For all Mercedes dominance last season, including a third consecutive constructors world title and a maiden world title victory for Nico Rosberg, somehow you feel Red Bull still managed to pick up as many column inches, thanks largely to the further development of their young rising star Max Verstappen.
Verstappen started the season at sister team Toro Rosso, but thanks to a couple of Daniil Kvyat errors early on, was promoted to a Red Bull driver for the 5th race. Red Bull driver then turned into youngest ever race winner at just 18, and the script of his rise to eventually being the youngest ever world champion seemingly moved on a couple of chapters. There’s no denying the young Dutchman has the potential to go on to great things, his drive in Brazil where a strategy error left him out of position showed his unbelievable ability in both overtaking and in handling wet conditions, but to imply he is the finished article at present feels a bit wide of the mark.
Verstappen’s victory which gained him the prize of the youngest ever race winner was one that relied on quite a lot of good fortune. This is not to say that it didn’t require composure and defensive driving well beyond his years as well, but he certainly didn’t dominate the race, reliant as he was on firstly both Mercedes taking each other out of the race at turn 4, and secondly strategy errors for both Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel, who would have finished in front had they mirrored the Dutchman’s one stop.
However, racing fans and marketing folk alike are loving this breath of fresh air that the aggressive, unapologetic Dutchman provides, and if he continues to improve at the rate at which he has, he could well go on to dominate the sport for years to come, if and when he does realise his dream of a world title.
With all the acclaim that Verstappen has received though, it has apparently been easy for some to forget about the man in the other side of the garage. Daniel Ricciardo, a multiple race winner, is one the finest all round drivers in the sport and has the potential to be a world champion himself. It is easy to assume that 2016 was the making of Verstappen, but due to the praise the Dutchman received it is worth noting Ricciardo outperformed Verstappen 11-6 in qualifying, 10-7 in races and by 220 points to 191 during their time together. For Red Bull to put their weight behind, or at least favour Verstappen due to his growing reputation, would be showing Ricciardo a great disservice.
Questions were already being asked by the Australian at times last season as to why certain strategy calls had been made, Red Bull risk upsetting and losing one of the most talented drivers on the grid if they let the Verstappen hysteria get out of control and impact on their running of the team. It does however remain one of the most compelling and closely matched inter-team battles heading into the new season, and with another year under his belt, you feel Verstappen could get even closer to the Australian, and with both being exceptional wheel to wheel racers, sparks could fly.
From a team point of view, Red Bull would have been pleased with their recovery in 2016, but hugely disappointed with the way the season began. Verstappen’s victory in Spain was their only podium in the first 8 events, simply not good enough for a team used to winning races. After which though followed a far improved 12 podiums in 14, the gap certainly seemed to close to Mercedes as the season progressed, and in several races they at least put pressure on the championship leaders.
Red Bull will hope with regulation changes for the new season that the gap can close further still and more regular race wins will be on the cards, but Christian Horner has already expressed his concern that the changes will have minimal impact. A lot then will depend on how the Renault engine compares to its Mercedes counterpart. Red Bull will believe they still have the superior chassis, and if Renault can provide a package even close to Mercedes, that it may well be enough for a title push. They just can’t allow their rivals to have the sort of head start they afforded them in 2016, Mercedes have shown they don’t need any extra assistance.