Max Verstappen’s lack of aggression at the Bahrain Grand Prix showed a “moment of growth” for the reigning world champion.
That’s according to former Formula 1 driver Heikki Kovalainen, who told talkSPORT the Dutchman learned from his fierce title battle with Lewis Hamilton.
Verstappen had a mid-race duel with another longtime foe, Charles Leclerc, in the season opener and was eventually edged out by the Ferrari driver who claimed his third F1 victory.
Leclerc aggressively clipped Verstappen to defend his pole position on the first corner of the race, and looked to have the world champion at arm’s length until the first round of pit stops.
By lap 17, the Red Bull was back on the rear wing of the Ferrari, and the pair began an epic battle for the lead that lasted until lap 19, in which Leclerc emerged victorious.
Verstappen had a substantial pace advantage by following and passing Leclerc on the main straight of turn one, but the Monegasque fought back brilliantly at every opportunity to regain his lead at turn four.
Verstappen, who spent last season going wheel-to-wheel with seven-time champion Hamilton, was surprisingly generous in the space he gave Leclerc, and then ended the race in the pit lane due to an abandonment.
Former F1 driver Kovalainen noticed a different Verstappen, telling talkSPORT: “For me Verstappen could have been more aggressive both times.
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“I think he probably had two tries with Leclerc, he could have defended once he got ahead.
“I think he passed him in the first corner and in turns two and three he was in front and I think he could have just cut on the other side more aggressively and made Charles lift or the to hit.
“I really expected him to do this and then you have a conversation on the radio, Charles complaining ‘what is he doing’ and whether there are any penalties coming or not.
“But he gave him space and he didn’t drive, for me, as aggressively as before. So maybe that’s part of the learning curve for Max.
Verstappen has a rivalry with Ferrari’s Leclerc which dates back to their childhood in karting, and which continued in Formula 1.
Leclerc’s second season in F1, and first with Ferrari, saw the pair swap paint several times in 2019 after a flashpoint in Austria.
Verstappen forced Leclerc to victory at the Red Bull Ring, and Leclerc quickly adjusted his driving style to give the Dutchman a taste of his own medicine at Silverstone.
Rally Team AICELLO driver Kovalainen acknowledged the rivalry but thought Bahrain was more down to Verstappen’s growth.
“I think it was a great borderline run but no problem this time and I think it probably wasn’t just because it was Charles,” he explained. “My feeling is that Max has grown since winning the championship.
“He’s still young and he’s still learning and he’ll get better and his judgment will get better, but the instinct will always be there, and even now, when he passed Charles in the first corner, he sent him away .
“It’s the instinct of, if there’s a gap there I have to go or he’ll pull away, so you can always see him, but I think he drove quite reasonably otherwise and very good.
“So maybe a real moment of growth for Max since last season.”
Kovalainen, who was Lewis Hamilton’s teammate at McLaren in 2008 and 2009, also spoke of the clashing styles between the title contenders last season.
The Finn believes a young Verstappen needs to learn when to be aggressive and when to back off, and could have already learned from his experience with Hamilton.
“Max is tweaking that aggression, tweaking that instinct that he obviously has,” he explained.
“All great pilots have this instinct as [Ayrton] Senna, Senna said if you don’t aim for a gap anymore, you’re not a racing driver anymore, all the great drivers have always sent it.
“I believe in Max’s case he’s still young, he’s still fine-tuning that advantage and in Lewis’s case I think he knows very well where the line is.
“He can make a conscious decision whether he’s going to cross that line or not and over the course of the season you have to balance it when you’re going to risk it when you’re not going to risk it.”
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