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Martin Brundle: Mesmerising Max Verstappen lights up Brazil

Martin Brundle: Mesmerising Max Verstappen lights up Brazil
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The Brazilian GP was a significant race for Formula 1. We were close to seriously damaging our brand and upsetting the fans trackside and at home.

Thankfully, we ended up delivering a full 71-lap race with skill, bravery, drama, peril and excitement to the very end.

We also witnessed a teenager rewriting the textbook for every racing driver in the world today and in the future as to how to drive a car on a wet track.

Max Verstappen also reconfirmed that we can indeed compare his talent with the likes of Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher.

The Interlagos track may be one of the shortest on the calendar, taking only 71 seconds on a dry lap compared with over 105 seconds at the super-fast Spa circuit, but the layout and old school nature, along with pop-up weather, has generated some remarkable sporting moments over the decades.

I spoke with Charlie Whiting and Herbie Blash when they returned from a track recce about an hour before the start of the race and it was easy to detect a desire and determination to have a standing start, as opposed to a baby sitting but sometimes necessary Safety Car start, if at all possible.

It turns out that delaying the start 10 minutes in the hope of a better chance of a normal standing start was wrong. Hindsight is wonderful but more significantly, here was an early indication that weather forecasts were not particularly accurate.

Constructed in a natural bowl with significant elevation changes, this circuit is prone to streams of water forming, especially in the high-speed and constantly left-turning climb up to the finish line. In the dry, it’s effectively a straight line; in the wet, it’s a 100% opportunity to spear into the wall at high speed and spread your car out like a yard sale.

Aquaplaning is when the grooves in the tread of the tyre simply cannot process and clear the volume of surface water sufficiently fast enough and the tyre becomes saturated and attached to the surface of the water and not the track. You are floating like a water boatman, and at that point, it doesn’t matter how great your talent or car is – you’re a passenger.

Hamilton rues Rosberg’s ‘unbelievable’ luck

It’s like skimming a stone on a pond. The surface tension of the water is very effective but it’s not easy to steer the stone or determine when it sinks through.

The skill and judgement of course comes in placing your car accurately in the first place and having a feel for the right amount of throttle and brakes to apply. This is a calculation the amazing human brain is constantly processing and inevitably some are better than others.

The second red flag, launched from behind a live Safety Car period after Kimi Raikkonen had dismantled his Ferrari up against the pit straight walls, didn’t go down well with pretty much anybody. The view outside our commentary box of the main grandstand booing with thumbs down was a powerful image.

Let’s walk a mile in Charlie Whiting’s shoes. We had just witnessed a Raikkonen crash where he nearly had a head-on collison with the Manor of Ocon, along with other unsighted high-speed near misses.

You may remember back in 2010 when, at relatively low speed in Abu Dhabi, Tonio Liuzzi climbed up the front of a spun-around Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes. Single-seaters are simply not designed to meet head-on.

At the same time, the weather forecast was predicting imminent heavy rain and Charlie’s console was lit up with conflicting messages from drivers. Many said it was fine to race but four-time world champion Vettel, among others, said it wasn’t.

If a car was launched into the air and landed in the pitlane or grandstands with fatalities, Charlie and the FIA would have much more legal paperwork to add to the sad Jules Bianchi case. We simply don’t have that liability or responsibility sitting on the sofa or in the commentary box. It’s a major conundrum because F1 has to be one of the fastest, scariest, scarcely believable human challenges to maintain its appeal.

The lesson to be learned there, I guess, is to look at the track and the sky, rather than potential rain on a radar.

Everybody in F1 knows that the intermediate tyre with more contact patch and shallower grooves is significantly faster than the deeper-treaded full wet, providing it can process the standing water and operate in the correct temperature window. Those towards the back of the field were inevitably more ready to roll the dice for a double six than the leaders, except for Red Bull who fancied humbling the great Mercedes team on this day in history with their aerodynamically efficient car and feisty young drivers.

But the incessant rain, five safety cars and two red flags meant that it was neither necessary or desirable to waste time in the pits going for gold on intermediates.

‘Brazilian GP was the Verstappen show’

What it did deliver up was a masterclass from Verstappen as he scythed through the field to third place during the last 14 laps on a fresh set of wets, including passing his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo who on this particular day had a painful lesson in just how fast his car was capable of going whilst managing a fogged-up visor.

We saw Verstappen very busy behind the Safety Cars, darting all over the race track exploring, learning, scheming. And when we finally went racing again, he put all that knowledge to good use by taking bizarre lines, such that wherever his rivals placed their car, he had another solution to out brake them or simply sail past on the outside. It was mesmerising to watch.

Of course, those contrary racing lines also take him out of the worst of the spray generated by his next victim, thereby helping visibility significantly. He did have one massive near miss with a half spin at high speed climbing the hill. He described it as 50/50 luck versus talent.

The luck was that he had enough space to keep the car out of the barrier, which also conveniently curved away from his incident for a course car access. The skill was in applying and then particularly releasing the brakes such that he could steer away from the impending contact with the guardrail. Shortly after, he radioed in to say his heart beat went up briefly, but his voice was still very calm.

Through it all, he miraculously stayed ahead of Nico Rosberg who was spending the whole afternoon in low-risk championship mode, and whilst most drivers would spend a cautious lap or two just working out track conditions to avoid another big incident, Verstappen just powered right back on it.

There were some outstanding performances, not least from Carlos Sainz, Sergio Perez, Felipe Nasr and Esteban Ocon. Nico Hulkenberg was very unlucky with a puncture behind one of the Safety Cars on fresh full wet tyres; he was in for a great result.

All the time we were being dazzled by Verstappen, out front, being the path finder on every restart, was the one man the press-on young Dutchman was not going to beat – and that of course was Lewis Hamilton.

It was easy to sense on the podium that Hamilton was a bit nonplussed with all the Verstappen hype, with driver of the day already voted in his favour along with warm appreciation from the crowd. Lewis was making it clear that he found it all very easy on a day when most were overwhelmed at some point.

Part of this was a psychological game with his team-mate, who I could see alongside with a wry smile on his face. Rosberg now only needs a top three in Abu Dhabi to seal the title, and by winning the races in such a forceful style Hamilton is determined to devalue Rosberg’s championship in every way that he can.

Rosberg’s holding back on every restart clearly showed that he was only interested in second place on the day and he was lucky that Red Bull elected to try intermediate tyres. 

I reflected after the podium on Lewis’s demeanour, and I can understand his view of the race. His engineer Bono told me at the airport that LH spun his rear wheels up once climbing the hill but otherwise it appeared a faultless and uneventful race, which is impressive to say the least in those conditions.

And he wasn’t recovering from a half spin and fitting intermediate tyres because he didn’t make those errors. His radio message was clear, the track wasn’t ready for such racy tyres. In fact, in many ways, he was the driver of the day.

The partisan crowd, however, would probably have voted for Felipe Massa. It was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve seen in F1. Massa crashed his car, and then trailing the Brazilian flag was applauded all the way back to the pits on foot to be greeted in the pitlane by his wife, son, family, team and other team members. All during a live race and even after the pitlane entry lane had been reopened.

Massa’s emotional farewell

Nobody cared about that. The overwhelming affection towards this fine sportsman and man was endearing to say the least, and I had to wipe a tear from my eye in the commentary box. Talk about sporting drama.

We have to be concerned about the financial health of the Manor team. If Sauber beat them into the top-10 championship money column after Abu Dhabi, then they will be $30m+ lighter on budget, and in a season which demands an all new car with huge ongoing develop costs that’s a big void to fill.

Once again, the ‘old school’ track gave us a great race, eventually. We must pay attention to that moving forward.

Talk to you from Abu Dhabi.

MB

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