Max Verstappen’s record-breaking 14th win of the 2022 Formula One season was something he talked about after his ninth.
“Not just today, I think I’m always good on tyres,” said Verstappen at the Belgian Grand Prix when asked how well he managed his Pirellis in an extended opening stint on soft tyres.
“Maybe people don’t look at it.”
Just as that victory at Spa required a gentle touch to negotiate the switches and make a one-stop strategy work effectively, so did his win at last weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix.
The implication of Verstappen’s response at Spa was obvious, that when the likes of Sergio Perez and Lewis Hamilton are hailed as tire whisperers, Verstappen’s own abilities in this regard are underestimated.
However, he was right. Verstappen’s headline qualities are his speed and aggression. But he’s a much more sophisticated driver.
Tire management is one of Formula 1’s unsexy skills and can sometimes be dismissed as a particularly negative aspect of ‘modern Formula 1’ – as if it had never been a factor in years past.
It’s a crucial skill. And it’s no coincidence that the same drivers excel in this area – certainly Verstappen among them.
Verstappen’s tire management has won him races before. His first win in Spain in 2016 on his Red Bull debut is a popular example. In Austria in 2018 he rode cleverly, lifting slightly through the high-speed corners to put a little less energy into them and avoid the bladder problems that befell his then-teammates Ricciardo and Hamilton. That year he also wiped out Ricciardo in Mexico, where he has now won four times, by making a full pit stop despite managing his lap times and tires after taking the lead at the start.
This year has provided various case studies. If there’s a specific ‘modern F1’ specific requirement, it’s that the Pirelli’s working range requires the tires to be fitted carefully or they won’t last as long as they should.
Anyone who really has it down has a wonderful sensitivity. They feel the hoop under them and usually know how hard they can push without taking it too far. At the same time, if they get into a tire fight, they can get it back on track.
This helped Verstappen win the United States Grand Prix, for example, where after losing time on his pit stop, he had to work the tires harder than he was comfortable running in the dirty air of Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari and then overtaking him .
By his own admission, “I damaged my tires a little too badly initially with this new set of tyres” and that meant Verstappen had to be cautious in his pursuit of Hamilton to get the tires back. Which he did, and then he pushed and then he caught Hamilton and then he passed him to win.
Verstappen has more patience than he’s given credit for in certain scenarios, aided by the growing confidence he has that the car will have enough pace once the tires are where they need to be. This is also the case in Mexico, a race that requires a lot of discipline.
While the soft-medium strategy didn’t seem seriously on many people’s radar, Red Bull were confident it was possible because they had two drivers capable of making it work.
While Verstappen occasionally looked vulnerable to Hamilton’s chasing Mercedes, he always managed to keep him at bay. “I never really felt under pressure, I just checked my tires to get through so many laps,” he said.
When Verstappen had a good idea of what the softs could endure, he pushed to extend his lead to over two seconds and that gave him a buffer when the tires fell off right at the end of the stint. But he had done enough to make the long term realistic on media.
“It was still a question mark,” Verstappen said, but within a few laps he felt he had to reach the end. what he did
It was a performance against Mercedes’ initial expectations but in line with Verstappen’s ability not to abuse the tire and therefore another example of what Red Bull team boss Christian Horner believes Verstappen has been “masterful” this year.
“When you see him playing with the tools that are available to him in the car, he’s constantly on top of them,” Horner said.
“You can hear the banter between him and his engineer and he has a tremendous sense of what the tires need and don’t need and it’s something he’s developed.
“He’s always been strong at it, but I think this year he’s been exceptional.”