Max’s missing piece: Can Verstappen conquer his Albert Park hoodoo?

It’s not just home-grown stars Daniel Ricciardo and Mark Webber who have a gaping hole in their F1 CVs. They’ve never managed to stand atop the podium at their home grand prix, but they’re not the only big names missing an Albert Park trophy in their cabinet. It’s a reality, too, for the sport’s brightest star, two-time world champion Max Verstappen. And, with each passing year, it’s a stat that grows in significance.

While the Dutchman is flying, the pressure is rising. Last year’s Australian Grand Prix, the third race of the season, was a horror show for Verstappen as he retired after 38 laps when his overheated engine failed. But it’s been smooth sailing and largely one chequered flag after another since. The most dominant driver of the past two F1 seasons, highlighted by a stunning 15 race wins last year, Verstappen is at very short odds to take Red Bull to the top for a third straight year.

And all of this only adds to the intrigue of what will unfold on Melbourne’s road circuit across two hours and through 58 laps on Sunday.

Verstappen’s motorsport story is intertwined with Australia. Albert Park was the scene of the season-opening race in 2015 when the Dutchman, born with motor oil in his veins – his mother has a karting background and his father, Jos Verstappen, was also an F1 driver – became the youngest driver on an F1 grid when starting the Australian GP aged just 17 years and 166 days.

But while the day started with reason for celebration, it ended with the frustration of a race retirement. The closest Verstappen has since come to ensuring the Dutch anthem is blaring through the speakers across Melbourne’s home straight was in 2019 when he fought his way to third.

The lofty expectations surrounding Verstappen, combined with the reality of simmering tensions brought upon by his rivalry with fellow Red Bull driver Sergio Perez as they balance individual motivations with team priorities while they race in a remarkably dominant F1 car, will provide the backdrop to a fascinating 2023 – before the F1 circus goes into a near month-long sojourn ahead of the next event in Azerbaijan.

Verstappen, occasionally labelled “Mad Max” for a sometimes testy demeanour and reckless abandon, was not in denial about his record Down Under when it was hinted at in the build up to this year’s Melbourne race.

His podium result four years ago, and last year’s gut-wrenching withdrawal as he was perched in a winning position midway through the race, interestingly bookmark a regrettable time for world sport – the Australian Grand Prix was not held in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. True, the lost races of Albert Park have meant fewer chances for the now 25-year-old Verstappen at the peak of his powers.

He was quick to point out that if the Albert Park event was plonked in another spot on the F1 schedule, say, at the halfway point, his record might be improved. Red Bull, like a number of the front-running teams, has been a little slow off the mark in Melbourne when the lights turn green at the start of an arduous new campaign.

“[At] this track, the last few years, we’ve never really been that good in the beginning of the year,” reflected Verstappen.

“I think if this race had been [at] a different place on the calendar, then probably I think we would have had a lot more, a lot better results, but that’s not how it is.”

The jungle drums are beating. Verstappen needs to add Melbourne to his resume to make headway in joining the likes of Michael Schumacher (an equal record four Australian GP wins, along with Aussie legend Lex Davison), Jack Brabham, Sebastian Vettel, and Jensen Button (three apiece), and Lewis Hamilton, Ayrton Senna, Damon Hill and Nico Rosberg (twice) as those who’ve excelled on these shores.

“For sure, we need a good result here,” Verstappen admitted.

“I think we have a good chance for the result, but we do need to execute a good weekend.”

And Red Bull is adept at executing such a “good weekend”, given Verstappen has already this season broken his Bahrain GP duck at his eighth attempt.

Keep your rivals close, and your teammates closer…

Verstappen isn’t just battling his own Australian GP history in Melbourne this weekend. The simmering tension with Perez is a sharp reminder of what easily happens at the pinnacle of F1, and how modern-day rivalries within teams, ala Senna versus Prost and Rosberg versus Hamilton, display personality clashes that can give sport its sizzle and help feed and captivate the audience.

The micro-conflict between Verstappen and Perez was evident after the dramatic events surrounding Perez’s win in Saudi Arabia two weeks ago, but also by other key moments during their two seasons as teammates.

In Jeddah, Verstappen’s race was compromised by a driveshaft problem during qualifying that relegated him to 15th on the grid, while Perez started from pole.

Although Perez took the victory, afterwards he was clearly annoyed when it was confirmed Verstappen had set the fastest lap of the race on the final lap, grabbing the extra point on offer and, crucially, the narrow one-point championship lead.

“Did you get the fastest lap in the end?” asked Perez, in a moment captured by the glare of F1 cameras.

“On the last lap, yeah,” replied Verstappen.

Perez paused, and adjusted his hat, but kept his anger in check. “Were you not told to keep the pace?”

Later, Perez expanded on his annoyance. “Two laps from the end, they told me to keep a certain pace, they told me I had the fastest lap and to keep the pace, a certain pace.

“I thought the communication was the same to Max, so it’s something we need to review.”

Max Verstappen and race winner Sergio Perez in Saudi Arabia.Credit:Getty Images

More eye catching were the scenes in Brazil late last year when Verstappen seemingly defied team orders to let Perez pass and boost his chances of a second-placed finish in the drivers’ championship, even though Verstappen’s number one status wasn’t under threat.

In a captivating exchange played out on the race radio, the combative Verstappen is on show.

“Max, let Checo through please,” came the official request to Verstappen from his Red Bull team, followed by “Max, what happened” when it was clear he wouldn’t assist.

Verstappen replied: “I told you already last summer. The guys [sic] don’t ask that again to me.

“OK. Are we clear about that?

“I gave my reasons, and I stand by it.”

Perez, tellingly comments: “It shows who he really is.”

For his part, Verstappen this week was largely comfortable to defend the undeniable reality that drivers from the same team can easily find themselves at each other’s throats, challenging the notion that F1 is always a team sport.

“We grew up knowing, of course, that you always have to try and beat your teammate, right. We all know it, it’s not a secret,” Verstappen says in an exclusive interview with Nine’s Sport Sunday.

“But I think what is very important is that we have a lot of respect for each other.

“Every single weekend you go in and try and have the edge, but that’s sports. It’s a normal thing.”

Similarly, his boss, Red Bull supremo Christian Horner espoused the benefits of teammates getting the best out of each other.

Horner was quick to highlight Perez’s achievements and his importance to the team.

“He’s done a great job in the first two races this year,” Horner said.

“His confidence is sky-high. That’s exactly what we want – we want two drivers that are going to be pushing and challenging each other.

“Over a long season, it’s such a marathon. It’s all going to be about consistency over the 23-race series. That’s going to be the differentiator. He’s made a great start.”

Formula 1, too, is characterised by “rules of engagement” – the guidelines if you like that are meant to ensure that team rules and directions are followed.

“As a team we’ve always strived to give both drivers the best opportunity and the best equipment we can,” Horner said.

“It’s down to what they do on track – and that’s whether it’s Max and ‘Checo’, or Daniel [Ricciardo] and Max, or Daniel and Seb [Sebastian Vettel], or Mark [Webber] and Seb. You can even go back to David Coulthard and Mark Webber.

“That’s the way we’ve always rolled and it’s down to what they do on the circuit at the end of the day [as to] what counts.”

Strained relations between high octane-charged and ruthlessly ambitious professional athletes is as old as the hills. But it doesn’t necessarily last beyond the moment it’s experienced.

After Sebastian Vettel’s retirement last year, Webber reflected on his relationship with the German across five seasons before the Australian finished up a decade ago.

“I mean, God, we’re fine now,” Webber told the official F1 website.

“It was obviously pretty tense when you’re fighting for championships at the front together. We had a few years where I was [in contention]; [and] a couple of years where I wasn’t.

“It always gets a bit strained – it’s easier to be teammates when you’re fighting for points but obviously, championships and wins is a bit more challenging, which is obviously well-advertised in lots of different scenarios throughout the sport. We weren’t alone in that sense.”

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