced young Schumacher wanted to show he wasn’t scared.
At one test he so enraged Senna that the great Brazilian came over to the Benetton garage and tried to hit him.
Schumacher dominated for some time and seemed to have a number of pretenders to his throne, like Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya, both dubbed the ‘next big thing’ by the media, but neither of whom fulfilled that brief.
Schumacher knew that they wouldn’t and instead identified Fernando Alonso as the driver who would give him a hard time. He noticed him mainly during 2002, when Alonso was a test driver for Renault, having done an initial race season with Minardi.
Alonso looked on course, when he beat Schumacher in 2005 and 2006, but his career took a wrong turn with McLaren in 2007 that he has never truly recovered from.
Alonso noted Lewis Hamilton in 2007, he couldn’t miss him as his team-mate and although Sebastian Vettel won four consecutive titles with Red Bull during a window of time, it is now Hamilton who sits atop the pyramid looking down for the challengers.
What I have noticed progressively during this season, especially when the drivers are together behind the scenes and in the press conference room after qualifying sessions and races, is that Hamilton has identified his challenger and he put that into words recently.
“I’ve got that Max just sitting there waiting to take it,” he said. “So I’ve got to raise the game another level in order to stay ahead of him.”
It has been notable how much Hamilton’s respect for Max Verstappen has grown across this season; you can tell it in the body language. Verstappen, like Schumacher, announced himself to the other drivers last season as very talented, but also an aggressive driver who wasn’t afraid to mix it with the best and there were complaints about his tactics, like moving to block in the braking zone.
But this season he has progressively come of age, beating Daniel Ricciardo in qualifying and as the season has gone on, he has raised his win tally to three. Now all he needs is the car for next season and he will be right there challenging, as Schumacher did to Senna and as Alonso did to Schumacher.
Although he trails Ricciardo in points, it is hard to judge this season between them as both drivers have had quite a bit of unreliability, especially on the engine side, that has hit their chances on race day; Verstappen earlier in the season and Ricciardo more recently.
Career being well managed
The Verstappens cleverly moved recently to shore up Max’s position at Red Bull by offering his services until the end of 2020 at a significantly higher price, which Red Bull’s management accepted and locked him down, ending speculation of a move by Mercedes or Ferrari. At 20, Max has time on his side and there was an opportunity to extract a high price – he can move to Mercedes or Ferrari once Hamilton and Vettel have gone.
Short term, that has Verstappen de facto lead driver in that team and complicated Ricciardo’s life. Although the pair get on fine, it is clear that Ricciardo is not committing to the team for the long term and that his best chance of becoming world champion lies elsewhere.
Sky did a story with Verstappen in Brazil where he spoke about this challenge, noting that it would come down to how strong the Red Bull package is next season, “At the moment he (Hamilton)is the world champion, I’m still not in that position and I hope I can be next year,” said Verstappen.
“We need to wait and see how strong we can be as a team.”
I have huge admiration for Sebastian Vettel and for what he has achieved in F1, but this year has also highlighted some flaws in his game, as the 2014 season did when he was tired and unable to deal with Ricciardo in the first hybrid turbo cars.
In Verstappen you see all the tools and above all the racer’s instinct and aggression, all maturing and Hamilton has rightly identified where the trouble is going to come from.
Ferrari had a wonderful car this year but came up short due to execution, driver mistakes and a lack of ruthlessness. They are sure to challenge next season, but the generational shift will be between two drivers who see a lot of themselves in each other.
What do you think of this rivalry between Hamilton and Verstappen? Do you agree that Max is the next challenger or does it lie somewhere else? Leave your comment in the section below