Brazil 2016: Max Verstappen’s Magical Drive in the Wet
Written by Paul O'Grady, Edited by Simran Kanthi
Max Verstappen dominated Formula One in 2022, racking up fifteen victories in a record-breaking season, on his way to a second consecutive world title. After all the superb drives he put in last year, let's revisit a performance that remains to many his finest drive in the sport - Brazil 2016.
Going into the weekend, the penultimate round of the season, Nico Rosberg led the championship standings, with Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton 19 points behind. Between them, Rosberg and Hamilton had won all but two Grands Prix that season, the 2016 Mercedes challenger statistically being the second most dominant car in the history of F1. It looked improbable that Hamilton could win the title - even if he had won the last two races at Interlagos and a week later at Abu Dhabi, Rosberg would likely finish at least second such was the pace advantage the Mercedes enjoyed that year, which would be enough to win the title.
Of the two races Mercedes had failed to win, Red Bull were there to pick up the pieces. Verstappen sensationally announced his arrival at the top echelon of the sport with a breakthrough win in his first race for Red Bull, taking the chequered flag at the Spanish Grand Prix as both the Mercedes crashed out. Despite getting this win early on in the season, Verstappen, rather understandably, given he was thrust into the team unexpectedly, dropped slightly behind team leader Daniel Ricciardo as Mercedes' closest challenger. Indeed it was Ricciardo who claimed victory in Malaysia when again Mercedes ran into trouble.
Verstappen was in his second season in F1 and was already making waves. He had produced a few noteworthy drives in 2015 for Toro Rosso, including a couple of impressive fourth-place finishes in Hungary and at COTA, earning the move to the Red Bull team five races into 2016. Although he started the season with Toro Rosso, Red Bull's management decided to promote Verstappen in favour of Daniil Kvyat, who had struggled at the start of the year. Whilst Ricciardo did have a slight edge on Verstappen throughout 2016, there were signs that both drivers would be evenly matched once Verstappen had gained more experience with his new team.
Now racing at the front, Verstappen had started upsetting his fellow drivers with some aggressive moves and some on-the-limit driving. In the previous Grand Prix in Mexico, Sebastian Vettel became extremely frustrated with Verstappen's driving, swearing over the radio at him and the then-race director Charlie Whiting. Having upset Vettel's teammate Kimi Räikkönen at the Belgian Grand Prix earlier on in the season, it was clear to see that Verstappen was earning a reputation as a rash competitor.
Hamilton, needing to win the race on Sunday, put his Mercedes on pole, with Rosberg lining up second. Their pace advantage was underlined by the 0.7s gap to their closest rival Kimi Räikkönen, with Verstappen just behind in fourth. Vettel was fifth with Ricciardo in sixth, just over a tenth of a second between the two Ferraris and Red Bulls. The rest of the top ten formed with Romain Grosjean in seventh for Haas, the two Force Indias of Nico Hülkenberg and Sergio Perez in eighth and ninth, with Fernando Alonso in tenth. The two drivers racing at their home Grand Prix, Williams' Felipe Massa and Sauber's Felipe Nasr, started 13th and 21st respectively.
One of the most charismatic circuits on the calendar, Sao Paulo's Interlagos has a special kind of atmosphere. The Grand Prix is steeped in F1 folklore and has been the setting for many classic races, some being championship deciders. It was the venue where, in 1991, Ayrton Senna finally won his home Grand Prix amongst emotional scenes in Sao Paulo. Interlagos has also been a track where six drivers' championships have been won, the most recent of which was Sebastian Vettel in 2012 - was there to be another one in 2016?
Interlagos' atmosphere was heightened with the anticipation of a potential title decider, enhanced by rainy conditions which always seem to produce drama. It was exactly what Lewis Hamilton would have wanted - a mixed-up race could see him regain control of the championship. For Nico Rosberg however, he would have started the Grand Prix with anxiety and apprehension - in the fastest car out there, he had the most to lose. On a day when the conditions are tricky, opportunities, especially for the cars closer to the back, arise. It's a day for heroes.
But it is also a day for zeroes. Romain Grosjean did a decent job in Qualifying and should have started 7th in the Haas. However, he crashed on his way to the starting grid and wouldn't start. Such was the intensity of the rain, the race director had no option but to delay the start by ten minutes, sending the cars around behind the safety car.
Conditions were awful and wet tyres were the order of the day. Mixed messages were coming in from the drivers, who of course have different agendas in situations like this. Kevin Magnussen, in 17th and with nothing to lose, claimed over the radio that it was, “easily ready to race.” At the end of lap 7, the safety car came in.
Verstappen dispatched off Räikkönen immediately, with a bold, late-on-the-brakes move into turn 1, as Magnussen's Renault was the first driver to pit, bolting on the intermediate tyres. A raft of other cars would come in for inters over the next few laps, including Jenson Button's McLaren and Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari, but they did not appear to be any quicker than the cars on the full wet tyres.
Back at the front and still, on the wet tyres, Verstappen was keeping pace with the two Mercedes.
On lap 13, Marcus Ericsson aquaplaned on his intermediate tyres, crashing into the barrier in the final corner, leaving his stricken Sauber blocking the pit lane entry and bringing out the safety car. Both Red Bulls tried to squeeze in before the FIA could 'close' the pit lane, but Ricciardo was too late and would later get a 5-second time penalty. Verstappen and Ricciardo both changed onto intermediate tyres, but Verstappen managed to lose only one position, meaning he would be directly behind Räikkönen and the two Mercedes on different tyres. This was potentially the chance he had been waiting for. Sure, the conditions were poor, but if they improved, Verstappen would be on the correct tyre when all three drivers ahead of him would need to pit.
Having spent a few laps behind the safety car, the conditions had significantly worsened, with even Kevin Magnussen now changing his tune, warning “it's too wet, period.” However, the race director Charlie Whiting decided at the end of lap 19 that the race would resume anyway.
Conditions were so bad that Kimi Räikkönen, one of the most experienced and one of the best drivers in those conditions, spun off on the start/finish straight, whilst on wet tyres. A red flag was thrown almost immediately. Due to the nature of the spin and the position on the track, his Ferrari came to rest in the wrong direction on the start/finish straight with cars flying past at 150+ mph. The lack of visibility meant that a head-on collision with one of the oncoming cars was avoided by pure luck.
With Räikkönen now out of the race, the order was as follows: Hamilton, Rosberg, Verstappen, Hülkenberg, Perez, the Toro Rosso of Carlos Sainz, Nasr, and Ricciardo.
After a delay of roughly half an hour, the cars were sent out behind the safety car before being called in again, as the track was deemed far too wet to resume racing. Nico Hülkenberg, running in fourth place and looking like an outside shot for his first podium in F1, got a puncture and had to pit, dropping him out of contention.
After another half-hour delay and three laps behind the safety car, the race was finally back underway. The race resumed on lap 32, with Verstappen instantly pulling off another stunning move, this time around the outside of Nico Rosberg at turn 3. After darting and diving around Rosberg's gearbox looking for grip whilst the safety car was out, it had taken him just a handful of corners to split the Mercedes. He was up into second place.
Verstappen was staying in touch with Hamilton and was around 1.5 seconds adrift. He had a scare on lap 38 however, when he lost control of his Red Bull on the left-handed kink before the start/finish straight. Verstappen had touched the slippery white line on the inside of the corner, sending his car drifting left towards the barrier. Instinctively, Verstappen applied the throttle while he turned right, saving himself from an almost certain DNF. Smelling blood, Rosberg attacked Verstappen as the dutchman tried to get back up to speed, but Verstappen managed to hold him off and retain second place to seal one of the most remarkable saves modern F1 had witnessed.
Verstappen decided to gamble and pitted for inters, but this would prove to be the wrong move. Jenson Button, one of the era's greatest wet weather drivers came back in for wets, claiming it was too wet for inters. Proving this, Massa lost his car in a similar place to where Verstappen made his save, smashing into the barrier and bringing out the safety car, again.
With the slower speeds the cars were achieving under the safety car, and the rain once again getting heavier, Verstappen was on the wrong tyres and had to pit for the full wet tyres. He reluctantly, but sensibly, pitted, dropping him down to 16th place.
Conditions were arguably worse than at any other point during the afternoon, yet the race would resume for a final time with 16 laps to go, with Verstappen eager to make his way back into the points.
On fresh inters, Verstappen began to fly, making up four places in just one lap before pulling off another majestic move around the outside of Valtteri Bottas at turn 3 to put him just behind teammate Ricciardo. All afternoon, Verstappen had taken the outside 'karting' line, in theory much quicker than the normal 'racing' line in the wet, and it was seemingly working for him. He used it masterfully again, swooping past his teammate, and by the end of lap 59 was back into the points in 10th.
Verstappen's supreme feel for the conditions and his outrageous confidence was allowing him to attack drivers at virtually every corner, dispatching off Kvyat, Esteban Ocon's Manor, and Nasr with ease. He was driving in a manner reminiscent of Michael Schumacher at Barcelona in 1996 - he was just in a different league to the cars he was racing. He pulled off another audacious move to pass sixth-placed Nico Hülkenberg, demonstrating just how much grip he had with yet another late lunge. There were five laps to go and thoughts switched to just how far Max Verstappen could progress. Could he finish fourth yet? Surely the podium was too far out of reach.
Next up was Vettel, who Verstappen ruthlessly dispatched, taking the inside line at Junção to leave the Ferrari helpless and on the grass. The move was set up again by Verstappen's apparent abundance of grip, allowing him to find speed where it seemed no one else in the field could. He duly passed Sainz for fourth, setting the fastest lap in the process, two seconds faster than the two leaders. The Dutchman was in the zone.
Sergio Perez was the last man who could deny Verstappen a memorable podium, but the Mexican didn't stand a chance. For the final time, Verstappen pulled off a daring move, moving him up to P3 with two tours of the circuit remaining. Time would run out before he could once again scare Mercedes but it didn't matter. He would finish third behind Hamilton and Rosberg but it felt like a win. His team were ecstatic - during the last safety car period it looked like a podium was impossible, but Verstappen had done it.
Much of the focus in the build-up to and during the Grand Prix was on the title battle between the Mercedes pair of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, but Max Verstappen had stolen the limelight. There was obvious tension between the two title rivals in the cooldown room, but it was largely broken up by Verstappen. The teenager responded enthusiastically to every question, buzzing with adrenaline at what he'd just achieved. Finishing third was about as good a result he could muster in that car, the unexpected nature of it making it sweeter.
Verstappen emerged on to his seventh F1 podium to a heroes' reception, clenching his fist as if he'd won the Grand Prix. The live feed switched to his dad, ex-F1 racer Jos Verstappen, who was now being swamped by interviewers. Although Max Verstappen was already making a name for himself in F1, this felt like concrete evidence he was a special talent.
To put Verstappen's late race charge into context, he rose from 16th to 3rd in 16 laps, while Ricciardo, in the same car and on similarly-worn tyres, could only elevate himself from 12th to 8th. Verstappen would finish ten seconds ahead of his teammate.
Verstappen had won the Spanish Grand Prix earlier on in the season, but this was a far more spectacular drive. The number of places he gained in the closing laps, in the style he did it in, showing so much skill and conviction in his driving, would surely go down in folklore.
Many greats had a breakthrough moment or a special race in the wet where they were simply unbeatable - Senna at Donington 1993, Schumacher at Barcelona 1996, and Hamilton at Silverstone 2008. Brazil 2016 was Verstappen's.
This 19-year-old, in just his 39th Grand Prix, may not have won the race. However, he made it clear that he would be winning plenty in the future.