F1’s star of the year so far? It’s Max Verstappen, not Lewis Hamilton

Former F1 driver Jolyon Palmer, who left Renault during the 2017 season, is part of the BBC team and offers insight and analysis from the point of view of the competitors.

Mercedes might have dominated the start of the Formula 1 season, but the driver who has really stood out so far is in another car – Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.

The Dutchman has been exceptional this season so far. Verstappen is super-quick. The mistakes that plagued the start of his 2018 season have been eradicated, but he has maintained an aggressive approach to his racing. It’s an approach he must have because of the car he is in, and the deficit to those around him.

The 21-year-old picked up his second podium of the season in Barcelona last weekend and lies third in the drivers’ standings, ahead of both Ferrari drivers.

In fact, at no race this year has Verstappen been beaten by both Ferraris in spite of having the slower car in qualifying at every event.

Rubbing salt in Ferrari’s wounds

Ferrari are busy fielding questions about their own performance in comparison to Mercedes. And while they are adrift and falling further away, Verstappen is complicating their situation further.

He has been a thorn in the side of Ferrari all season long.

In the races, the Italian team are not able to focus their attention purely on Mercedes because if they go for the jugular on Mercedes and miss, Verstappen will beat them. He’s done it regularly now and Barcelona was the latest example.

It was Vettel’s desperation to take the fight to Mercedes at the start in Spain that allowed Verstappen onto the podium.

Vettel had a great start and was fractionally leading into the first corner, but on the outside.

He absolutely had to go for it – it was going to be the only chance he would get to beat the Mercedes all race. But by locking up a front wheel in an optimistic move, he flat-spotted his tyres.

To compound matters, he then baulked team-mate Leclerc as he rejoined and Verstappen didn’t need a second opportunity to get ahead of the Ferrari pair.

It’s not the first time Verstappen’s taken advantage of Ferrari’s desperation to win.

Back in Melbourne, Verstappen earned himself a podium, but that came because Ferrari pitted Vettel so early in a futile attempt to fight with the Mercedes ahead. Verstappen then had much fresher tyres to attack the German at the end of the race.

In Bahrain, he beat Vettel once again because Vettel spun while fighting with Hamilton. And in China he beat Leclerc after a Ferrari team orders debacle, which occurred as they were chasing the Mercedes who were escaping out front.

Team-mates taking the pain

His performances against Ferrari show that Verstappen is absolutely driving at the top level in F1 right now, and that is reinforced by the comparison with his team-mates over the past year.

Daniel Ricciardo arrived at Red Bull and beat four-time champion Vettel immediately in 2014 in the same car.

Vettel left at the end of the year to join Ferrari and Ricciardo was seen as a real star of the future, a claim he backed up over the following years by winning races and seeing off the threat of Daniil Kvyat as a new team-mate.

But it all changed for Ricciardo when Kvyat was replaced by Verstappen.

For a while they were evenly matched, Verstappen arguably the quicker, but more erratic, with Ricciardo the more consistent and the higher scorer as a result.

But after Verstappen’s costly crash in Monaco practice last year, he found another gear, a gear which effectively forced Ricciardo out of the Red Bull fold, in which he had been throughout his career.

Ricciardo is still the top F1 driver that beat Vettel in 2014 and won seven grands prix, but last year once Verstappen knuckled down after Monaco he never really looked back at the threat of the Australian.

He was a clear number one at Red Bull and Ricciardo knew it. He had to leave the team to get away from Verstappen, much like Vettel had from him four years previously.

Red Bull team boss Christian Horner accused Ricciardo of “running away from a gun fight” as the Australian left for Renault, and from the outside it seemed that way, although Ricciardo cited other reasons for the switch, which are also plausible.

Only the Aussie himself will know the absolute reason, but to say it’s been a backward move so far is an understatement and a half.

Either way, Pierre Gasly has been promoted to Red Bull in 2019, but you might not have noticed. While Verstappen has been mixing it with the Ferraris at the front, the Frenchman has struggled to get anywhere near a challenge to his team-mate.

Yet Gasly was often a star last year in the Toro Rosso and deserved his call up to Red Bull’s senior team.

He is slowly getting closer to the mix, and is now starting to get more comfortable and is at least bridging the gap from the ‘A’ race to the ‘B’ race. But his task is so daunting because Verstappen is driving so well at the moment.

Any driver who makes it to F1 is exceptionally talented, but Gasly must have had a nasty shock when he first compared data to Verstappen this season, having been used to that of previous team-mate Brendon Hartley.

It probably explains why Gasly was over-driving early on this year, including having two crashes in pre-season testing for his new team.

Inevitably, the Frenchman will come under pressure before too long if he can’t match his team-mate, such is the scrutiny in F1.

But you have to question who could match Verstappen in the Red Bull right now.

Gasly’s old team, Toro Rosso, have started the season strongly, with two fresh drivers at the helm, Kvyat and Alexander Albon.

Kvyat finally had a cleaner race in Barcelona to score good points and Albon has been very impressive so far in his rookie year.

Those with short memories will be suggesting putting one of them in Gasly’s shoes by the end of the season if the Frenchman doesn’t pick up. But while they are both doing well in 2019, you wouldn’t fancy them against Verstappen either.

Kvyat knows only too well the problem of being promoted too soon from Toro Rosso. He’s been there before and was dropped back and then out of F1 completely after failing to match Ricciardo for a year and a bit.

For Albon the potential looks good, but he will need time to improve and fine tune before any talk of promotion. He may well have an eye on the Red Bull seat as soon as possible, but he will also be aware of how tough it may be when he’s there.

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