Declan Quigley: Verstappen and Red Bull have wrestled themselves into a position of dominance
It’s sobering to realise that over a third of Max Verstappen’s career Grand Prix victories have come in the first nine races of the 2021 season and none have been as straightforward as his round nine afternoon drive in the Styrian Mountains.
Indeed, we’re not quite 40% of the way through this final season of the current regulations and it looks as if Verstappen and Red Bull have wrestled themselves into a position of dominance that looks almost Mercedes-esque in its all-encompassing nature.
Once the complications of the race start and the rolling restart from the early safety car had been dealt with, Verstappen had merely to manage his tyre resources wisely while turning lap times the rest could only dream of.
In the end, the emphatic nature of the victory was significantly greater that the 18-second margin back to Valtteri Bottas in the leading Mercedes who had no answer to the dominance of Red Bull and Verstappen.
The 23-year-old Dutchman’s arrival at the pinnacle of F1 has come just in the nick of time for his fellow countrymen, a substantial portion of whom have found a perfect outlet for their orange jerseys and smoke flares despite the early departure from the Euro 2020 tournament of the national soccer team.
The energy, chants and tribal exuberance displayed by Verstappen’s fans are reminiscent of the Mansell-mania days of the 1980s and ‘90s when Britain embraced their most successful racer in a manner that, bewilderingly, has so far eluded his compatriot Lewis Hamilton.
For Hamilton is unarguably the more accomplished driver, perhaps the greatest of all time but for a second weekend in a row he could only look on wistfully as Verstappen some way up the road garnered the accolades of his adoring fans and with them, the maximum haul of 26 points.
Verstappen has amassed 76 of a maximum 78 points on offer from the triple-header of races in the last three weekends while Hamilton has accrued 29 points fewer. The upshot is a 31 point lead for Verstappen, a buffer of more than a Grand Prix victory at this early stage.
Hamilton hasn’t won since the Spanish Grand Prix in early May, fully five races ago and his three wins this year are two fewer than Verstappen. Is it the curse of the contract renewal? The luckless Esteban Ocon might agree, the Frenchman still struggling to reproduce the form that encouraged Alpine to extend his tenure with the team at the beginning of the year.
This weekend the world champion surprised many by inking a two-year deal with Mercedes just a few months after his agonisingly protracted previous negotiation resulted in a 12-month deal. The stated thinking is that there is some serious work to do and neither party wanted the distraction of extended deal-making
The race would prove as frustrating as qualifying had been for Hamilton, his hard-won second position ahead of the impressive Lando Norris evaporating as his car suffered from the aerodynamic damage acquired from aggressive driving over the kerbs at the final bend.
Hamilton spoke afterwards of the need to get “all hands on deck” to “bring some improvements” for upcoming races as Mercedes redouble their efforts to defend their titles.
That starts with Silverstone in two weeks when Hamilton would dearly love the first full house of the season to be united in their support for his championship battle.