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Max works wonders in the wet

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DUTCH dynamo Max Verstappen delivered a masterclass in the rain at the German Grand Prix, as PETER COSTER reports:

THE brilliance of Max Verstappen was demonstrated before a wheel had turned in the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim.

When it was put to former world champion Nico Rosberg that Verstappen’s position on the front row was because of a better performing Honda engine, he disagreed.

No, it was down to SuperMax, said the former Mercedes driver. Verstappen went on to prove it in winning the German GP.

The Dutch driver followed up his win in the dry at the Austrian Grand Prix by his back-to-back victory in the wet at the Hockenheimring.

“It’s something you learn over the years,” said Verstappen. The comment was not tongue in cheek.

Verstappen may be 21, but he started racing karts at the age of four and was the youngest driver to start in a Grand Prix when he drove for Toro Rosso at the Australian Grand Prix at the age of 17. He has now won seven GPs.

Would he be in front of five-times world champion Lewis Hamilton if he were driving a Mercedes?

Rosberg asked the question on YouTube as he was flying out from the airport at Frankfurt. The answer from a world-wide audience was “Yes” and Rosberg, who won the world drivers’ championship in a Mercedes in 2016, agreed.

Verstappen is only 22 points behind Valtteri Bottas and 63 points behind Hamilton in a car in which he has so little faith that he has an escape clause in his contract with Red Bull if it underperforms.

The Honda engine is still well short of Mercedes and Ferrari and it is Verstappen who makes the difference.

At the Hockenheimring, SuperMax delivered a masterclass in wet weather driving. He spun early in the race after the team put him on slicks when he should have been on intermediates, but laughed it off, saying, “I did that 360 for the crowd.”

While Verstappen stayed on the circuit, others, including Hamilton and Bottas slid into the barriers. Hamilton continued with a new front wing, finishing 11th and promoted to ninth after the two Alfa Romeos were penalised for clutch infringements.

Hamilton said he wasn’t feeling well before the race, which was put down to “man-flu,” while Bottas slid off the track when he was within sight of third place on the podium.

This enraged Mercedes owner and team boss Toto Wolff, normally mild-mannered in a crisis, who pounded the pit table with his fist.

This outburst further fuelled the rumour that Bottas is unlikely to be signed for next season, a decision Wolff has already said will be made in the next two weeks.

A seat in a Mercedes was what Daniel Ricciardo was hoping for this season after Red Bull said it was building its team around Verstappen.

The Australian signed on the rebound with Renault, which has not delivered the pace he might have expected.

Further to his frustration, Renault driver Nico Hulkenberg was in fourth place and likely to give Renault its best result before he slid off on a section of the track where the run-off area is used as an ice-skating rink in the off season.

The German driver, who has the unenviable record of 169 GP starts without a podium finish, was running second earlier in the race.

Ricciardo’s day finished earlier when his Renault emitted a cloud of black smoke, which turned out to be an exhaust leak.

This season saw Ricciardo turn 30 while Verstappen and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc are the best of the new generation of drivers at 21.

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There has been talk of Sebastian Vettel, who is 32, retiring from Ferrari at the end of this season and opening the door for Ricciardo.

However, the four-times world champion will have been revitalised by his charge from 20th on the grid at Hockenheim to second after a turbo failure in qualifying.

After all, Hamilton is 34 and heading towards his sixth world championship.

Wolff, after losing interest in signing 30-year-old Ricciardo last year, is now focusing on Verstappen, who has that escape clause in his contract with Red Bull.

Why was Verstappen so dominant in the wet?

Put that down to Jos “the Boss” Verstappen, the former Formula One driver, who insisted his son practise driving in the wet when he was still wet behind the ears.

Seven drivers retired at Hockenheim, a race best described by Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat, who finished third behind the fast-finishing Vettel.

“It was a horror movie with a bit of black comedy,” said the Russian driver, who gave Red Bull’s junior team only its second podium finish.

“It was an incredible roller coaster, a bit like my whole career.”

Kvyat was dropped by Red Bull after driving alongside Daniel Ricciardo in 2015 and 2016. He finished third in the Chinese Grand Prix and spent 2018 as a development driver for Ferrari before being re-signed by Toro Rosso for 2019.

What Hockenheim has proved at the midpoint of the season is that the fans want the sound of F1 as well as the fury.

The crowd thrilled to the sound of a screaming V-10 engine in Michael Schumacher’s old Ferrari, the one in which he won the seventh of his world championships.

The Ferrari F2004 was driven by his son, Mick, who won last year’s European F3 championship and hopes to follow his father into F1.

Pulling a shrieking 18,000 revs, the Ferrari made the cars of today sound like buzz boxes.

At only some 12,000 rpm, the hybrids now on the Grand Prix circuits were a great disappointment to the late chairman of the Australian Grand Prix Corporation, Ron Walker.

They just didn’t sound like GP cars said big Ron, who often puffed on a Cuban cigar while sitting behind the pits with diminutive F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone. They were the days.

Formula One is to undergo major changes in 2021 that might bring the sound as well as the sight back to motor racing’s elite formula.

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Author: Peter Coster

PETER COSTER is a former editor and foreign correspondent who has covered a range of international sports, including world championship fights and the Olympic Games.

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