If Max Verstappen wants to prevail, he needs to learn from Sebastian Vettel’s failed attempt to beat Lewis Hamilton to the title in 2017.
The Dutchman is the first man to really take the fight to Hamilton over the course of a season since Vettel did so in both 2017 and 2018.
On both occasions, the German’s title charge unravelled, and Verstappen can take from lessons from the first of those campaigns, in particular, to ensure he doesn’t suffer the same fate.
TOMORROW IN BAKU 🇦🇿
Vettel and Hamilton next to each other on the front row 🤔
— Formula 1 (@F1) April 28, 2018
If you want to get the better of a great like Hamilton, you need to, as Rob Smedley famously told Felipe Massa once, stay cool, and that was something that Vettel failed to do in 2017.
Heading into the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, things were going well for the Ferrari man, with him 12 points ahead of his rival in the standings.
Given that lead and the fact that Mercedes were undoubtedly stronger in Baku, P2 would have been a perfectly good result for him, even if Hamilton won, and that’s exactly where he was running 19 laps in. Happy days.
And then he lost his head, pulling alongside and purposely hitting Hamilton after feeling that the Mercedes driver had brake-tested him while they were running behind the Safety Car.
The move earned him a 10-second stop/go penalty and ultimately cost him the win as ahead of him Hamilton was forced to make an extra pit-stop to fix his headrest. That issue for the Brit meant he still finished behind, but Vettel only scored two more points rather than building his lead by 15. And all because he got a bit angry.
Hamilton ended up winning the title by 46 points, but that doesn’t mean a win for Vettel in Baku wouldn’t have changed things. Perhaps with a much bigger deficit to close, the seven-time World Champion would have taken more risks and made a mistake, or maybe Vettel would have played it safer and made fewer. Either way, a moment of madness hurt his chances a lot.
Glad I’m ok. Very disappointed with being taken out like this. The penalty given does not help us and doesn’t do justice to the dangerous move Lewis made on track. Watching the celebrations while still in hospital is disrespectful and unsportsmanlike behavior but we move on pic.twitter.com/iCrgyYWYkm
— Max Verstappen (@Max33Verstappen) July 18, 2021
So, is Verstappen keeping a cool head himself?
Well, prior to the British Grand Prix, yes, but there were some signs of anger on his part following the collision with Hamilton at Silverstone, with him calling his rival disrespectful and unsportsmanlike.
To be fair to him, such anger is far more understandable than Vettel’s was. After all, he had just had a huge accident and had to watch the man he felt was responsible for it celebrate victory while he was in the hospital.
Carrying that anger with him into the next race and beyond won’t do him any good though and would only play into Hamilton’s hands.
Instead, he needs to put the incident behind him and stay focused on the task at hand, not letting his emotions affect what he does on track.
Being particularly aggressive could lead to another crash, and with him leading the title fight and having an arguably better car, there’s no need to risk such things.
On that note…
— Formula 1 (@F1) September 17, 2017
Even after what happened in Baku, Vettel was still the title favourite. The battle was really lost six races later, under the lights in Singapore.
Starting from pole, he was just three points behind Hamilton and, with his rival back in P5 in a car slower than the Red Bulls and Ferraris, he looked set to retake the lead of the championship again, as long as he kept things clean.
Rather than doing so though, he moved over aggressively at the start to try and protect his lead from Verstappen, causing the two and team-mate Kimi Raikkonen to retire.
That effectively handed the race win to Hamilton, allowing him to expand his lead in the standings to 28 points with just six rounds to go. In short, Vettel’s title chance were dead and buried.
Had he played things a bit safer at the start, he most likely would have finished somewhere on the podium, ahead of Hamilton and would have moved to the top of the Drivers’ Championship.
Verstappen would do well to remember this when he’s locked in tight wheel to wheel battles this season.
As already mentioned, it’s probably fair to say he has a better car than his title rival and has a very good chance of becoming a World Champion if he isn’t involved in any major incidents. One crash though, and it could all change.
What happened at Silverstone is a perfect example. He had a healthy lead over Hamilton before the race, so, even if the Brit was predominantly to blame for the collision, would he have been better off leaving a bit more space at Copse, even if it meant losing position? Probably.
Giving an inch may go against the instincts of the Dutchman and motorsport in general, but if he wants to win this title, he’ll sometimes have to think further ahead than the race he’s in.
Hamilton has often spoken of how remembering seasons are a marathon, not a sprint, has helped him achieve so much, and looking at what happened to Vettel, Verstappen would be wise to adopt a similar approach if he wants to do what the German couldn’t and prevail.