IN THE DRIVER'S SEAT

Verstappen's victory overshadows a forgettable Mercedes clash

So which was more crucial to the drama of a gripping Spanish GP on Sunday afternoon - the fact that the two Mercedes collided so spectacularly within four corners of the start, or that Max Verstappen beat Ferrari on his debut with Red Bull to become Holland's first grand prix winner and the youngest man ever to achieve such success?

Clearly the latter would not have happened without the former, but history is more likely to remember the breakthrough victory for a teenager - 18 years, seven months and 16 days old - who has a massive future ahead of him, on the very weekend upon which he so surprisingly found himself taking over the seat of stablemate Daniil Kvyat.

The Russian was in disgrace after his crash with Sebastian Vettel in Sochi just a fortnight ago after being the hero of China after his podium finish there.

Like Vettel's victory for Toro Rosso at Monza in 2008, Verstappen's triumph will long be recorded as a turning point in an already superbly promising career. Even when he was born, on Sep 30, 1997, seasoned pundits predicted great things for him if he should ever take up racing.

It wasn't just that his father Jos was a Formula One racer of note; his mother Sophie Kumpen was a renowned kart driver who, in her time, had taken the scalps of future F1 race winners such as Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen.

The FIA race stewards had access to all the relevant data and thus ruled - wisely - that it really was just a racing incident that did not merit penalties for either driver, that Rosberg's loss of power unfortunately coincided with Hamilton's enforced lunge and that their convergence was just one of those things.

The surprise success was precisely what F1 needed, an injection of pure excitement which lasted the entire race as Verstappen won his spurs under the most intense pressure from veteran Kimi Raikkonen, the Iceman in his scarlet Ferrari. Arguably, it was the most enthralling grand prix of the last decade.

At Mercedes, things were decidedly less rosy than they were at Red Bull, and for good reason. The German manufacturer goes racing to win, not to see its drivers colliding so dramatically and throwing away 43 crucial world championship points.

On the face of it, it seemed like a racing incident, albeit perhaps triggered by Lewis Hamilton's impetuosity after he had lost the advantage of a pole position to team-mate Nico Rosberg.

Hamilton, having seen Rosberg beat him into Turn 1, was gathering momentum fast though Turn 3 and preparing to strike going on to Turn 4, but arrived at a point virtually alongside Rosberg just at the moment when the German moved right to occupy the same piece of road. Cue one silver car spinning down the grass, before taking out its sister.

Hamilton, critics suggested, was coming apart after all his recent mechanical problems.

As is often the case, however, the truth is often less prosaic and not always what it might seem when the human eye tries to take in bare facts.

It transpired that Rosberg had forgotten to switch his car to the correct engine mode on the grid. There had been sufficient power to get it off the line because that's still an automatic process, but as he powered up the rise to Turn 3, his powertrain was lowering its horsepower considerably as it went into energy-harvesting mode.

The FIA race stewards had access to all the relevant data and thus ruled - wisely - that it really was just a racing incident that did not merit penalties for either driver, that Rosberg's loss of power unfortunately coincided with Hamilton's enforced lunge and that their convergence was just one of those things.

Interestingly, Hamilton made one comment that seemed a little at variance with the findings.

"I was coming through Turn 3, and he derated - basically, he made a mistake starting with wrong engine settings," Hamilton said.

"Meaning he lost about 180 horsepower. I was catching, and he wasn't on the racing line.

"He was just on the inside, one step to the right. And I went for the gap there. As a racing driver, when you are going 17 kmh faster, you go for the gap."

Rosberg, denying that he was looking down while he pressed a button to reset his engine, said: "I was fully concentrated on the battle with Lewis. I was well aware of where he was all the time. I was fully aware of the battle."

Doubtless there will be further fallout within the team from this latest incident, but the good news is that both drivers remain free to race one another. For that we should all be grateful.

Just as we should be that, in Verstappen, F1's new 'star of the future' has arrived much earlier than expected.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2016, with the headline 'Verstappen's victory overshadows a forgettable Mercedes clash'. Print Edition | Subscribe