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Verstappen’s Championship drive in Montreal

Verstappen’s Championship drive in Montreal

FORMULA ONE: Nine-tenths of a second has never looked so comfortable, but Max Verstappen made his defence against the faster Carlos Sainz look easy in a masterful victory at the Canadian Grand Prix last Sunday (June 19).

By Michael Lamonato

Thursday 23 June 2022, 09:30AM

Max Verstappen with the winner’s trophy after his Canadian Grand Prix victory last Sunday (June 19). Photo: AFP

Max Verstappen with the winner’s trophy after his Canadian Grand Prix victory last Sunday (June 19). Photo: AFP

Verstappen is in full championship mode. We’re nine rounds into the 2022 F 1 season and there’s little doubt with whom the campaign momentum rests. The reigning world champion has extended his points lead for the last six races and now sits 46 points clear atop the standings, perilously close to two clear race victories with almost half the season gone.

Victory in Montreal was the Dutchman’s fifth in six rounds and sixth for the season. He’s yet to finish a race off the podium.

It’s true to say that his lucrative championship charge has come at the same time Ferrari has suffered the worst of its power unit issues, with Charles Leclerc twice retiring from the lead in the last four races and starting from the back of the grid with a new motor in Montreal.

Sergio Perez also retired in Canada after just seven laps with gearbox trouble, muting his unexpected recent title tilt.

But even these incidents can’t explain away the rate of knots at which Verstappen is pulling away at the head of the field. Perez and Leclerc, 46 and 49 points adrift respectively, have the same number of retirements as the Dutchman, with two apiece.

This isn’t a story of reliability or pure car speed. Verstappen is making the difference, as his Canadian Grand Prix-winning performance attests.

Red Bull Racing didn’t have the fastest car in Canada, just as it hasn’t for most of the season, but a masterful display of wet-weather driving squeezed the maximum from the RB18 to deliver Verstappen pole ahead of Fernando Alonso and outside title hopeful Carlos Sainz by more than 0.7 seconds.

In gloriously dry conditions he turned that one-lap performance into race-long domination.

But this wasn’t domination in the typical sense. Verstappen never led Sainz, his afternoon-long pursuer, by more than 10 seconds, and even when his advantage was at its largest around the pit stops he was being reeled in by the chasing Spaniard in his faster Ferrari.

And then their strategic duel turned into a 15-lap battle after a late-race safety car. Sainz had lost track position but had gained fresher tyres, and when the pace car returned to pit lane and the race resumed, the faster Ferrari immediately began harassing the leader.

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Corner after corner and lap after lap Sainz tested and prodded Verstappen’s defences, but the Dutchman seemingly effortless absorbed every advance. His positioning through the hairpin leading onto the long back straight was centimetre perfect to neutralise Sainz’s straight-line speed, leaving the Ferrari tantalisingly short of runway to try a late-braking move into the final chicane.

Every blow was parried until Sainz’s tyres lost their edge. His winning margin was just 0.993 seconds - perfectly judged and never really in doubt.

That’s no slight on Sainz, who enjoyed his best weekend of the season, as was clear by his aggression late in the race. It’s just recognition of the reality that Verstappen is operating on such a high level that he’s taken the season completely into his own hands.

The Dutchman hasn’t necessarily got quicker year on year - in fact this season’s Red Bull machine is a lesser match with his driving style compared to last year, muting some of his strengths - but whereas aggression had been his trademark in previous campaigns, this year it’s his composure.

True, he’s no longer locked in career-defining toxic title fight with a seven-time champion, but having deposed the establishment last season, his self-assuredness in the car this year is clear.

Even when he’s been flustered by technical problems or bad luck - his radio outbursts in Spain were a reminder of the hot-headedness that used to be his calling card - it no longer translates into petulance on the track, where control is now overwhelmingly defines his craft.

It made the difference in Canada, and it’s been making the difference all season.

Ferrari has problems with reliability and at some tracks problems with speed. But its biggest problem is Max Verstappen, and its challenge is to break his seemingly impervious title defence. And it needs to do so as soon as possible.

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