Last race, Max Verstappen, with his 80th podium finish, leveled with one of the icons of Formula 1: Ayrton Senna. Particularly in the early stages of his career, Verstappen was regularly compared to the Brazilian, including by team advisor Helmut Marko. In an exclusive interview with F1Maximum, analyst Peter Windsor elaborated on the similarities and differences between the two multiple world champions. Verstappen also reminds Windsor of a world champion he himself worked with at Williams.
The former Williams team manager experienced Senna up close, and starts by indicating that it is difficult to compare drivers from different eras: “If you compare him (Max Verstappen, ed.) with Ayrton (Senna, ed.) or with Jim Clark or Jackie Stewart or even with Niki Lauda, then you compare him with drivers who still had to shift manually (with a gear lever, ed.), and who had to use their left foot to clutch and brake with their right foot. That’s why it’s very, very difficult to compare drivers from different eras.”
Windsor does specialize in analyzing the driving styles of different drivers, and the Briton can say something about this: ‘I would say that Max clearly cuts corners shorter than Ayrton. Ayrton was relatively classic in his approach and cut wide corners. Not as wide as Jenson Button, but comparable to, say, David Coulthard. Nigel Mansell, Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, on the other hand, cut the corners much tighter.’
According to Windsor, there are certain characteristics by which you can recognize the top drivers: “Since Tazio Nuvolari and Bernd Rosemeyer, the best drivers have always been able to manipulate the car based on a feeling for what the car is doing at that particular moment, and for what the car is going to do when you steer into a corner. Here, slight changes in the amount of fuel, tire temperature, tire degradation, track temperature, and outside temperature can make a crucial difference in how you operate the brake pedals. Anticipating all these factors and manipulating the car is the hallmark of a great Grand Prix driver, and Max can do that, just like Ayrton Senna could.’
Senna: ‘Maybe it’s not a good thing to do, but that’s just how I drive
Windsor well remembers asking the legendary Senna about one specific characteristic of his driving style. ‘Another point that characterized Ayrton is his unusual way of operating the accelerator pedal, because that was his way of feeling when he could step on the gas. He built up that habit very quickly, tapping the accelerator very lightly and briefly so that he could sense when he could accelerate out of the corner again. That was a bit unnecessary, and I don’t know any other top driver who did this, and I still wonder now if he could have been even better without this habit. I think it may have helped him in the turbo era. Later on he still did, so I asked him about it once, and he said that’s the only way he could sense the right moment (to step on the gas, ed.), and he said, Maybe it’s it’s not a good thing to do, but that’s my way of riding.’
As said, Verstappen will never see action in the cars used in Senna’s time, but Windsor is not the only one who would have liked to see it. “I’d love to see Max working with a manual gearbox, to see how good he would be at downshifting and if he can change gears without using the clutch, all the things the top riders of the day could do. I think he would probably be brilliant, just like Lewis Hamilton.’
I think it would be great to see Max or Lewis or Nigel (Mansell, ed.) or Damon Hill or some other top driver do what Stirling Moss did, or should do, which is to choose his moment when overtaking stragglers. You had to take into account that the straggler might not have seen you or might have seen you, but still didn’t want to give space,” Windsor refers to a time when the blue flags did not yet exist in Formula 1.
The blue flags were introduced in 1995, a year after Senna’s death. “You had to assess the straggler’s personality, and position your car so that the straggler had no choice but to let you pass, and you had to do it at a time when you were causing trouble for whoever you were competing for position with.” . That use of the straggler is part of the art of driving a race car, I think. Of course we don’t have that anymore with the GPS, although we didn’t have a GPS on Friday in Melbourne. I would love to see Max and Lewis work in such an environment, but unfortunately that will never happen.’
Max’s style is reminiscent of another champion
Verstappen has regularly indicated that he does not have one specific driving style, but always adapts to what the car needs. “I think he does have a specific driving style, certainly,” Windsor replies when asked whether it is true that Verstappen does not have a specific driving style. “That could even be the settings of his pedals or the clutch, or how the buttons on the steering wheel are set. It’s always interesting to see those differences per driver, and that comes from the style.’
Windsor does not recognize Verstappen as a more modern version of Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher or Lewis Hamilton, but rather thinks of the 1992 world champion. ‘I think his style is more characterized by his simple approach to racing. He does not allow all external factors to complicate his life or work. The driver closest to that is Mansell, who is very, very similar in his ability to pare things down to the essentials. There’s so much data, now more than ever, so much telemetry, so it’s easy to get confused and overuse the data. A good example of this is Daniel Ricciardo at McLaren, who tried to keep up with Lando (Norris, ed.) By using the data. By doing this he lost his feeling and that which makes him his own. That’s a very easy trap to fall into.’
Where Verstappen excels is braking, Windsor believes: ‘The real trick is to use your left foot to remove understeer from the car, but still not lose a lap time. That’s what Max is very good at, and this is another characteristic of the top drivers. He can very naturally sense what he needs to be fast, and that comes from his simple approach to racing. He knows that if he has to live with understeer to have good traction, he has to accept it. Pérez, on the other hand, may then say that he has good traction, but also understeer, and will ask his engineers to find a solution for the understeer of his car. As a result, it loses its good traction. That has nothing to do with telemetry or data, but with natural aptitude.’
It is therefore no coincidence that the teams Verstappen and Hamilton drive for often achieve good performances, according to Windsor. “I also think that if Max and Lewis drove for AlphaTauri, for example, you will see the car become significantly faster after a month or two. Of course the drivers themselves are faster, but drivers like Max and Lewis will give the engineers completely different feedback, and any change they suggest will improve the car. Many drivers suggest changes that might make the car easier to drive, but not necessarily faster. Drivers are extremely important to a team’s performance. I think it’s important to say because after the races we always hear whole stories, where the driver is never to blame. You always hear that it was a great weekend and the team scored a lot of points, or what problems the drivers encountered, but you rarely hear that a driver could have finished three places higher if he had done a better job.
By: Mark Hanselman (Twitter: @MarkHanselmanF1)