Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez’s first-lap contretemps in the Austrian Grand Prix sprint race had all the ingredients of Red Bull’s first internecine bust-up of the 2023 Formula 1 season.
So why did it ultimately fizzle out so quickly after the race?
Partly, it was because ultimately no harm was done given Red Bull finished first and second. Verstappen and Perez had a discussion in parc ferme before presenting a largely united front to the media, which was a sensible approach by both. There’s no doubt there will be more discussions behind the scenes because there always are in these situations regardless of the team and driver involved.
What was said over the radio certainly showed how both saw things in the moment. Anything said in the heat of battle over the radio is an instant reaction produced almost on reflex by athletes operating at their limits and by their very nature these comments cannot be a fully-considered, well-reasoned position. It therefore would be unfair to treat it as such, but the message was clear.
After Verstappen was squeezed by Perez on lap one just before the Turn 2 kink, putting his right-side wheels on the grass and dropping back, he made his feelings clear with a message stating “he pushed me off man, what the f***?”. That’s a perfectly understandable reaction.
He then dived up the inside into the Turn 3 hairpin in what was effectively a ‘block pass’, so perfectly legitimate. But as he went deep it did hinder both Red Bull drivers. They held first and second off the corner and down to Turn 4, with Verstappen then pinning Perez to the outside to compromise his run into the right-hander. Again, that was completely legal but did allow Haas driver Nico Hulkenberg to jump up to second place.
Perez lost ground behind Hulkenberg before passing him at half-distance to re-establish the natural order and he eventually finished 21 seconds behind his victorious team-mate.
On the slowdown lap, Verstappen made his feelings very clear. After being congratulated by team principal Christian Horner, he said over the radio: “At the exit of Turn 1, that was not really nice, I could have had a big shunt. So we really need to have a chat about that, it’s not OK”.
The two drivers did speak in parc ferme, initially for a few moments, then for slightly longer. Their gestures made it clear what they were talking about and the conversations seemed perfectly civil, so their claims after that they had talked about it and accepted each others’ positions are reasonable.
In an interview with Sky Sports F1, Verstappen laid out his side of the disagreement. He even referenced the earlier tragedy at Spa that claimed the life of Dilano van’t Hoff, which had a big impact on all the drivers racing at the Red Bull Ring and loomed large in their thoughts.
“My start wasn’t good,” said Verstappen. “I had a lot of wheelspin but then I had a good run out of [Turn] 1 and was going to go fully alongside because of the traction I had out of the corner. Then, suddenly, I got squeezed onto the grass and then almost lost the car.
“In the back of my mind, with what happened today, if you would have been stationary there sideways it could have been a big shunt. So at the time, of course I wasn’t very happy.
“But then after the race you talk about it and you hear. Checo said to me he couldn’t see me, so I trust his word about that. It’s super-easy to create these kind of things.
“That’s why we immediately walked in to have a little chat about it.”
Perez admitted that “I think we both went over the limit” in his own interview with Sky. He also explained his position in the FIA press conference.
“I had a good start and went a bit deep into Turn 1, so at the exit, I’m just trying to protect my line,” said Perez. “I didn’t realise that Max was pretty much alongside me, and that he was into the grass.
“The visibility was quite poor, although it wasn’t raining that much on those first laps. Although I was leading, it was quite hard to see behind, and when I realised Max was there, it was just a little bit too late. And that was it.
“We spoke about it after the race. And it was just a bit of a shame that I lost the place to Nico, but other than that, we got the maximum points for the team and that’s pretty much it.”
Perez’s account broadly tallies. He certainly did go wide at the exit of Turn 1 and positioned his car defensively, but he did then make an additional move to the right after looking in his right-side mirror. Whether he even saw a car there, let alone Verstappen, only he knows, but it looked from the outside like a reaction to a threat to his position. And as many drivers would, he attempted to cover it.
The subsequent battles through Turn 3 and 4 were ultimately clean, with Verstappen suggesting his car positioning was partly down to the wet conditions.
“It’s wet, so you cannot drive on the normal line anyway because there’s less grip there,” said Verstappen.
“That’s why also Turn 3, 4 especially, at the outside, in the beginning, had more grip, so that’s where you want to be with the car anyway. And then, of course, when it dries up, you start to move more and more to the inside.”
The Race then got involved with a question posed to get complete clarity on whether both drivers would be happy with a repeat of the situation. To represent the question, and the response, properly, here are the question and answer taken from the transcript produced by the FIA:
Q: (Edd Straw – The Race) For Max and Checo on a similar topic. Obviously the result’s great today but are you absolutely 100% that everything that happened in those battles was just purely circumstantial – or is there something to learn for the future? Because obviously there were other cars around that could take advantage of that situation. Fine today, on another day, it might have compromised the result?
MV: It might have. But it didn’t. And yeah… we don’t need to make this a big story, you know? It’s what happens sometimes. We talk about it, we clear it, and that’s fine. That’s how human beings work sometimes. You question, you answer, solve it, done. Don’t need to write a whole article about it. I hope. Or maybe you can – to get the clicks! If you want.
SP: The race was too boring so this might be the story!
MV: ‘Opinion’, you know. And then get people to answer.
Of course, this is appearing in an article written about that very topic, one that needed to be written simply because a major talking point was created by the Red Bull drivers by their battle on track and their reaction to it.
But what is telling is that both Verstappen and Perez were at pains to keep a lid on it. For the most part, their post-race comments were a good example of avoiding fanning the flames. What’s more, their battles can be, while potentially counter-productive to Red Bull, fairly described as a case of ‘no harm, no foul’. Of the three moments between them, only the first could be questioned given it did lead to Verstappen being led off track.
Verstappen and Perez have had several flashpoints in the past, the most recent being in Brazil last year. Then, Verstappen refused to let Perez past in the sprint to assist the pursuit of second in the drivers’ championship, which led to comments that opened up the suspicions about what happened when Perez crashed in qualifying for that year’s Monaco Grand Prix.
Saturday in Austria was an incident that risked reopening those old wounds, and maybe there was a little of that behind the scenes.
But the fact it was dealt with well by the duo and there was no escalation is to their credit. That made what happened simply a dramatic and exciting first lap for the watching world.
Whether there are lessons for them to learn for repeats in the future is another question and it could have turned out worse – particularly in the moment when Verstappen was forced onto the grass, even if inadvertently.
“We talked about it and it’s all good” was Verstappen’s verdict. But, of course, he might have thought differently had he not led a Red Bull 1-2.
That’s the problem with ‘all’s well that ends well’ – it works superbly only if there’s not an unhappy ending. And that’s why Red Bull’s united front that this isn’t a story, really wasn’t the full story.