Already six races in a row Max Verstappen is on the Formula 1 podium. It is his best start of the season ever, but the world title already seems an illusion.
Verstappen is second in the World Championship standings and in top form, but world champion Lewis Hamilton has beaten a gap of 47 points. Barely halfway through the season the battle seems settled: Verstappen won’t be the youngest F1 champion ever.
“On paper it may look a bit exciting, but my backlog increases by seven points every race,” Verstappen calculates.
The 22-year old Dutchman won a race in Silverstone, England, but is not able to repeat that trick just like that. “No matter how hard we work and push, Mercedes is still a huge favourite. We lose half a second per lap on most circuits. You can’t fight that and you can’t just catch up.”
So why do Red Bull Racing leaders Christian Horner and Helmut Marko still say he can become world champion this year? Verstappen understands. “They’re doing this to motivate the staff and keep the optimism in. I won’t give up either, but you have to be realistic. We’re not going to win at sheer speed. To win, we need luck. We’re making progress, but other teams aren’t standing still either.”
The Italian Monza has the eighth grand prix of the seventeen-race season on its program. The super-fast ‘Temple of Speed’ didn’t do Verstappen much good. Never before has the driver been on the podium in Monza. “I crossed the finish line in third place in 2018, but lost that place due to a time penalty. That has happened to me before. I’ve gotten used to that”, he says cynically now about the touché with Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas that was punished by the race management.
Verstappen’s goal in Monza? His seventh F1 podium in a row. “I think winning is impossible. We’re losing a lot of ground on all those straights, but we’ll see. Last year in the race it went much better than we expected.” A journalist who asks if a GP-victory really isn’t in it gets a vicious answer. “Yes, I’ll take pole position and put Hamilton in qualifying on Saturday at half a second. If I cut a chicane.”
It will be quite a challenge to be third in qualifying, Verstappen expects. Especially the ‘pink Mercedes’ of Racing Point and Renault seem to be formidable opponents. “It could be close on Saturday. I expect Renault to be here soon. Just like last weekend at Spa-Francorchamps.”
Renault riders Daniel Ricciardo and Esteban Ocon finished fourth and fifth in Belgium, but Verstappen doesn’t consider them a serious threat. “We are usually faster in the race, but I like it when they are there. Maybe it will be a bit more exciting and fun for the fans, but I’m not working on Renault. I don’t look back. I’m just looking at Mercedes.”
Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas won six of the seven races this year. The grand prixs are now so boring and predictable that team boss Toto Wolff apologized after Spa for another 1-2. “That’s politically correct language to be polite about. They have to say something”, Verstappen says. The truth is different in his view. “Mercedes wants to crush everyone and put them on a round. That makes sense. I’d like that in their position, too.”
Verstappen therefore seems to be condemned to the honorary title ‘best of the rest’ in Monza, but there is also good news. His lamentation about the unpredictability of his RB16 is suddenly a thing of the past. The Red Bull Racing car behaved erratically at the beginning of the season and was occasionally difficult to control, but that problem seems to have been solved. “I don’t suffer from anything anymore. That was really only in the first race weekend.”