MONTREAL – Max Verstappen seems unstoppable at the moment. The reigning world champion has won six of the seven races he has finished this year.
At Sunday’s Canadian Grand Prix, he was forced to work for the win to the finish line, with Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz hot on his heels for 15 laps to the finish and finishing 0.9sec behind the checkered flag.
In what is becoming his hallmark, Verstappen was frozen under that almost metronomic pressure, lap after lap. He showed it several times last year in similar situations with Lewis Hamilton.
Sainz couldn’t get close enough to overtake Verstappen and the mistake he needed to seize the moment never materialized.
“Max is in the shape of his life at the moment, absolutely clinical,” Red Bull boss Christian Horner said after the race.
Horner later added: “He drove some amazing races last year under huge pressure, you think about Austin and so on. I think he’s been really good under pressure, we’ve seen him a lot of times this year, Miami, Baku etc etc. He has more experience and is just a very complete driver.”
Verstappen was 46 points behind Charles Leclerc after the Australian Grand Prix in April, having suffered two reliability problems in the first three races. Verstappen’s lead over Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez is now the same, with Leclerc, who hasn’t won a race since Melbourne, a further three points behind.
It’s effectively a buffer of two full-race wins over its closest rivals, but F1’s bloated calendar means we’re not even halfway through the season yet – there are still 13 races to go between now and the end of November. While it’s easy to start scanning the calendar of remaining events to see how soon Verstappen could end up on this current trajectory, he’s not taking anything for granted.
“It’s still a long way,” Verstappen said at the post-race news conference. “I know that the gap is of course quite big, but I also know that it can change very quickly.
“I mean, [after] In race three I was 46 behind, so we just have to stay calm, we have to focus and we have to improve because today we are not the fastest.”
Ferrari agreed with Verstappen’s assessment of pace. The team felt they had the fastest car on race day, which changes the narrative of the season so far.
While Leclerc has dominated in Saturday qualifying, it has recently been Verstappen and Red Bull who have generally had the fastest race package and they have six wins in a row to prove it.
Ferrari’s chances of capitalizing on that fast race car were hampered from the start of the race weekend, with Leclerc receiving a penalty at the rear of the grid for a total power unit change, as a result of the increasing equipment reliability problems.
Sainz, whose season has been disappointing to this point, was the man left to stop a Red Bull victory but could only start on the second row after being overtaken by Alpine’s Fernando Alonso in the wet.
That meant Verstappen was allowed to run off at the start without any pressure from behind, as it took a while for Sainz to overtake the slower Alpine. Sainz led in one stage when he and Verstappen used compensation strategies, but both Ferrari and Red Bull doubted Sainz was in the race-winner.
The final Safety Car put Sainz in a perfect opportunity and he said he left nothing on the table as he harassed Verstappen in the closing laps.
“I gave it my all,” the Spaniard said afterwards. “I was risking everything, you know, on the curbs, near the wall and spending a few moments in the dirty air.
“I got close a couple of times, but not close enough to launch an inside move anywhere. But I can tell you I was pushing.”
Considering how Sainz has struggled this year, it was easy to wonder if the result might have been different had Leclerc gone after Verstappen at the end. Binotto welcomed Sainz’s improved racing but noted that he hurt his chances of a first F1 win on Saturday.
“I think Carlos had a strong race today. Good pace, good handling and, as he said, I think he was very, very close at times, so we can be very happy that he is getting more and more confident.” Binotto said.
“To win today with such a close fight with Red Bull and Max, you need to be perfect for a whole weekend. In any case, Carlos’ qualifying wasn’t perfect yesterday and that cost him a bit today. Because being ahead or chasing It is certainly a different matter.”
That statement is true. Beating Verstappen at this point requires a flawless weekend and Ferrari have been found to be generally lacking in strategy, reliability and, in the case of Sainz on Saturday and Sunday, the performance required to beat him, too often in the last two. months.
Leclerc showed at the start of this season that he is capable of stringing together a weekend to beat Verstappen and still looks like the most likely candidate to fight the Dutchman all year, especially if Ferrari continues to deliver a fast car on Sundays. .
Speaking of his 49-point deficit in the championship, Leclerc said: “It motivates me. It motivates me because of course I know the pace is in the car.
“I’m not worried, I’m extremely motivated to finally have a clean weekend and show that we’re here and that we’re strong. So yeah, at Silverstone I hope we can do that.”
Can Ferrari overcome its problems?
Ferrari has a mountain to climb in both championships and is still trying to overcome its reliability issues. The Haas and Alfa Romeo customer team are increasingly frustrated by Ferrari’s problems and Mick Schumacher’s withdrawal from a promising position in Montreal was blamed on a power unit failure.
Reliability can be a two-way street, and not long ago it looked like Red Bull, not Ferrari, might lose a championship to car trouble. Perez’s failure to finish after a suspected gearbox failure is a reminder that Red Bull is not immune to its own problems.
“I don’t think reliability is the only factor, I think the development between now and the end of the season is another, just like the budget cap and reliability too,” Binotto said on Sunday night.
“The power unit is a completely new design compared to the past and the problem we have is that we have a young project and on top of that we have limitations on the dyno’s that didn’t exist in the past so we can’t run as much on the dynamometer, we are limited. That means that the exercise is more complicated”.
Of course, Red Bull is constrained by the same budget cap, but with a nice points lead, fewer reliability issues to worry about, and a superstar driver who seemingly gets better with each passing weekend, it already feels a lot like the Milton Keynes team championships. lose at this point.