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Standing in the media pen to watch the final laps of a Formula One qualifying session was unfamiliar territory for Max Verstappen.
Not since the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in March had he failed to reach Q3, that time due to a driveshaft failure on his car in qualifying. He still fought back to second place in the race, which his teammate Sergio Pérez won.
Singapore was different. Verstappen, the winner of the last 10 F1 races — a record — didn’t reach the final stage of qualifying simply because he was too slow. On raw pace, he could only manage 11th on the grid, two places ahead of Pérez, who spun on his final lap in Q2 and was also eliminated.
It left Verstappen watching on, sipping a can of Red Bull, as Carlos Sainz scored pole for Ferrari ahead of Mercedes’ George Russell.
Verstappen watched knowing his win streak and, more importantly, Red Bull’s perfect season were as good as finished. He’s fought back from setbacks before, going from ninth in Miami and sixth in Belgium to still win. Doing so from so far back in Singapore is a very different story.
“Yeah, you can forget about that,” Verstappen said with an accepting laugh.
— Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1) September 16, 2023
How Verstappen’s qualifying unraveled
Verstappen repeatedly downplayed Red Bull’s chances going into Singapore. Even after his record-breaking 10th consecutive victory at Monza two weeks ago, he warned the next race would not be one of the team’s strongest. Still, with such a dominant car, surely he’d still be in contention for victory. It would likely just be by a smaller margin.
Practice in Singapore hinted at the early problems. Verstappen said this Friday was his toughest of the season so far, and even in FP3 on Saturday evening, he reported a lack of rear-end stability and that it felt like his car was drifting. It left Red Bull scrambling to make setup tweaks to remedy the issues in the two-and-a-half hour gap before qualifying.
Instead of giving Verstappen a car he could put into contention for pole, the changes made things worse. Although Verstappen made it through Q1 in ninth place, the session ending under a red flag after Lance Stroll’s crash, Q2 was more difficult. He was on the bubble after the opening runs in P10, and after a poor final effort, in part due to a slide at Turn 3, he was pushed down to 11th by AlphaTauri driver and Red Bull junior Liam Lawson. He was out of qualifying.
“I don’t know if you saw that, but that was f— shocking,” Verstappen told his engineer, Gianpiero Lambiase. “Absolutely shocking experience.”
For someone who drives so naturally with an innate feeling between the car and the road, Verstappen had none of the confidence that you need to excel around a tight street track like Singapore.
“I couldn’t brake late and hard, because I would bottom out and it would unload the front tires,” Verstappen explained. “On a street circuit, that is something that is very crucial, to be confident on the brakes and attack the corners. I couldn’t do that.”
The drifting issue from FP3 also persisted, particularly at low speed. “I just had no rear support, so I kept on having mini-slides, or in my final lap, a big one at Turn 3,” Verstappen said. “When it’s like that, there is no lap time.”
Hot water with the stewards
The lack of pace wasn’t the only issue facing Verstappen through qualifying. After completing his media duties, he met with the stewards for three separate incidents for which he received two reprimands, avoiding a grid penalty that might have dropped him further back than 11th.
The first came in Q1, when he was slow to leave the pits when the green light was showing, holding up the cars behind him. “You cannot stop like this, come on,” complained Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc on the radio. Lambiase gave Verstappen the hurry-up, to which Verstappen said there was “just a lot of…” before tailing off. That got him the first reprimand.
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There was no problem on Verstappen’s car; he was trying to make a gap to the cars in front. “I could see there were a lot of cars that would be close, I knew what was going to happen in the last chicane,” Verstappen explained after qualifying, referring to a potential traffic jam.
“So I was like, I should stop, wait a bit, just to create less drama. Then clearly, some people behind me were complaining. I just thought that would be a safer option than all being together.”
Despite his intentions, the traffic jam still occurred at the end of the lap, sparking the second investigation against Verstappen. He was alleged to have impeded Williams’ Logan Sargeant exiting the final chicane in the final moments of Q1 before Stroll’s crash. The stewards took no further action on that one.
The bigger impeding incident came in Q2, when Verstappen got in the way of AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda, sparking an angry response on the radio from the Japanese driver. Verstappen was midway through giving car feedback when he got the message from Lambiase that Tsunoda was approaching, by which point, it was too late. That produced the second reprimand, along with a €5,000 ($5,337) fine for Red Bull.
“Yeah, that was not good,” Verstappen conceded. “I didn’t see him, because I was on the radio talking about what was the problem, and then I didn’t get a call up until he was basically behind me.
“It basically sums up my qualifying. It was super hectic and messy.”
Why Verstappen is so unlikely to win
Verstappen has previously won from as far back on the grid as 14th, charging through the field at last year’s Belgian Grand Prix, and took the win in Miami earlier this year from ninth. There are races in the past 18 months where, by his own admission, he could have started last and still won.
Singapore plays differently. Not only is Verstappen struggling so much with the car, but even if he had greater confidence, overtaking around the Marina Bay Street Circuit is incredibly difficult due to the tight confines of the layout. Unless you are significantly quicker than the car ahead, passing is difficult. Proof of the overtaking challenge comes from last year’s Singapore Grand Prix. Verstappen started that race eighth on the grid and could only finish seventh.
“You need to be one-and-a-half, two, three seconds (per lap) faster, which we are not,” Verstappen said. “Clearly also now with the car performance imbalance we have, it will be a very tough, long afternoon.”
The other big advantage Red Bull has enjoyed over its rivals this season over race distances — its tire degradation — is also less of a factor in Singapore. It means that barring some dramatic twists, there’s very little chance of him scoring an 11th consecutive win tomorrow, even if the rivals who benefitted from his difficult day struggle to believe he won’t be in contention.
“I don’t think you can ever discount Max and Red Bull,” said pole-sitter Sainz. “They might turn up tomorrow with the race pace they’ve had all season and still manage somehow to make it through the field. But for sure, around here, they have a much more difficult task.
“It’s a much better opportunity (to win) than Monza. Tomorrow, I think the race is going to be between the top five cars.”
Those would be the two Ferraris, two Mercedes, and the McLaren of Lando Norris.
Seeing Red Bull’s perfect season and Verstappen’s win streak snapped will undoubtedly come as a disappointment to both parties. But Verstappen said he “knew that there was a day where you’re not winning any more” and that Red Bull “had a really good run anyway up until now.”
“I would always take a season where we’re winning this much and having one really bad weekend over the other way around where you’re not fighting for the championship and you’re winning here,” he said.
Verstappen’s body language after the session reflected his acceptance of the situation. He remained relaxed in the media pen, taking time to joke with Lando Norris — “P4 for number four, not bad!” and congratulate Lawson, the man who knocked him out of qualifying, on his performance after making Q3 for the first time.
“I want to win,” Verstappen said, when asked why he was so chilled out. “But when it’s not possible, you need to accept that.”
(Photo of Max Verstappen: Kym Illman/Getty Images)