Don’t mistake Verstappen’s intensity for ego
In the closing laps of last Sunday’s F1 Brazilian Grand Prix, drama between Red Bull teammates stole the show, sending the internet into a tizzy.
In case you missed it, Max Verstappen held sixth position with less than a lap remaining, one spot ahead of Red Bull teammate Sergio “Checo” Perez. Verstappen, who clinched the driver’s championship over a month ago, was asked to surrender his position to Perez before the two crossed the finish line. An additional spot for Perez would be a welcome boon in points, as the Mexican driver was—and still is—locked in an intense battle for second place in the driver’s championship standings.
“I told you already last time, you guys don’t ask that question,” he said over the team radio. “Are we clear about that? I gave my reasons and I stand by it.” As soon as Verstappen finished his transmission, the F1 world chimed in. Twitter feeds swelled with comments that labeled the young champ as “classless” and “spoiled.”
Wow …ok I guess there is a “I” on a team right there. Just wow
— Tony Kanaan (@TonyKanaan) November 13, 2022
Red Bull held an emergency team meeting following Verstappen’s defiance. When the two-time champ emerged, he vowed to help his teammate in Abu Dhabi. Will it be too little, too late? Time will tell; remember that revenge is a dish best served cold.
The real question is: Was Verstappen justified in his refusal to move over, or should he have surrendered the spot?
Regardless of the discipline, team orders in auto racing have a long and complex history. In North American motorsports, explicit team orders are frowned upon, even penalized, by certain sanctioning bodies. Earlier this year, NASCAR team Stewart-Haas incurred a point penalty and fine when one of its cars slowed to block rivals so that the other Stewart-Haas could squeak by.
Formula 1, on the other hand, has adopted the team order tactic since the sport’s early days. In 1955, Mercedes asked Juan Manuel Fangio to let teammate Stirling Moss win in a grand prix in the Englishman’s homeland. Lorenzo Bandini surrendered his position to fellow Ferrari driver John Surtees so that he could notch enough points for the 1964 championship. In 1982—you get the idea.
Most examples of this … strategic collaboration weren’t as accepted as they are today. “I came up watching F1 in the Prost-Senna era, when most considered team orders to go against the intent of the sport,” says Hagerty editor Eddy Eckart. “You either had position on merit or you didn’t, and to slow down in a motor race was the antithesis of the activity itself.”
In the following decade, team orders became common practice. So much so that by the late 1990s, in the throes of Michael Schumacher’s dominance, it was speculated that Eddie Irvine served as Schumacher’s roadblock. Teammate choreography and tactics were morphing into blatant, convoluted exercises to achieve track position or maximize points, feints which sullied the sport’s image.
By 2002, the FIA outlawed team orders.
The ban didn’t last long. Less than a decade, in fact. Ahead of the 2011 season, the FIA deleted article 39.1, which prohibited team orders. Nearly every year since then, team collusion has reared its head in at least one grand prix.
You can’t fault the teams. Modern F1 racing seems to enable the orders. Competitors are constantly searching for the extra edge, that final thousandth. In an era of two-car operations, complex pit strategy, and a high degree of passing difficulty, support from a teammate is just another way to get ahead.
Orders have become increasingly transparent. Think of Valtteri Bottas playing a support role to teammate Lewis Hamilton’s multiple championships with Mercedes, or of last year’s season finale in Abu Dhabi, in which Perez held up title contender Hamilton to help Verstappen secure his first championship. Verstappen applauded his teammate, calling him a “legend” for delaying Hamilton. To borrow a line from the two most dynamic teammates Ricky Bobby and Cal Naughton Jr, in 2019 it appeared the teammates went together like “cocaine and waffles.”
Last weekend, we witnessed a lack of reciprocation from Verstappen. This is what got F1 fanbase so steamed.
“Eddie Irvine once said being Michael Schumacher’s teammate was like being hit in the head with a cricket bat every other weekend,”says F1 reporter and Hagerty contributor James Foxall. “If you’re the number one driver, giving someone that kind of bruising treatment at every race, you have to give something back. Schumacher settled up when he gifted Irvine the 1999 Malaysian GP.”
“[Brazil] was a chance for Max to give something back,” says Foxall. “And the crazy thing is, it was for sixth place, which on the Red Bull scale of success might as well have been 16th.”
The next time Perez is asked to help his teammate, he may think twice.
Still, Verstappen isn’t in the wrong.
Fans adore the incredibly talented Dutch driver because he is unapologetically brash, not because he is generous or poised. Just a few minutes before the Perez kerfuffle, Verstappen refused to back out of an overtake on Lewis Hamilton, causing a collision between the two drivers. Verstappen received a five-second time penalty for his aggressive move.
Rather than apologize, Verstappen looked Sky Sports in the eye.
“To be honest, I went around the outside and immediately felt he wasn’t going to leave space, so I just went for it. He didn’t leave me space so I knew we were going to get together. It cost him the race win and it gave me five seconds. It wouldn’t have mattered anything for my race.”
As bull-headed they are, that move and the incident with Perez are true to Verstappen’s character. There’s something to be said for being genuine, especially in an era in which you get the feeling that drivers are reading interview responses off cue cards.
Most of the men on the grid seem to be some combination of handsome, politically correct, and bland. Verstappen is, as Eckart says, “cut from a different cloth.”
Verstappen’s refusal to relinquish a six-place spot underscores the ardent driver’s ruthlessness. Without it, Verstappen likely wouldn’t have had a full season of F1 competition under his belt before he turned 18. He is unrelenting in his pursuit of perfection, a throwback to other hot-blooded legends like Senna and James Hunt. (Go ahead and google “Hunt the Shunt.”)
Intensity is mistaken for selfishness by a new and young F1 fan base. The exponential growth in F1 viewership is well-documented, and it’s reasonable to assume that many of the fans questioning Verstappen’s character haven’t witnessed this type of ferocity. They may be too young or too new to the sport to remember the questionable—yet necessary—moves that won Schumacher seven world titles.
In addition, those that arrived since Drive to Survive may assume team orders are as mandatory as taxes. They are unfamiliar with the sport’s salad days, when it was all take and no give.
Veteran fans of the sport may recall a counterpoint to the no-holds-barred attitude of early 1990s F1, the moment when Senna let teammate Gerhard Berger through to win his first grand prix in 1991. First, let’s point out that this was one blip in the career of a driver who, on the track, took no prisoners. Second, Senna was 31 years old, a veteran who could see the forest through the trees. Verstappen is 25.
Asking Verstappen to backpedal in Sunday’s final lap was a foolish request in the first place. Red Bull should never try to tame the feral genius that hunted down two successive championships and dropped them at its door.