Max Verstappen‘s electric ability to handle a Formula 1 car, utmost confidence in his abilities and middle-finger raising attitude are what make him one of the biggest stars in all of motorsport.
But each combined to see pole position snatched from him at the Mexican Grand Prix – and rightly so.
Verstappen set not one, but two laps good enough for P1 at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, but was lumbered with a fourth-place start instead after admitting he had not lifted off the accelerator when passing the stricken Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas and the accompanying yellow flags at the final corner of the circuit.
The reasoning for these rules need little explanation. Drivers are required to slow down when a hazard is on the track to protect themselves, marshals, fans and any other personnel near to the track.
Verstappen thought himself above the regulations, something made clear by him keeping his foot to the floor when passing Bottas’ car and his comments after the incident.
After admitting he had not lifted off, Verstappen seemed to dismiss the dangerous nature of the incident when he said: “Delete my lap. The other lap was fine. Do we have to go there? To safety? I think we know what we are doing – otherwise we would not be driving an F1 car. It’s qualifying and, yeah, you go for it.”
FIA llama a declarar a Verstappen por lo que ha dicho en rueda de prensa. Dijoq vio el accidente y que “parece que no levanté, no”.
Verstappen to report to FIA about his answer on FIA press conference. pic.twitter.com/OIlIQwpYH8
— Albert Fabrega (@AlbertFabrega) October 26, 2019
Of the other 10 individuals on the track that “knew what he was doing”, the one who had been the best in class a fortnight ago was the one planted into the barriers.
Mistakes happen for every driver, and experience is no gateway to bending the rules to suit any argument.
Bizarrely, Verstappen’s blasé take on the incident may have played the crucial role in seeing him punished.
It was immediately clear that Verstappen had improved his lap time after passing yellow flags as he knocked more than a tenth off his initial Q3 effort to clock 1:14.758 – a new lap record in Mexico City.
However, the FIA’s initial response was that Verstappen would not be investigated due to his relevant mini-sector time not improving.
Not improving does not mean driving at full power and the question must be asked whether Verstappen would have gotten away with dangerous driving had he not admitted in in a public forum.
The ‘let them race’ mentality of new race director Michael Masi is to be applauded in many instances, but if it is resulting in a lack of thoroughness then perhaps a rethink is in order.
Verstappen’s comments and attitude to the incident also left a sour taste in the mouth.
The 2019 season is one that has been touched by the ultimate tragedy following Anthoine Hubert’s death at the Belgian Grand Prix weekend and Juan Manuel Correa’s gruelling rehabilitation from the injuries sustained in that crash will serve as regular reminders of how paramount driver safety is.
For Verstappen to suggest, whether intentionally or not, that he is above regulations put in place to preserve the health of himself and his fellow drivers is misguided at best and reckless at worst.
The 17G impact of Bottas’ crash was obvious when the Finn was heard gasping for breath over team radio after getting caught in the barriers at Turn 17 and thudding front-end-first into a protruding section of tyre barrier – another question mark for the FIA.
Although the speeds in this section of track may not be the highest on the calendar, had Bottas’ car been impacted again, another serious incident could have been on the cards.
In a season that has rightly seen his growing maturity hailed, this incident sees Verstappen’s soaring stock take a significant hit.