The great and good of Formula 1 have rounded on Max Verstappen after the Dutchman’s banzai driving took centre stage again at a dramatic Chinese Grand Prix.
Despite Daniel Ricciardo pulling off a Red Bull tactical masterstroke to secure a quite remarkable win, it was the aggressive tactics deployed by his hot-headed team-mate which dominated the paddock discourse for a second weekend in succession.
Seven days ago in Bahrain, Verstappen collided with Lewis Hamilton, but in Shanghai, it was the Brit’s championship rival Sebastian Vettel who would feel the full force of the brilliant, yet exuberant Dutchman.
Hamilton escaped without damage to his Mercedes car last week, but the same could not be said for Vettel and his Ferrari here.
The German, who was second at the time of their coming together – during a frenetic finale sparked by the deployment of a safety car –limped over the line in eighth.
It enabled Hamilton, himself fortunate to finish fourth after a self-proclaimed disastrous weekend, to reduce the gap in the drivers’ championship from 17 to only nine points.
Verstappen and Ricciardo had carved their way to the top after an inspired gamble by Red Bull team principal Christian Horner to haul both of his drivers in for fresh tyres after Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly tangled and the safety car was sent out.
It provided both men with the advantage of quicker, fresher tyres than their rivals, but as Ricciardo excelled in picking off Kimi Raikkonen, Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas in an overtaking masterclass, Verstappen faltered.
He ran off the road following an ambitious move round the outside of Hamilton at the high-speed turn seven. And, although he got the Brit one lap later, his hairpin lunge on Vettel was desperate. Late on the brakes, he thudded into the Ferrari and sent them both into a spin.
“I don’t need to say anything here,” said Vettel on the radio as he pointed the blame at Verstappen. The stewards agreed, hitting the Red Bull driver with a ten-second penalty which would demote him to fifth.
“It was completely Max’s fault,” said Niki Lauda, Mercedes’ non-executive chairman and three-time world champion.
“When you compete in more races you should get more clever – especially when you want to win or challenge for the championship – but he is going the other way. He needs to sort himself out. Nobody can help him.”
Verstappen may be only 20, but he has started 63 grands prix and is a three-time winner. This is his fourth season.
“He is not young,” Lauda added. “He is old in Formula 1 now so he is like everybody else. It is not necessary because it hurts him as well.”
Australia’s Ricciardo, eight years’ Verstappen’s senior, showed far greater maturity than his team-mate, with bold moves on Hamilton and then Bottas, but moves that were executed with millimetre precision.
Verstappen apologised to Vettel in the immediate aftermath of another spellbinding instalment of this new, unpredictable season, but it may yet be an incident which could prove costly in the Ferrari driver’s pursuit of a fifth world championship.
“In that situation he has to change his style otherwise it will happen again,” Vettel warned. “I said to him afterwards ‘look, the race is long and you threw your podium away’.
“It is not a question of age because he has done so many races now. I gave him room, I wasn’t planning on resisting, but he had a big lock-up and that is when we crashed. We are not happy because we had the car to win.”
Hamilton cast a downbeat figure in the Mercedes hospitality suite as he faced up to another disappointing weekend.
“I am thankful for the way he drives because it meant we did not lose too many points,” Hamilton said.