When Ayrton Senna joined Alain Prost at McLaren in 1988 he did so with an assassin’s quiet stealth and zeal. He was not there to complement the French champion’s talents, as Ron Dennis might have intended; he was there to seek and destroy. It was as simple as that. If he could destroy Prost on the track, what other conclusion could anyone draw other than that he himself was now the best out there?
That was what lay at the times at the heart of the massively intense and sometimes improper relationship between the two men.
It was what Ayrton’s 180 mph swerve at Alain in Portugal in 1988 was about; the incident in Suzuka when Alain, a clean racer finally tiring of all the bullying, made his first clumsy attempt to slam the door on a rival; why Ayrton retaliated so brutally there the following year when he cynically and oh so very deliberately took Alain out to clinch himself his second title.
Consider this: if one or the other had not existed, what heights would the other have scaled in their absence?
The F1 town wasn’t big enough for the both of them, and like Mohammed Ali and George Foreman, while no friendship could exist as long as they fought, it gelled once one had left the ring.
Prior to his untimely end, Ayrton would regularly call Alain, once the latter had quit at the end of 1993. Only when the adrenaline had ceased coursing through their veins could each allow himself truly to appreciate and acknowledge the ability of the other.
What’s this got to do with 2022? Well, strictly speaking, nothing. But it had an awful lot to do with 2021, in my opinion. And that’s what leads to its 2022 relevance.
Because I firmly believe that Max Verstappen felt much the same way last year about Lewis Hamilton. Finally equipped with a car capable of challenging Lewis’ Mercedes everywhere, Max was clearly determined to defeat the current yardstick, working on the basis that once he had beaten him, he would assume that coveted accolade.
I know that I am far from the only person who felt that, after Silverstone, Monza and Jeddah last year, things were getting closer to the brink – or who feared that an even bigger incident between the two might be on the cards. Thankfully, it never came to that.
But how different is 2022!
Yes, we all know that Lewis has not yet had the car with which to win (though he came close in Silverstone and again in Hungary at the weekend), but there is something much more majestic about the manner in which Max is going about his racing this year. And it’s high time that I acknowledged that here.
He has admitted that he feels more relaxed after winning his first world championship, as you would expect. That monkey is off his back. And while I don’t detect that desperate need to win another, the steely resolve to keep winning is clearly there, under control, beneath a much calmer mien. Max no longer looks so much a man on the same sort of seek and destroy mission as Ayrton, than somebody very much at peace with himself and thoroughly enjoying having a car with which he can do pretty much anything.
I have been hugely impressed this year with just what Adrian Newey and Rob Marshall have achieved with RB18, given the need to keep developing the RB17 as well because of the intensity of the fight last year against Mercedes. I’ve long been a fan of Adrian’s for many reasons; he’s one of the smartest cookies (that’s never crumbled) in F1 history.
I’m also a big fan of Rob’s. The son of an engineer, he is one of those quiet boffins who prefers to work in the backroom and to get his teeth into things. I remember Christian Horner telling me once how, when KERS came along, Adrian tasked him with finding the best place for it on the car; Rob cleverly managed to squeeze it in with the transmission.
Speaking of squeezing, Max has got everything he can out of the RB18 all season – sometimes not as much as Charles Leclerc or at times Carlos Sainz has been able to squeeze out of Ferrari’s F1-75 – but he never leaves anything on the table. And he isn’t taking some of the chances we saw him take last year. Remember that Jeddah near-pole lap?
And he seems to be enjoying the fight with Charles much more than he did that with Lewis in 2021. That was a war, this is more a motor race, and Max loves them. It comes across in the way he talks about his practice and qualifying sessions and his races this year. He’s engaging and, 99% of the time, quite chirpy and cheerful. And he isn’t trying to kid anyone.
We know the Ferrari is sometimes quicker, and though he has that 80-point lead over Charles to carry into the summer break and the chances thereafter of him losing a second consecutive world championship are somewhere between zero and zilch, he’s not counting any chickens that have yet to hatch, and quite happy to tell the world that the gap is way bigger than it ought to be if Ferrari didn’t have their combination of bad luck and bad judgement.
We’ve had 13 races so far; he’s won eight of them and both sprints, finished second once, third once and seventh once, set four fastest laps, and retired twice. Sunday’s race, where he went from 10th on the grid to first, encapsulated everything that he and Red Bull are capable of doing in 2022.
Like Lewis, who is relishing with part of his psyche the battle this year after so many years of having one of the best cars, Max is happy and relieved to have Charles and Carlos our there to fight against, because he too is a warrior. He’s no happier shooting fish in barrels than Lewis was. Of course he wants to win, but he wants to win after racing for it.
I sense that he is calmer this year because he has proved himself and won a title, though he makes it clear that in many ways his life hasn’t changed. He never has been one to get too carried away about such things. But besides being calmer, there is one major thing about Max that is different to previous years, and one word that summarises it best.
He’s fulfilled. It shows, and it makes him an altogether better, more rounded driver – and one perfectly placed to pick up his second championship in a row.