Max Verstappen's form in Hungary gives hope of a 2019 F1 title duel with Lewis Hamilton
Even if the pole-sitter wins on Sunday, a drivers' title challenge is a tall order – but he will be world champion one day
On a day of history on Saturday it was no surprise that Max Verstappen immediately had his sights set on the next target.
The Red Bull Racing driver clinched the first pole position of his career in a thrilling Hungarian Grand Prix qualifying session. But his focus was immediately on Sunday’s 70-lap race and triumphing at the Hungaroring to build hope that he can wage an unlikely championship challenge in the second half of the season.
“I'm very happy about today, there’s still a race to do and that’s the most important,” the 21-year-old said. “Today was also important – a very nice one and great for the team.”
Verstappen has arguably been the driver of 2019 so far. That may seem a bit harsh on championship leader Lewis Hamilton, who has seven wins to his name from 11 races. But Verstappen, who is the first Dutchman to take pole for a Formula One race, has achieved the absolute maximum from his Red Bull at every grand prix so far this year.
He has humiliated his teammate Pierre Gasly with the gulf in their comparative speed. The gap was 0.9 secs from Verstappen to the Frenchman on Saturday – a huge margin in F1 terms.
Despite starting the season in arguably the third-quickest car, Verstappen has only finished outside the top four in 11 races twice, and there were mitigating circumstance for the two occasions he had to settle for fifth in Canada and Britain. He has won twice in Austria and Germany and got stronger as the season has gone on.
Even if he wins on Sunday a championship challenge is still a tall order, barring Hamilton having a streak of bad luck in his Mercedes-GP after the summer break. But it is already feeling like a case of when Verstappen will become a world champion in the future and not if. It probably won’t be 2019 but it is coming.
In comparison, Hamilton himself has described his early 2019 as “average”. He has won consistently but teammate Valtteri Bottas has beaten him three times in races and out-qualified him four times.
Now this is not to knock him, but you rarely saw past champions such as Ayrton Senna or Michael Schumacher beaten regularly by a teammate – either in qualifying or a race.
Hamilton still has a huge championship advantage, and it is a sign of just how strong a force he is that he has built a lead of 41 points over Bottas and 63 on Verstappen. But Verstappen has demonstrated the consistency of a champion in 2019, and now the pace of one as well as the Red Bull RB15 and its Honda engine has found more performance.
Pole was not easy to come by here. Mercedes-GP and Ferrari were competitive and it needed a stunning final lap of 1 minute, 14.572 seconds to hold off an equally impressive Bottas.
It is all very well having an improving package, but you have to make use of it. Verstappen did that and it now makes for an intriguing Sunday.
Both Bottas and Hamilton, who starts third, spoke confidently after qualifying of their prospects of still being able to win. That will be as much because of Verstappen’s recent history of poor starts.
He cannot afford one on Sunday, no matter how quick he and the RB15 are.
Passing is notoriously difficult at the Hungaroring and track position is key. If Verstappen gets to Turn 1 first, he has a real chance of gaining more in-roads into Hamilton’s title lead.
Saturday was another breakthrough moment on Verstappen’s road to eventual F1 champion status. He handled the pressure of qualifying. We know he can win races already. He has done that seven times.
Triumphing for an eighth time will be the first time he has fully dominated a weekend, and it will be a further sign to Hamilton that he faces a genuine rough ride from his younger rival in the second half of 2019.
Updated: August 4, 2019 08:17 AM