Max Verstappen – Bad press or F1 box office?

SAO PAULO, Brazil – Love him or loathe him, Max Verstappen will be making headlines in Formula One for years to come.

His clash with Esteban Ocon on lap 44 of the Brazilian Grand Prix was remarkable for a number of reasons — not least the irony of it happening on the same circuit that Max’s father Jos infamously took out Juan Pablo Montoya while the Colombian led the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2001. But almost as remarkable was the post-race clash which followed, and the fact it is the only physical altercation of any sort between two Formula One drivers in recent memory. For a sport which sees its competitors perform at peak levels of adrenaline and intensity for over 90 minutes, it is strange F1 does not encounter these sorts of flashpoints more often.

There is the famous image of an apoplectic Michael Schumacher storming down the Spa-Francorchamps pit-lane to the McLaren garage to confront David Coulthard after their collision at the rain-soaked 1998 Belgian Grand Prix. When he arrived at Coulthard’s garage, however, all he could manage was to shout “are you trying to f—ing kill me?” while being restrained by a wall of people intent on stopping the confrontation from becoming more ugly. But that was 20 years ago. Since then, the most noteworthy off-track incidents consist of Nico Rosberg throwing a hat at Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel calling Daniil Kvyat a torpedo and Kevin Magnussen telling Nico Hulkenberg to suck his you-know-whats.

Verstappen has been criticised for what he did after the race in Brazil. Maybe it’s rooted somewhere in motor racing’s origins as a gentleman’s pursuit, but there are a significant number of people who believe he was wrong to act in the way he did afterwards. That’s quite a strange thing, considering many other sports see its competitors shove one another when things get heated — both codes of rugby, football (the sort with the round ball and the one played mainly with hands), ice hockey and basketball, just to name a few. These incidents are usually dealt with accordingly, like the FIA’s handing down of a small punishment to Verstappen, but are just understood as being a natural by-product of sporting competitiveness.

That is not to say F1 should aim to follow the same route as NASCAR, which is on the opposite end of the scale in terms of how often angry drivers square up to one another. It happens so much in that series and often in such an overblown way, that many of the incidents seem forced and the viral clips border on the comedic.

There are definitely questions to be asked about Verstappen’s temperament — he half-jokingly threatened to “headbutt” the next journalist to ask him a difficult question ahead of this year’s Canadian Grand Prix, while he has since admitted he could have “damaged” someone after losing pole in Mexico — but his confrontation with Ocon was a natural reaction to what happened in the race. And it was actually fairly restrained compared to what his post-race radio message suggested he was going to do if he saw Ocon in the paddock.

Some drivers may not have reacted in the same way, but the fact Verstappen did highlights part of why he is such a fascinating, flawed character. Verstappen right now shows flashes of Lewis Hamilton ten years ago — outrageously gifted at such a young age, but unpredictable and highly-strung. Although Hamilton was never involved in a physical altercation with another driver, like Verstappen the complexity of his character meant he was compelling to watch from the moment he joined the grid.

As it only has 20 drivers, F1 lacks the variety of characters other sports enjoy. It’s about to lose one of its most popular, Fernando Alonso, next year, but while there is a generational sea-change happening, not all of the youngsters coming through have the same appeal as Verstappen. Compare the Dutchman to the bland Stoffel Vandoorne or the uncontroversial Charles Leclerc, for example. In fact, take Verstappen and Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo away from the sport, and F1’s biggest characters have all been knocking around for a decade or more.

The great thing about Verstappen, of course, is that he is as good on the track as he is interesting off it. His drive up until lap 44 in Brazil proved that, and the Ocon clash robbed him of what would have been the hallmark performance of his career so far.

At a time when F1 is trying to reach a wider and younger audience, it should be grateful it has a character around like the young, unpredictable Dutchman. People should get used to how he is, too — he’s going to be around for quite some time.