Max Verstappen delivered one of the best performances at the start of a race in recent memory in the Russian Grand Prix, according to Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner.
Red Bull took power unit penalties in Sochi as it felt the circuit would provide plenty of opportunities to make up ground, despite not being one of its stronger venues. Verstappen made that approach work with a stunning start to the race that saw him go from 19th on the grid to fifth by the end of the seventh lap, even leading before a late pit stop.
“They were mega,” Horner said of Verstappen’s first few laps. “21st birthday and he drove like a veteran. By the time he got to Lap 7 was in P5. It was one of the most outstanding first few laps I’ve seen for a long time.
“I think he’s had some great races but this was an attacking race. He then obviously led from Lap 14 all the way to Lap 42 or 43, and he was able to manage the tires extremely well. It’s just a shame we had to stop!
“We toyed with the idea (of staying out longer) but he was at the limit of wear here. He reported that the tires started to go away and with that compound they can drop very suddenly so we felt we’d take the stop and if there’s a Safety Car in the last 10 laps we’re in a strong position.”
Given the way Verstappen had carved his way through the field early on, Horner believes he would have had a good chance of pulling off similar moves on the Ferrari drivers had a Safety Car bunched up the pack.
“There’s always risk but he was very assertive. It looked like the start of a wet race at the start of the grand prix in the way he was able to pass cars on the inside and the outside, and very quickly and efficiently.
“For sure he would have had a go. What the outcome would have been, there’s no crystal ball. For sure he would have been in a position to have a go.
“We were hoping for a Safety Car, I think that would have been the only realistic chance of (a podium). If it had grouped the field up in the last third of the race or the last 15% of the race then there might have been a chance on a grippier tire, but unfortunately that wasn’t to be.”
When leading before his final pit stop, Verstappen had a number of phases where he was the quickest car on track and was not overtaken by the Mercedes and Ferrari following him, but Horner doesn’t think Red Bull had a realistic chance of victory had it not taken grid penalties.
“To win the race I think would have been very tough. I think we could have challenged Ferrari harder — I think we might have been able to have a go at them in qualifying and we had a fast race car, so I think we would have been putting a lot of pressure on them.”