Max Verstappen Channels Ayrton Senna with Magical, Wet Brazilian GP Performance

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistNovember 14, 2016

Max Verstappen was relentless in the wet at Sunday's Brazilian Grand Prix.
Max Verstappen was relentless in the wet at Sunday's Brazilian Grand Prix.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Nico Rosberg might win the 2016 Formula One drivers' championship, but even if he does dethrone Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton, the German will only be keeping the seat warm for the heir apparent: Max Verstappen.

In Sunday's rainy Brazilian Grand Prix, the 19-year-old Dutchman (Dutchchild?) demonstrated again and again why he had drawn comparisons to Ayrton Senna, one of the greatest drivers ever, before he had driven his first lap in an F1 car.

With near-zero visibility at Sao Paulo's Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace, Verstappen produced a drive for the ages, looking at one point like he might have a chance to win before settling for third after Red Bull's tyre gamble went bust.

During the endless laps spent behind the safety car, while his competitors channeled Goldilockswith some complaining that the track was too wet and others saying to get on with the raceVerstappen tested his tyres and brakes on various lines.

Sensational passes of Kimi Raikkonen and Rosberg in the first half of the 71-lap race, sandwiched around red flags and those safety-car periods, had the teenager sitting in second place, less than two seconds behind Hamilton.

Verstappen dropped back after nearly spinning into the barriers on the long, sweeping, uphill run at the end of the lap, but he managed to save his car and stay ahead of Rosberg. That salvage manoeuvre was "50-50" luck and skill, he said after the race.

Max Verstappen (left) passes Kimi Raikkonen early in the Brazilian Grand Prix.
Max Verstappen (left) passes Kimi Raikkonen early in the Brazilian Grand Prix.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Those two overtakes alone, on a former and perhaps a future world champion, would have been enough to make Verstappen the star of the grand prix, but there was plenty more to come in a race that always seemed to have just one more twist.

Red Bull called Verstappen into the pits on Lap 43, fitting his car with intermediate tyres in the hope that the track would start to dry out. He dropped to fifth place after the pit stop, but it started to rain harder and Felipe Massa ended up in the wall on Lap 47.

That brought out the safety car yet again, with Verstappen pitting to change back to wet tyres. With everyone bunched behind the safety car, he dropped all the way to 16th with just 16 laps to go when the race restarted.

Cue the Senna-esque magic.

One day, this Sao Paulo race might be spoken about in the same reverent tones as the equally wet 1984 Monaco Grand Prix, when the Paulistano announced his arrival in F1 with a 13th-to-second charge (overtaking Nico Rosberg's father, Keke, along the way), nearly stealing a win from Alain Prost before the race was red-flagged.

Sound familiar?

Ayrton Senna at the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix.
Ayrton Senna at the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix.Mike Powell/Getty Images

Most modern F1 circuits have two or three corners known as the prime overtaking spots on a lap, but there were probably only two or three corners where Verstappen didn't execute a passing manoeuvre on Sunday.

Valtteri Bottas at the Curva do Sol; Daniel Ricciardo, his team-mate, at Merghulo; Daniil Kvyat at Descida do Lago; Esteban Ocon at Bico de Pato; and four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel at Juncao.

Again and again, the young Dutchman showed both supreme confidence and ability, finding lines and grip that his competitors simply could not—or were not brave or inventive enough to try.

"About the line, I think it's just because you can't see where you're going when you just stay behind them, so you try something else and it seemed to work," Verstappen explained, modestly, in the post-race press conference. "The car was working really well also so that helps."

Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff was slightly more effusive in his description of the race, according to Autosport's Ian Parkes. "The Verstappen show!" he said. "It was really unbelievable driving, great entertainment. Physics are being redefined."

With five laps remaining, Verstappen was fourth, and Force India's Sergio Perez was the last man between him and a podium finish.

He dispatched the Mexican on Lap 69 with a move that began at Bico de Pato (Turn 10) and finished at Juncao (Turn 12), while Red Bull team principal Christian Horner cheered him on over the Sky Sports broadcast.

Verstappen already has one victory in his career, earlier this season in Spain, but his performance in Brazil was much more impressive.

In Spain, he drove a solid, mistake-free race and benefited from Mercedes' double retirement and two of his rivalsRicciardo and Vettelbeing placed on non-optimal tyre strategies. In Brazil, he wasn't mistake-free (was anyone?), but he was magnificent.

Rain is an equaliser in F1. When the track is wet, more emphasis is placed on driver skill than engine power or aerodynamic advantage. In those conditions, the best of the best—men like Senna, Michael Schumacher and Gilles Villeneuve—are able to shine through the storm clouds.

"Max says karting in the rain gave him the skills he showed today," tweeted BBC Radio and Sky Sports F1 pundit Mark Gallagher. "Senna took his kart testing whenever it rained. The greats work at it."

The only driver who looked as comfortable as Verstappen in the Sao Paulo rain was three-time world champion Hamilton, who won his 52nd career race with a dominant performance.

Lewis Hamilton leads Max Verstappen at the Brazilian Grand Prix.
Lewis Hamilton leads Max Verstappen at the Brazilian Grand Prix.Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images

Statistically, of course, Verstappen is nowhere near Hamilton or Senna, but the skill he has shown throughout his brief career suggests he has what it takes to become one of the all-time greats.

He still has to develop and refine his skills, and there are other factors that must fall into place, such as finding his way into the right car at the right time (Fernando Alonso can offer some advice on how not to do this). Judging by pure ability, though, what limits would you place on him?

Verstappen's aggressive manoeuvres have made him a polarising figure in the paddock, but some of the criticism also seems tinged with jealousy. He is F1's next big thing, and he has been fast-tracked into one of the sport's top teams. He is also one of the keys to capturing a new generation of fans.

With more performances like his storming comeback in Brazil, he will be impossible to ignore.

          

Matthew Walthert is an F1 columnist for Bleacher Report UK. He has also written for VICEFourFourTwo and the Globe and Mail.

Follow him on Twitter

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