Opinion

PALMER: Verstappen’s Spanish GP win proved he's making the difference right now – not his car

Former F1 Driver

Jolyon Palmer
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For a couple of years it’s been easy to look at Max Verstappen and Red Bull’s domination and think that so much of it is down to the car – and for a good part of that time, it was. The RB19 was a monster last year and Sergio Perez also took a couple of wins, coming home second in the championship, emphasising the quality of machinery at the disposal of the Red Bull drivers.

This year started in a similar vein with Verstappen running away to win by comfortable margins early on, but now the pack has closed up, we are seeing the very best of the triple world champion. Before, you might have argued it was the car keeping the driver on top, now it’s very much a case of the driver keeping the team on top.

F1 NATION: Norris had the ‘best car’ in Spain – so how did Verstappen win? It’s our Barcelona review

Max’s Spanish Grand Prix win wasn’t about having the best car, the best strategy, or even the best pitstops. None of those were bad, but this was a win made by the driver.

Verstappen is driving at an incredibly high level and now we are seeing him pushed all the way, it’s becoming clearer just how close to perfection he’s operating at.

There was a time where race starts were a weakness of Verstappen’s. But between himself and his team they’ve put a lot of focus on cleaning up the various stages of the start and it’s now become one of his strengths.

On Sunday he used superior traction in the second phase of the start to get an overlap on Lando Norris, so that Norris couldn’t defend the inside, and if you don’t defend the inside against Verstappen it’s pretty unusual to exit a corner ahead.

2024 Spanish Grand Prix: Russell gets a lightning start from P4 to take the lead on the race start

In fact the same start pattern was true in Imola, where it looked like Verstappen might have been jumped off the line by Norris, until the Red Bull driver could better get the throttle down in the second phase – the pure traction phase – and accelerated his way clear of the McLaren.

Starting from the front row in Barcelona can sometimes create difficulties because it’s a long run down to the first corner. We saw that again on Sunday, with George Russell benefitting from a double slipstream to sweep into the lead, despite actually not getting a better initial launch. Russell’s move was brilliant and committed, and it helped to decide the race in the end.

READ MORE: ‘I channelled my inner Alonso!’ – Russell reflects on his remarkable rise from P4 to P1 in Spanish GP start

As Russell passed Norris on the outside, Verstappen was also typically aggressive, throwing his car in on the inside and also clearing the McLaren. In reality the only driver that could deny Max the win in Spain was Lando, and taking track position here was critical.

But the even more decisive factor was Verstappen clearing Russell for the lead two laps later.

‘Might be our best opportunity Max, think wisely’, was the call from Gianpiero Lambiase on the pit wall as Verstappen homed in on the race leader on lap two.

2024 Spanish Grand Prix: Verstappen goes round the outside of Russell at Turn 1 to take the lead

A few corners later and Verstappen was in the lead. One opportunity, borne out of huge commitment through the high speed final couple of turns in the dirty air of the Mercedes and some energy deployment on the straights, as Max used everything he had to get close.

He had used his tyres and battery to create one opportunity and he took it majestically, sweeping around the outside of Russell into a first position he’d be unbeatable from.

READ MORE: Verstappen pinpoints moment that ‘made my race’ after beating Norris to Spanish GP win

Verstappen’s race craft is often classed as ‘aggressive’, and I’ve already called his move on Norris that at the start. For a driver who we know will stick his elbows out and isn’t afraid to get up close and personal with other cars, he doesn’t often get involved in incidents though.

Whilst earlier in his career his judgement wouldn’t always have been so good at determining when to commit fully to a pass or not, now it feels like he has such a good understanding of when to attack and when to be patient, and he’s got better at race reading as well to know how these moves will work out in the bigger picture. All in all it’s making him very difficult to beat, even when rivals have chances to do so.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JUNE 23: Second placed Lando Norris of Great Britain and McLaren shakes hands

Lando Norris had a great chance of victory from pole on Sunday – but Verstappen still prevailed

In Imola Verstappen soaked up pressure from Norris to win. In Canada, a wild and wacky race, it still felt inevitable as soon as Max hit the front that he’d be unbeatable – and that is testament to the way he’s driving right now.

Sergio Perez is once again proving that this isn’t just the Red Bull car being a step ahead, as he’s picked up a measly eight points in the last four races, three of which Verstappen has won.

READ MORE: ‘We need Checo in the mix’ – Horner calls on Perez to re-find his form as Red Bull rivals turn the screw

Norris looks to be the most consistent threat each weekend on paper, and Lando is also driving superbly right now. With the most competitive machinery he’s ever driven, it looks like he’s finally proving his world championship credentials as well. But he was self critical after Barcelona, saying there are things he still needs to tidy up to match Verstappen. It was a harsh reflection, but he’s right.

In a normal world Lando might have added to his win tally by now, but Max isn’t driving in a normal world. For McLaren, Ferrari or Mercedes to topple him, they are going to need to put together a perfect weekend, because anything less and Verstappen has a chance. And right now when he has a chance, he usually wins.

Jolyon Palmer's Analysis: The Fight for First in Spain | Workday

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