There was joy and despair etched on Christian Horner’s face at various times during the final 20 laps of the Chinese Grand Prix, and not for the first time, each emotion related to a specific driver.
As Daniel Ricciardo was pulling off stunning overtaking moves to scythe his way from sixth to win, his pass on Lewis Hamilton had Horner punching the air with both fists as the Red Bull sailed down the inside of one of Formula 1’s latest brakers from a long way back.
Minutes later, at the same Turn 14 hairpin, it was head-in-hands time as Max Verstappen clumsily ran into the side of Sebastian Vettel and pitched both himself and the former Red Bull protege into a spin that ended the team’s hopes of a one-two result.
I’ve had a different vantage point during the past two grand prix weekends as I’ve been substituted into the pit lane reporter role for BBC Radio 5Live, allowing me access to those at the heart of the action when emotions are even more raw. For Verstappen, it was a night and day difference between what was literally the night of Bahrain and cold light of day in China.
His collision with Hamilton at Turn 1 early in the Bahrain Grand Prix was somewhat unnecessary in my view, but Hamilton had the opportunity to back out at that stage of the corner, too. He didn’t have to, but with Verstappen being aggressive and having the move done, there was no right of reply, and the Mercedes driver had the ability to avoid the contact that the Dutchman was unnecessarily leading them towards.
So Verstappen felt empowered after that incident. There was reason to argue he was in the right, and as misjudgments go, it wasn’t massive. In fact, it was very similar to what Fernando Alonso did to Vettel in the closing laps in China. If anything, Alonso was even more aggressive…
Fast-forward seven days, and there was no right of reply for Verstappen. He committed too late to the move on Vettel, and cost himself at least a podium finish. Had he not been over-ambitious attempting to pass Hamilton around the outside of Turn 7, he most probably would have won the race.
But I mention my positioning over the past two weeks because there was a very clear change in the 20-year-old. In Bahrain, it was a Verstappen I had seen before: full of self-belief and conviction that he was right to do what he did, even if it didn’t come off. His confidence had not been shaken.
Perhaps that’s why he thought he could carry a huge amount more speed than Hamilton around the outside of a high-speed corner, and why he looked to rectify that mistake by wasting no time in trying to pass Vettel. But neither came off, and by the time Verstappen had walked from his car to the broadcast pen, he had already sought out the championship leader to apologize. In itself that gesture was a break from the norm.
It’s always hard to know what’s going on inside a driver’s head, but as the Australian national anthem rang out for his teammate, Verstappen was beginning to show signs of self-doubt.
And with his having openly admitted his mistakes, I asked a question that might well have drawn an angry response.
“We quite often see you make some really aggressive moves and that often leads to some spectacular racing, but is there a point where you stop and think maybe you need to make a few changes if [mistakes] are happening too often?”
But there was no reaction on Verstappen’s face. Simply a raise of the eyebrows, and an acceptance that perhaps his approach needs to be revisited.
“Well, I will analyze everything and I’ll try to put that in my knowledge and try to have a better race in Baku,” he said. “It’s not something I’m happy with, but those moments happen in your career, I guess. I think everybody has been through those kinds of things. Nobody wants it, but unfortunately it happens.
“So, a difficult start to the year. I think in terms of speed, all good, but somehow, I don’t know why in the races… maybe wanting it a bit too much and recovering from all the stuff that happened before, but it’s a bit difficult to really judge that now.”
There was still pragmatism in Verstappen’s voice, but it was the first time I had seen his confidence shaken.
Forget the fact that he is 20. Verstappen is special, and has the race experience in F1 to expect better. But he is definitely in the right place to grow stronger. He has 63 starts to his name in Formula 1, and he shouldn’t ignore the lessons that he can learn from some other Red Bull alumni very close to him.
For comparison, Vettel had made just 60 starts for Red Bull by the time he won his first drivers’ championship in 2010. Granted, that was a year in which he also made some high-profile errors – think colliding with Mark Webber in Turkey and Jenson Button in Spa – but he was at the point of ironing those out. In a dominant car, his 63rd start was second place in China early in a run of nine consecutive top-two finishes that made a second title a formality.
Verstappen doesn’t have a dominant car, but neither does Ricciardo next to him, and the Australian provided the perfect blueprint for climbing through the field with a tire advantage. His move on Hamilton was definite – late enough that the Mercedes was already braking, but early enough to be seen – and he made it easy for himself against Vettel.
But the move against Bottas was something else. Squeezed to where there was less grip and barely a car’s width, Ricciardo got himself fully alongside the Finn long before the turn-in point to claim the high ground, and found the perfect braking pressure to keep it clean. How does he do it?
Well, something the instinctive Verstappen should note is, Ricciardo often has it all planned out long in advance. He’d decided he was making the move on Bottas exiting the opening two corners, and committed. That decisiveness paid off.
He’s also keeping margins during the rest of the race, working out where his latest possible braking point would be in such a move while not risking an error by being so on the edge lap-after-lap.
In analyzing Ricciardo, Verstappen won’t lose the ability to pull off the thrilling moves fans love to see, but he will learn how to further lower the chances of such a move going wrong. And in looking at Vettel, he will understand how raw talent evolved into a driver capable of winning four championships on the bounce.
And the signs are that he’s already learning. With Hamilton having sought him out during an autograph signing session on Thursday to move on from Bahrain, it was Verstappen’s turn to make the move when he approached Vettel after the checkered flag to admit his mistake.
The humility and self-reflection on display after the race should not be seen as weakness. These recent mistakes might all prove to be the catalyst for Verstappen to go to the next level.