Max Verstappen's extraordinary lap at Suzuka
Published on 30 January 2024 by FORMULE 1 Magazine
September 2023 is a month of extremes for Max Verstappen, with a record at Imola, a tropical nightmare and an phenomenal performance on hallowed Japanese racing grounds. “It takes your breath away when you watch a lap like that.”
If necessary, Max Verstappen delivers to order: You ask, we deliver. “There you have it, a 1:28,” is the first thing the reigning World Champion says to Gianpiero ‘GP’ Lambiase over the board-radio at a quarter past four on Saturday afternoon. His race engineer told him prior to qualifying that a lap time in the 1:28s on the Suzuka International Racing Course should be possible. And Verstappen, who doesn’t back away from a challenge, is more than happy to take on this one. “I had already driven a low 1:29 on the lap before, so it had to be possible,” he says calmly after his phenomenal final qualifying lap.
The lead to the first pursuer, Oscar Piastri, is half a second. Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez takes almost a second longer to complete his fastest lap, an eternity in Formula 1. “Max’s first sector was out of this world,’ says Helmut Mark, Red Bull’s senior advisor. “Really incredible. I’ve rewatched the lap, it can’t get any better.” After qualifying, Max’s manager Raymond Vermeulen jokingly says that the young Dutchman showed ‘who’s boss’.
About who’s boss are no misunderstandings, Verstappen doesn’t need the 5807 meters long extraordinary lap to show that. He is the man with the most status, and not just because of his world titles. But because he does things in a racing car that experts have never seen before in the past. He keeps on surprising and amazing the Formula 1 fans, also by the apparent ease with which he pushes boundaries under great pressure. His colleagues never hesitate to express their respect. “Max is Max,” laughs Lando Norris, a competitor but also friend of Verstappen.
Check Max's pole position lap at Suzuka: https://youtu.be/tm8FFbIHnPk
Qualifying is art. Not everyone can do it, some drivers master that discipline better than racing. They’re the so-called one-lap wonders: amazing over one lap, but relatively invisible on Sunday afternoon. A well-known example of that is Jarno Trulli. Verstappen now manages both skills down to the last detail. In Suzuka he takes pole for the 29th time, which puts him in the top 10 of all time. Lewis Hamilton tops that list, and is still untouchable with 104 pole positions on his name.
In Monaco earlier this year, Max has shown that he has a magical qualifying gift. There was a great disbelief when he set an almost impossible time in the final sector and stayed ahead of Fernando Alonso. These are the gems that fans enjoy. And in Suzuka he adds another one, according to Karun Chandhok. The Indian, former Formula 1 driver and currently analyst for the British Sky Sports, was almost speechless on Saturday afternoon. He lacks superlatives to explain Verstappen’s performance. “I just tweeted about it, because it was one of the best qualifying laps ever in Formula 1,” Chandhok says. “Together with Damon [Hill] I rewatched the onboard twice. The judgment, the beautiful balance with which he steers the car into the corners, and how he plays with the brakes… It was like watching Michael Schumacher when he took pole here in 2004.”
Laps like Verstappen’s on a warm Saturday afternoon in Suzuka are rare, says Chandhok. According to him, the lap is comparable to the one of Ayrton Senna in Monaco (1988) and Lewis Hamilton in Singapore (2018). “Drivers who are completely one with the car, the synergy. Fascinating to see. It just takes your breath away when you watch a lap like that. Verstappen has the speed, we all know that. But it’s also about the feeling. And contrary to what many people thing, Max is not an aggressive driver at all, but very smooth. A racing car is not designed for a particular driver, but it’s designed to drive as fast as possible. And this car just completely suits Max’s driving style. This lap was pure perfection.”
It wasn’t that perfect, according to Verstappen himself. The 1:28 was not a bet with Lambiase, he says, but a goal. “GP said: it would be nice if you drove a 1:28. To which I replied: well, let’s go for it. I knew there was still some room for improvement, we were already close to that time in the previous lap.” Max himself doesn’t think that he came close to perfection, or that he has never before driven such an extraordinary lap, as Chandhok claims he did. “Then he might be a bit blind,” Verstappen counters. “I’ve done that before. But there’s no such thing as the perfect lap.”
False modesty? Anyone who knows Verstappen a little, knows that he’s not like that. He strives for perfection, but is self-critical and always looks for areas for improvement. “If Max doesn’t believe that this was a sensational lap, it only shows how much room he probably still has to surprise us even more. It was an amazing lap. If you are eight tenths faster than your teammate, half a second faster than the number two, and you don’t think that that’s very special, the entire field should be afraid,” Will Buxton, host of F1TV, thinks.
“The real wow laps,” the Buxton continues, “are usually the ones where drivers have to push and go over the limits. Lewis was simply shaking back in 2018, in Singapore, because he had surprised himself so much that it scared him. Maybe Max is still waiting for that round to recognize that he has done something exceptional. Perfection may be something normal for him: it’s about your own point of reference. But if perfection is normal, what seems to be the case with Max, what is exceptional? What is extraordinary, if perfection is the norm? That’s the question. But if this lap at Suzuka doesn’t excite you, my goodness…” Buxton sighs, “then a lap that does excite him must be absolutely insane.”
The question is, where does it end? And whether it actually ends. “That depends on Max,” Will Buxton concludes. “When he decides it’s time, and when he has had enough. I hope that at least that will take a while.”
Verstappen and Red Bull’s RB19 have been a deadly combination in 2023. Hamilton and co already openly fear a repeat in the 2024-season. Boring? Don’t say that. “I live in the now, in the moment. Enjoy, I’d say. There have been more periods of total dominance: think of Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton… Afterwards we always look back at it and think of how beautiful it was. I do that too. And for now, I enjoy this era.”