I’ve been fully signed up to the Max Verstappen fanclub for a good few years. I’ve never made any bones about it nor attempted to hide my genuine excitement over his talent and potential. But even I had to take a small step back from Brazil. Because while his drive was outstanding, it was also born of the simplicity of common sense. What was surprising to me was not so much what Max was doing, but more what his rivals were not.
It’s something I’ve become used to calling in races as a live report from the track, but when the heavens open Max Verstappen and, if we are to be fair, those of his age group such as Esteban Ocon, tend to prefer to use what I have come to refer to as the wet “karting” lines.
You see, when it rains, the irony is that the last place you really want to be is on the traditional racing line. In dry conditions the racing line is that which becomes “rubbered in,” and thus provides the greatest level of grip. However in the wet this very same line of rubber that provides grip in the dry becomes slippery. As such, the racing line is really the last place you want to be. Yes, it is the shortest route around the track, but in the wet the racing line can also be the trickiest path to tread.
The highest levels of grip in the wet both cornering and under braking can therefore be off the traditional line. Not only does taking these lines thus offer you a better shot at getting the car stopped or putting the power down, but also, as they are off the traditional line, a clearer scope of vision as you pull out of the spray of those ahead.
It really isn’t rocket science. Go to any kart track and watch any competitive kart meet in the rain and you will witness exactly those lines and precisely that technique. It is something you learn from your earliest days in racing. It is something you make use of throughout junior formulae. And yet it is an art that apparently most of the Formula 1 fraternity has forgotten.In my opinion this has, in no small part, been down to the ease with which racing in the rain became over the past few decades. High levels of downforce combined with incredibly efficient rain tyres allowed Formula 1 drivers the ability to stay on the racing line in the wet with only a limited reduction in overall pace due to the grip afforded by these two crucial factors. Today however, those benefits do not exist. Formula 1 cars have but a fraction of the aerodynamic grip of their forerunners and Pirelli’s wet tyres are, to put it politely, less than exquisite.
Sebastian Vettel has labelled Pirelli’s Full Wet tyre the “safety car tyre,” as its only real use in his eyes is to run behind the pace car. It’s why so many drivers risked switching to the Intermediate in the hideous conditions on Sunday. The half-way house tyre provides almost the same level of grip at racing speeds as the Full Wet, which is in itself a damning state of affairs.
Of course the Full Wet is not helped by being run for so long behind the Safety Car. Temperatures and operating pressures drop at such low speeds, meaning the tyre can rarely do its job of dissipating water from the racing line and is then less than at its optimum when racing finally commences. Even at full speed and peak operating conditions, however, the Full Wet tyre seems woefully inadequate for the job at hand.
But, as we regular road users are constantly told, one must drive to the conditions. If the tyres available only offer a small amount of grip, then as the alleged best drivers in the world it is a Formula 1 racer’s job to get the maximum performance from those very same tyres. It is worthy of note that both red flags came about as a result of drivers running on the Full Wet, the first for debris strewn across the track from the wet-shod Raikkonen’s shunt and the second because it was believed that the Full Wets could not handle the weather as it was at the time, despite numerous protestations to the contrary from drivers who understood the mantra of racing to the conditions.
What can we draw from Verstappen’s fine racecraft in Brazil, then? Have Formula 1 drivers, as a collective, forgotten the very basics of driving in the wet? Have they become lazy, expecting to be able to simply forge the simplest, fastest route at all times and in all conditions? Are they so uncertain of their cars or their tyres that they dare not deviate from the racing line?
Or is Max Verstappen a straight up genius?Again, it has gone relatively unnoticed that Esteban Ocon was taking the same lines as Verstappen. This practice frustrated many of those trying to pass his comparatively uncompetitive Manor, but showed again the benefit of attempting either the different or the sensible. For whichever argument you wish to take, the end result is the same.
I am, of course, doing both Verstappen, Ocon and those who attempted those lines and those moves a disservice. We all know that it isn’t as simple as just sticking your car on a different part of the track and suddenly finding grip, speed and a few seconds a lap. If you are going to drive your car off the racing line at 300kph, you need to have bravery, skill, confidence, and not a small amount of luck. You are going to hit standing water. You are not going to find that dry line. You are going to experience far more squeaky bum moments.
Which, I suppose, makes these stand-out drives all the more impressive. For as much as they are born of the application of one of the most basic of racing maxims, they still require a high level of risk and a huge amount of skill to pull off. Even more so to make it look so effortless.
Whether the majority of F1 drivers have become lazy, timid or simply forgetful, thank heavens there remain the extraordinary few who, in their racing adolescence, still remember and still attempt the basics.