JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Race after race, corner after corner, Max Verstappen has been pushing his Red Bull to the limit this year. His impeccable judgement of speed versus grip has saved him from disaster and delivered him to glory on numerous occasions, but on the final corner of the final lap of Saturday’s qualifying session he finally made a costly error.
For 26 of the circuit’s 27 corners he had been millimetre perfect, sliding his car from barrier to barrier on what promised to be the most spectacular qualifying lap of the season. The all-new Jeddah Corniche Circuit is dangerous concoction of Monza’s speed and Monaco’s barriers, providing mind-bending visuals with the potential for terrifying consequences.
On a qualifying lap, the driver’s left foot only hits the brakes seven times, while the right foot remains planted for 80 percent of the lap. As Verstappen approached the final braking zone with the session clock about to time out, the job was all but done. He was 0.3s faster than his previous lap, which would have been enough to prise pole position from title rival Lewis Hamilton by at least 0.15s, probably more.
But as he stood on the brakes, Verstappen locked up the front tyres and ran deep into the corner. Even as the car slid off line, his supreme confidence told him he could sort it out on the exit and he planted his right foot once more to head for the finish line.
“I saw it was a good lap, I was three-tenths faster on my delta [to my first lap],” Verstappen said on Saturday evening. “I thought the last corner there might be a bit to gain. I knew Lewis was a tenth or a tenth and a half ahead, but I approached it like I always do in qualifying, but now somehow I just locked up.
“I have to see if I braked later or not. From my feeling I didn’t.
“It’s just really disappointing because it was a really good lap up until then, I was really enjoying it. Then of course not to finish it is really disappointing, especially now in this fight, you want to start first [on the grid].”
It’s easy to look at the how delicately Verstappen’s eight-point advantage teeters at the top of the drivers’ standings and assume he cracked under the pressure. If he finishes Sunday’s race in third place, where he qualified, and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton wins, Verstappen will head to the final round with a two point deficit (give or take a bonus point for fastest lap). And if he then goes on to lose the title to Hamilton at the final round in Abu Dhabi, it will be easy to pinpoint Saturday’s mistake in Saudi Arabia as the moment he let the championship slip away from him.
But that would ignore the remarkable performances that have got him to this point already. It’s by living on the edge like he did in the final corner of qualifying lap on Saturday that Verstappen has earned an eight point lead over a seven-time world champion with two rounds remaining.
Sergio Perez has looked lost in his attempts to push the same car to the same limit as Verstappen this season and has only once beaten his younger, less experienced teammate in qualifying. None of Verstappen’s teammates in recent years have been able to walk the tightrope in the same way he does week after week, it’s just unfortunate that when he’s fallen off when the stakes are so high.
Not that you would know what’s at stake listening to him speak. Verstappen’s calmness, even in the moments just after a mistake like Saturday’s, suggests his confidence remains intact and the pressure is simply being absorbed.
I think people who know me, I’ve been like this from when I started racing,” he said. “Today I’m upset with myself but it’s still two races to go, lots of things can happen. I feel good with the car, luckily we’ve been competitive, not like Qatar where we’ve been off.
“It’s a nice battle, it’s exciting, you go into a session not knowing who’s going to be ahead of the two teams. I think that’s always really cool for everyone. Hopefully it’s going to be the same tomorrow.”
Verstappen maintains that his aim is still to win on Sunday. A good start from third on the grid could provide that possibility. The last time Verstappen started behind Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, in Mexico, he’d passed them both by the apex of the first corner.
But if he’s still behind the two Mercedes cars after the first lap — or worse drops positions with a gearbox penalty as a result of Saturday’s collision — he will face an incredible tough task to finish ahead of Hamilton by the chequered flag.
“I think it’s going to be very hard to overtake so it’s going to be strategy, what happens with Safety Cars, reliability, etc.” Red Bull team boss Christian Horner told Sky Sports. “We’ll see, we’ll see. But grid position on any street circuit is crucial.
“But we keep fighting. If he’d finished that lap it would be a very different conversation we’re having. He’s still P3 on the grid, the race is still tomorrow, the points are at the end of the grand prix. We’ll give it everything we’ve got.
“Things haven’t gone our way today and that’s just motor racing sometimes. We’ll keep fighting, we’ll keep pushing. He’ll come back strong tomorrow.”
The way this season has gone so far means nothing is certain. After the first qualifying session in Brazil just two races ago, it was Hamilton’s championship chances that appeared to hang by a thread. A sprint race, two grands prix and a qualifying session later and the Mercedes driver is rapidly becoming the favourite. Yet Verstappen knows as well as anyone there could still be one last twist in the tale. Despite Saturday’s mistake, there’s no way he will lift off in his pursuit of his first world title.
“I’m confident,” he said as a matter of fact on Saturday evening when asked if he could still win the race. “Of course I would’ve liked to have started first and now starting third is a bit more difficult, but [the win is] definitely not impossible.”