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Formula 1

Where Verstappen’s right and wrong over F1 title fight errors

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
5 min read

Max Verstappen believes Red Bull “clearly” isn’t making more mistakes in Formula 1’s title fight but his team’s true early advantage is in the significance of the errors, not the quantity.

Verstappen leads the drivers’ championship after six races despite a tyre blowout while leading the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, because main rival Lewis Hamilton made a mistake at the restart that followed Verstappen’s crash and scored no points when he could have won.

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Red Bull’s second driver Sergio Perez took the Baku victory instead, extending the team’s constructors’ championship lead to 26 points as the other Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas also failed to finish in the top 10.

Early in the season, Mercedes was adamant Red Bull had a faster car and team boss Toto Wolff said “our rivals didn’t maximise the opportunity we gave them”, while Hamilton claimed, “they still have performance on us, they’re just making a lot of mistakes”.

But when Verstappen won the Monaco Grand Prix, a few days after Hamilton suggested the young Dutchman might have “something to prove” in the title battle, he said actions spoke louder than words and that Red Bull had moved ahead by making “the smallest mistakes”.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Monaco Grand Prix Sunday Monte Carlo, Monaco

And after the subsequent Azerbaijan Grand Prix, he was stressing his team’s execution in the context of its rivals’ yet again.

“I heard another team say that we make more mistakes,” said Verstappen in Baku.

“Clearly I don’t think that’s the case.

“Of course, nobody is perfect, everybody makes mistakes. But so far, we have made the smallest mistakes in a tight championship battle.

“I trust the team a lot. Every time I drive into the pitlane, I know 99.99% of the time, I’ll have a great stop. It’s very nice to come into the pitlane like that, to trust the guys.

“We have to keep pushing, bringing new bits to the car, I’m confident if we keep doing that and keep learning from that.

“Sometimes things still go wrong, set-up directions or things. You learn every single weekend.”

Part of what Verstappen said is questionable as on the balance of the season so far, he and Red Bull have still made more errors.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Bahrain Grand Prix Race Day Sakhir, Bahrain

Verstappen’s mistakes amount to going off-track passing Hamilton in Bahrain and finished second after handing back the lead; making an on his final Q3 run at Imola and starting third instead of first; losing pole in Portugal (and starting third again) after exceeding track limits then losing fastest lap and a bonus point in the race for the same thing; coming in for a pitstop when he wasn’t called in at the Spanish GP but avoiding any loss of position as a result.

While it may seem harsh to count some of these as Verstappen mistakes they are errors because of how close it is. Fine margins will impact things more this season and therefore incidents that might otherwise seem trivial actually matter. It’s the same reason why Red Bull not seeming to fully understand the instructions around track limits in Bahrain can also be counted as a minor team error.

But Verstappen’s misjudgements are nowhere near as big as Hamilton’s, which is why his claim that “we have made the smallest mistakes” is the most important detail.

Hamilton’s mistakes, all made in races, have hurt more. At Imola, he went off and damaged his front wing, but still finished second after a red flag shortly after his off, fortunately, put him back on the lead lap. In Portugal, he misjudged the safety car restart and got passed by Verstappen, but still won after re-passing Verstappen and also overtaking Bottas.

Then in Azerbaijan he accidentally activated the ‘brake magic’ preset that massively changed his brake bias and caused him to lock up at the final restart, dropping him from first to 15th.

Hamilton was very lucky to get away with the mistake he made in Italy. He didn’t get let off the same way in Azerbaijan. So Verstappen putting the emphasis on Red Bull’s qualities in this fight is an understandable reaction to the early flak it received.

Some have questioned why Mercedes has been put under the same spotlight, but initially, that was to be expected given Mercedes did not have to prove its title credentials off the back of seven straight championships, whereas Red Bull has not pieced together anything close to a challenge in that time.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Spanish Grand Prix Race Day Barcelona, Spain

The early errors carried slightly more weight in the context of questioning whether Red Bull was ready to grasp its opportunity. But the last couple of races have helped put that narrative to bed.

In addition, given the costly Hamilton error in Baku and Mercedes’ botched Bottas pitstop in Monaco, Verstappen is keen not to forget what was being said a few weeks ago and implicitly highlight others’ shortcomings while stressing Red Bull’s strengths.

There is a clear underlying respect between the two title candidates but that doesn’t stop the occasional jibe sneaking through from both camps in emotional moments around a grand prix weekend.

“Everybody tries to do their best,” says Verstappen. “I’m not going to say he’s making mistakes because he’s under pressure. Everybody tries to do the best they can, I do that as well.

“For sure, this year, it’s not only about his team-mate that he has to fight for the championship with. It’s a different team. That always brings a different dimension, which is great for the sport.”

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Azerbaijan Grand Prix Qualifying Day Baku, Azerbaijan

The reference to Hamilton finally facing an external threat is significant because Hamilton’s errors across the first six races have invited suggestions that he is rattled in the face of a serious challenge for the first time in years. Verstappen’s comment shows he’s happy to pull on that particular thread if he wants to.

As this battle is so intense, mistakes will probably switch from one side to the other almost as much as poles and victories.

They have so far, which is why Verstappen’s not suggesting Red Bull’s been error-free – he’s just jumped at the chance to contest which team is actually error-prone.

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