Max Verstappen and Red Bull-Honda: Is momentum growing for an F1 2020 title bid?
Mark Hughes analyses the "four distinct phases" of Red Bull's first season with Honda and what it all might mean for team and star driver heading into next year
Last Updated: 27/11/19 10:33am
Shortly after the summer break Max Verstappen's father Jos was quite vocal in reflecting how Red Bull-Honda were not performing to the level he and his son expected and that it was placing Max's future with the team under some doubt.
Five years into his F1 career and acknowledged as a potential world champion, the 22-year-old had still only won a handful of races in an era dominated by Mercedes and, to a lesser extent, Ferrari. The inference seemed pretty clear; if the Verstappens could not be convinced of Red Bull's long-term prospects as bona fide title contenders, they may have to look elsewhere after Max's current contract concludes at the end of 2020.
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"It is very frustrating," said Jos. "In the last races before the summer break it went really well, but after the summer break we did not progress while the other teams did. Max cannot change that, we depend on the team, the car is a bit behind, the engine is a bit behind, more work has to be done on this combination if we want to challenge for the world title next year... We are now working with Red Bull for a couple of years, but it still does not look that we will be able to challenge for the world title next year."
This was said after a disappointing run of results in September from Belgium through to Russia. Further disappointment followed on Honda's home ground of Suzuka where Verstappen could qualify only fifth, 0.5s off the Ferraris.
But since then, Red Bull's form has returned, Verstappen being the fastest qualifier in two of the last three races (though he was penalised out of that in Mexico) and dominating the Brazilian Grand Prix.
Verstappen's three poles have come at the three highest-altitude tracks on the calendar (Mexico City, Interlagos and Austria's Red Bull Ring) and the Honda power unit does seem to be particularly competitive in the thin air.
But Verstappen's recent form is not just about altitude; he split the Mercedes drivers for much of the US Grand Prix despite driving a car that was damaged on the first lap and aerodynamically compromised.
It seems pretty clear that Red Bull's form has returned to its pre-summer-break level.
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Verstappen won two of the last four races before the shutdown - and he might have made it three from four were it not for a late-race strategy gamble for Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes in Hungary, where Verstappen had led from pole.
The breakthrough in seasonal competitiveness came in Austria after the team had finally got the car's tricky aerodynamics working at just the time Honda gave the go-ahead to run its engine more aggressively.
In fact, the team's competitiveness has been in four distinct phases: off the pace for the first eight races before the Austria breakthrough, a step-change up to winning form in the last four races before the break, a disappointing relapse in the first five post-summer races, and a renaissance from Mexico onwards.
Looking at their qualifying average of pole position time for each of those phases, it looks like this:
First 8 races qualifying average: 100.99% of pole
Pre-summer Austria-Hungary (4 races): 100.35%
Post-summer Spa-Japan (5 races): 100.86%
Mexico-Brazil (3 races): 100.02%
A one-per-cent improvement may not sound much, but it is the difference between setting pole and starting from the third row more than half-a-second off the pace.
We get the final chance for a reading on the team's form this coming weekend in Abu Dhabi.
If they can continue the trajectory of the last three races, there would seem to be realistic hope that this could be the foundation upon which a 2020 title challenge might be built.
Anything less than that may not be enough for Verstappen to stay - and could be the final push Honda needs to commit beyond the end of 2020. (Honda have since committed by an extra year to 2021 - Ed)
The stakes are high.