By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – Red Bull’s Max Verstappen is a Formula One champion-in-waiting but he showed in Sunday’s Brazilian Grand Prix that he still has much to learn, according to Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff.
The 21-year-old Dutch driver and Force India’s Esteban Ocon, 22, provided the main talking point after the youngsters clashed on and off the track at Interlagos.
Verstappen pushed and shoved the Force India backmarker at the scales, the images broadcast around the world, after a collision that robbed him of a second successive victory.
“On Max, you can see there is a future champion coming together,” Wolff told reporters.
“Unbelievable talent and speed and I think once the raw edges are off he will be somebody that will be a world champion one day.
“In a few years he will look at the footage of today and will maybe have his own opinion whether that was the right behaviour or not. But you can’t accelerate these things, this is a learning process.”
Already this season Verstappen has had to fend off questions about why he has had so many accidents, while Ocon’s record is hardly blemish-free either after well-chronicled clashes with Force India team mate Sergio Perez.
Sunday’s incident drew a range of opinion, with some feeling Verstappen went too far by laying hands on a rival while others saw the Dutchman as justifiably angry at paying the price for another driver’s mistake.
Ocon, backed by champions Mercedes who see him as a talent for the future, was widely criticised for a risky move in trying to pass the leading car when already lapped. He was handed a 10-second stop/go penalty at the time.
Verstappen, subsequently ordered to do two days of public service as punishment for the pushing, could equally have given the Frenchman a wider berth and kept his eyes firmly on the bigger prize of victory.
Lewis Hamilton, delighted to be gifted the lead and ultimately the win for Mercedes while Verstappen finished second and was named ‘Driver of the Day’, reminded him of that as they were waiting to go on the podium.
“He is allowed to unlap himself… you had more to lose than he did. He had nothing to lose,” the five-times world champion, who had already wrapped up this year’s title, pointed out.
The Briton later told reporters: “You make sure there’s space. You always make sure there’s space.”
Damon Hill, the 1996 world champion and Sky Sports pundit, felt neither was blameless.
“Clearly Ocon should not have got himself in a tangle situation with the race leader,” he told motorsport.com.
“But Max diced with him, instead of going, ‘What is this guy playing at? He’s going to be difficult,’ and waiting for a slightly less risky opportunity.
“I don’t want to be critical of Max. It won’t make a difference anyway, because he will continue to take risks and drive the way he drives, but he will learn. And eventually he will drive like Lewis has learned to drive now.”
On a scale of fisticuffs, Sunday’s incident ranked among the milder ones.
There was rather more drama in 1993 when Brazil’s late triple champion Ayrton Senna famously struck out at rookie Eddie Irvine at Suzuka after the Northern Irishman had the temerity to pass him after being lapped.
Another Brazilian, Nelson Piquet, also a triple champion, kicked out and punched Chilean Eliseo Salazar on the helmet after they stepped out of their cars following a 1982 German Grand Prix collision.
In 1998 Michael Schumacher, then still five titles short of his record seven, angrily confronted McLaren’s David Coulthard after having a wheel ripped off his Ferrari in a smash between the two.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ken Ferris and Pritha Sarkar)