What is it about Interlagos?
It’s a track that more often than not seems to deliver action-packed races, but what makes it particularly unique is the tendency for them to involve some sort of controversy between teammates.
Off the top of my head there was the 2006 race back to the pits between the Williams drivers that resulted in Nico Rosberg crashing and Mark Webber proclaiming “Britney’s in the wall”. Then Webber again upset teammate Sebastian Vettel by shutting the door on the sister Red Bull at the start of the 2012 title decider, leaving the German vulnerable and caught in contact three corners later.
Vettel has been a regular himself after colliding with his then-Ferrari teammate Charles Leclerc in 2019 on the run to Turn 4, and being forced onto the grass in the same place by Lance Stroll this year in a move that earned Stroll a pretty significant penalty.
That was in the Sprint, where Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso collided twice and needed a dressing down from their Alpine bosses, but all of them are footnotes to the unexpected row that blew up at Red Bull when the checkered flag was waved.
Max Verstappen is quite clearly the team leader, and the driver Red Bull pins its hopes on for years of success moving forward. On that basis, Sergio Perez has regularly obeyed team orders to either move over for Verstappen or carry out a strategy that could help his teammate’s chances, most notably in last year’s intense title fight against Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes.
Of course, Perez’s incredible defense in Abu Dhabi last year comes to mind. Before it was overshadowed by later events, Perez delivered an outstanding piece of driving to slow Hamilton significantly without causing contact or moving dangerously, allowing Verstappen to close back in and keep himself in with a chance in that winner-takes-all race.
Sunday’s race in Interlagos didn’t come remotely close to those events in terms of importance, as Verstappen was told he could pass Perez for sixth late on but would have to return the place if he didn’t make further progress.
Sixth and seventh. That’s what they were squabbling over.
The importance was huge to Perez, for whom sixth would have meant a slight advantage over Charles Leclerc going into the final round in Red Bull’s quest for its first-ever one-two in the drivers’ championship. Instead, seventh left him level on points, but behind on countback of wins.
For Verstappen, the long-confirmed world champion who had won eight of the previous nine races heading to Brazil, it was a matter of eight points or six. Sure, there are still things potentially riding on that – pride, points-related bonuses, the kudos for beating your team-mate despite being miles adrift early on – but it held far less value for Verstappen and Red Bull had a clear target.
And that’s what makes his very public refusal to move all the more unnecessary.
It’s not just about the finishing positions, it’s how they don’t add weight to the point Verstappen was trying to make. If you’re going to risk damaging your reputation, surely the potential reward needs to be worth it?
“I told you already last time, you guys don’t ask that again to me, OK? Are we clear about that? I gave my reasons and I stand by it.”
After crossing the finish line, the team radio outburst that came in response to his engineer asking what happened was firm. Verstappen would later go on to say he had his justifications but would not make them public, and while he wouldn’t deny that this year’s Monaco Grand Prix – where Perez crashed on his final qualifying lap in an incident that stopped Verstappen improving – had something to do with it, he didn’t confirm that was a catalyst, either.
For now he won’t go into details, but Verstappen needs to. Because on the surface, he has shown zero respect for a teammate who has played his part in recent championship successes, however small that part might be. Not only that, he’s done the same to the team that has played a huge part in both titles, and has fought his corner so strongly over a number of years.
And I keep coming back to the fact it was over sixth place, with both titles won.
On Sunday night, Red Bull and Verstappen kept repeating the mantra that “we discuss it behind closed doors” and “keep it internal”, but it is the double world champion who very much aired the dirty laundry in public by not following the team’s order. And if it was clear he would never follow one, then the team did the same by asking him to during the race.
Verstappen has won two consecutive championships that have been muddied by negative storylines, and it clearly stings. When talk could have been solely of his immense talent and ability, it was regularly overshadowed by Abu Dhabi or the cost cap, and he stated in Mexico that the boycott of Sky Sports for a weekend was due to him not feeling he was being given enough respect.
But by appearing to not provide the same respect to his team and teammate, Verstappen has managed to create even more negativity around himself. He could have followed the order, been seen as a good team player, and voiced his annoyance in the debrief after the race if he really wanted to keep it internal. After all, there wasn’t a race victory or even a trophy on the line on Sunday.
Instead, he made himself appear selfish and disobedient, publicly berating the team for asking him to do what Perez has done in the past. By not explaining his reasons afterwards, he hasn’t done anything to counteract many fans forming a negative opinion of his attitude, fueling further negativity in a season where he has been deserving of immense praise up to now.
All over sixth place. It was just so unnecessary.