Livescore Thursday, April 25
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Entering the press conference room fresh from his Spanish Grand Prix victory, Max Verstappen was, as has so often been the case in 2023, left waiting for his rivals.

While fellow podium finishers Lewis Hamilton and George Russell were finishing up their TV interviews, Verstappen took a seat at the side of the room. He slid into a classroom chair, typically used for the assembled press, complete with a table that can be pulled across the front.

Verstappen began to fiddle with the table, which wouldn’t budge. “What’s going on with this?” he asked, pulling the arm up and down. The press conference emcee, Tom Clarkson, joked it was the first time all afternoon Verstappen had broken into a sweat, and how it was like being back at school. “Don’t remind me,” Verstappen said, laughing. “It brings back bad memories!”

The small talk continued as they waited a few more minutes, discussing social media, phones, and how Verstappen wished they’d never been invented.

Looking through his notes, Clarkson turned to Verstappen to check a statistic: Was he correct in saying Max had led every single session of the Spanish Grand Prix weekend?

Verstappen took a moment to think. He’d led all three practice sessions, scored pole position, and led every lap of the race on the way to his win. But there was one session missing: “Q1!” Verstappen said, scrunching up his face in a moment of faux annoyance.

It was as close to perfect a weekend as Verstappen could have produced. Had it not been for Pierre Gasly impeding the Red Bull in Q1, it may well have been a clean sweep.

The win strengthened Verstappen’s grip on the championship, extending his lead over teammate Sergio Pérez (who finished fourth after starting P11) to 53 points. But it’s also a sign of the kind of domination we could come to expect in the coming months as Verstappen marches toward a third championship — and hits the part of the season that should really show his strength.

The Pérez threat fades

Rewind a month to the eve of the Miami Grand Prix, and the championship picture didn’t look quite so set.

Yes, Verstappen was leading and the natural favorite for the title. But he was only six points clear of Pérez, who had been a step ahead through the Baku weekend to make it two wins apiece to start the year. A lot of the pre-Miami chatter centered on whether Pérez could make it a real title fight by converting the form that bred his “king of the streets” nickname to more traditional layouts.

Verstappen didn’t dwell on the early losses to Pérez, noting the early run of street or street-style layouts — Jeddah, Melbourne, Baku, Miami and Monaco — weren’t necessarily to his liking. “I personally don’t really enjoy street circuits,” he said ahead of the race in Miami when asked why Pérez had been so strong. “So probably there is also something in that.”

The slow-speed corners found on street circuits play less to one of Verstappen’s biggest strengths, his confidence in the car going through the high-speed corners. His unique driving style flourishes when he can throw the car into the corners with a pointy front-end, possessing enough control to catch the rear on exit. It’s a style less-suited to street tracks, where the margin for error is so much smaller. He’s still very, very good on street layouts, as his Monaco win again proved. But even losing that bid of added comfort or confidence has an impact on reaching the peak levels of performance. For Verstappen, it’s all about seeking perfection.

We saw plainly in Spain last weekend what happens when Verstappen gets everything exactly to his liking. Both the driver and the Red Bull RB19 car are suited to a track like the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, filled with medium- and high-speed corners. Even small factors like the tweak to the Pirelli tire construction for this year, dialing out some of the understeer that wasn’t entirely to Verstappen’s liking, contribute to him operating at such a high level. His tire management, an underrated part of his arsenal, was supreme in Spain. Besides the brief look Carlos Sainz had around the outside at Turn 1 on the opening lap before thinking better of it, Verstappen never once looked at risk.

Canada could be a weekend that brings Pérez back into contention at the front, given the street-esque elements of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. It’ll be an important weekend for him to try and break Verstappen’s stride. Because when we get into the summer swing of the Red Bull Ring, Silverstone, the Hungaroring and Spa-Francorchamps, it will be prime Verstappen territory. Weekends like Spain could become the norm.

Verstappen’s time to shine

“It’s a good period,” Verstappen, by now on the sofa, said in the press conference. “But we have to keep on working and trying to find more performance. I’m happy in the car. And I think the last few race weekends have definitely been a lot more positive for me. But this is one weekend where I think it went really well.”

It’s a season that is already shaping up to surpass the heights of 2022, when Verstappen set new records for race wins (15) and points scored (454) in a single season. Verstappen has five wins from the opening seven. Taking 10 from the final 15, which would match last year’s tally, feels like a conservative estimate.

No, it’s not good news for F1’s competitive picture at the front. Unless Pérez can improve his form fast, this won’t be like the intra-team title fights of Hamilton/Rosberg (2014-16), Vettel/Webber (2010) or Senna/Prost (1988-89).

That does not mean we can’t appreciate the sheer quality of Verstappen right now. Yes, he has the fastest car, which is shaping up to be one of the most dominant in F1 history. But Spain showed the kind of perfection he is capable of producing, and how he is simply on another level to the rest of the field at the minute.

Maybe next time, he’ll top Q1 as well, just for good measure.

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(Lead photo of Max Verstappen: Joan Valls/Urbanandsport /NurPhoto)



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