He took umbrage at repeated questions over his string of incidents and hit back hard at critics who suggested he should tone down his maximum-attack approach.
But lately he has begun to cut out the mistakes. And it paid off in a big way for him and Red Bull at the team’s home race.
Mercedes repel Raikkonen
Race day dawned unexpectedly hot at the Red Bull Ring. “We asked Dietrich [Mateschitz] if he would turn the heater up for Sunday, which he duly did,” joked Red Bull team principal Christian Horner afterwards. On the grid Horner hinted the hotter conditions would favour his team, and so it proved.
Red Bull shouldn’t have been in a position to win this race. For once neither of their drivers had been able to claim any silver or red scalps in qualifying. Mercedes locked out the front row, followed by Ferrari. It was only when Sebastian Vettel got a three-place penalty for holding up Carlos Sainz Jnr in Q2, because his engineer had failed to warn him about the approaching Renault, that Verstappen was elevated in front of him and onto the second row.
That was the first of several mistakes by other teams which tipped circumstances in Verstappen’s favour.
Before the race began pole sitter Valtteri Bottas remarked that a driver needs to make a particularly poor start to be passed on the short run to turn one at the Red Bull Ring. He then proceeded to demonstrate this on race day.
From second on the grid Lewis Hamilton made a good enough start to draw alongside his team mate. But third-placed Kimi Raikkonen, who started on softer tyres than the Mercedes, shot away from the line quickly enough to dive between the Mercedes drivers.
For a moment it look like we were about to get a replay of Singapore last year, but the trio gave each other room and Hamilton led Raikkonen up the hill while Verstappen demoted Bottas. Mercedes had been wary of Ferrari’s traction out of turn three, so the relief must have been great when Raikkonen slithered wide at the corner, letting Hamilton off the hook.
That gave Verstappen a run down the inside of the Ferrari going into turn four. Raikkonen squeezed the Red Bull onto the grass approaching the corner, and was so preoccupied that Bottas serenely swept around the pair of them to restore a Mercedes one-two.
Having almost gone from third to first, Raikkonen slipped back to fourth when he swung into turn seven just as Verstappen was diving inside him. The pair made contact, Raikkonen backed off and Verstappen was through into third.
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Tactical error thwarts Hamilton
Lap two began with the Mercedes seemingly on their way to another one-two, followed by Verstappen, Raikkonen and Ricciardo, who’d gained two places on the first lap. One came at the expense of Vettel, who was now stuck behind the Haas pair. After dispensing with these on consecutive laps, he was onto the tail of the leading quintet.
The high tyre temperatures were always going to make a one-stop strategy more difficult. Deciding what was the earliest point a driver could stand to pit and run to the end was critical for the strategists. An early Safety Car period could present a difficult decision: could they stand to take advantage of the early opportunity to pit?
As lap 10 came to an end Nico Hulkenberg felt his engine begin to go. His team urged him to pit just as he flashed past the entrance. As smoke began to billow from the yellow car, Hulkenberg appeared to consider stopping next to the pit wall, which would have been an instant Safety Car situation. Instead he pulled off in the turn one run-off, and race control left the race running.
But two laps later that changed, and for the most astonishing of reasons. One of the hitherto bulletproof Mercedes had stopped. A loss of hydraulic pressure put Bottas out. Ironically, the Virtual Safety Car period triggered by his recovery indirectly ruined the race of the other car.
Mercedes already threw away one win under Virtual Safety Car conditions this year in Australia when it incorrectly calculated how close Hamilton needed to be to Vettel in order to prevent the Ferrari driver pitting under a VSC and staying ahead of him. This time their error was more straightforward: they should have pitted but didn’t, because they spent too long trying to work out whether they needed to.
Red Bull and Ferrari were so certain the best approach was to pit that they brought both pairs of drivers in, even though they had to queue them. Red Bull seem to thrive on this challenge and produced two of the four quickest complete pit stops of the race for Verstappen and Ricciardo.
The VSC period was cancelled before Hamilton returned to the pit entry, and so his opportunity to pit was lost. This catastrophic mistake by Mercedes handed Verstappen the win.
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Red Bull’s rivals can’t take the heat
However he still had to bring the car home on a day when tyre life was critical. “Max knew the race was all about tyre conservation,” said Horner, who pointed out the conditions were much warmer than when teams had done their race simulations during Friday practice.
“Temperatures were probably 10 or 12 degrees hotter today than on Friday. We’d seen in the support races [on Sunday] a couple of F2 guys getting into trouble with rear deg. It was something we talked about in the race [that] this might not be as easy a one-stop as we thought.”
The team had also done a lot of work on the RB14s since the first day of action. “The temperature obviously came up but we made quite a lot of set-up changes between Friday [and Saturday],” said Horner on Sunday evening. “It was clear that we were off the pace on Friday.”
“But Mercedes had no pace on us today. And also Ferrari we had covered as well. We looked six, seven tenths off on Friday. Good work from engineering to get the car back into a competitive window.”
Ricciardo gave a clear demonstration of the Red Bull’s pace when he passed Raikkonen for fourth. His team mate spotted the move on the trackside video screen and let his team know on the radio.
Red Bull also drew encouragement from Ferrari’s apparent lack of pace. When Hamilton finally made his pit stop under green conditions he emerged in front of Vettel, who hadn’t been quick enough to get into Hamilton’s pit window.
Vettel expressed frustration at this development on his radio. “I was aware that we were fighting him but I was of the opinion that we were ahead,” he explained afterwards. “I didn’t expect it to be that close and to be on the back foot.”
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“I have thrown the win away”
However the Ferrari driver’s displeasure paled into comparison with Hamilton’s. “What the hell was that?” he asked on the radio. “How did we miss that?” he continued, somehow managing not to add the word ‘again’.
Mercedes’ strategist James Vowles came on the radio twice to reassure Hamilton he wasn’t responsible for the mistake. “I have thrown the win away today but you have the potential opportunity to get back up,” he said at one point.
Vowles added “just let the tyres cool”, for by this stage Hamilton was pressuring Raikkonen hard but the increased strain on his tyres was giving him problems. As his rubber began to blister, Hamilton found himself under attack from the other Ferrari.
Vettel suddenly pounced on the approach to turn three. Hamilton made a late defence, edging the Ferrari towards the grass, but it was too late to stop Vettel getting through. Capping Hamilton’s misery, his blistering forced him in for a second pit stop.
That dropped him behind Ricciardo, who had also discovered that pushing the tyres hard enough to make a pass was asking too much of the rubber. However as Hamilton zeroed in Ricciardo’s Red Bull began to smoke, and soon stopped. His third retirement of the year made for an unhappy 29th birthday present.
He was joined in retirement nine laps later by Hamilton. Even more astonishingly, the other the hitherto bulletproof Mercedes also stopped, this time following a loss of fuel pressure.
Up at the front, Verstappen was didn’t have to worry about passing anyone and skilfully kept his tyres alive. “We could see the start of blisters just starting to happen,” said Horner. “But he was able to manage that.
“He was very much in control, he was getting the information from the pit wall, he was using the tyres he had available to him.”
Red Bull turned Verstappen’s engine down following Ricciardo’s failure. But the Ferraris were edging ever closer: with five laps to go both were within five seconds of him. So Red Bull allowed him to use more of the Renault’s performance.
“[It was] a really very mature drive from him to make sure he’d got just enough left in the last five to 10 laps,” Horner added. “I think Ferrari were better than us on tyre deg today and we knew they’d come back at us at the end of the race. But he’d got enough in the tank to see off the challenge to the end.”
First class Haas
The rest of the field was lapped, and led home by the Haas pair. The team which has arguably got closest to the front-running pace of any midfield outfit this year finally delivered on its potential in its 50th race, achieving a best-ever finish of fourth and fifth.
Force India released Sergio Perez, who was on fresher tyres, from behind team mate Esteban Ocon to mount an attack on the VF-18s. He got close, then fell back, and Force India instructed him to give Ocon the position back. He did, though he had to back off by 10 seconds on the final lap.
Fernando Alonso impressively arrived in eighth place despite having to start from the pit lane. This was because the team had to fit an old-specification front wing to his car when he broke on in qualifying. He made amends with a typically canny performance, babying his tyres for lap after lap after his pit stop, then picking off his midfield rivals for a solid points finish.
The Sauber pair filled the remaining points positions. Like the Force India pair they also swapped positions on the final lap after Marcus Ericsson had been waved past Charles Leclerc earlier on.
Leclerc, whose starting position was compromised by a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change, spoiled a good start by going off while battling Pierre Gasly. “I just pushed like crazy, and even more after my error, to catch up and do a better job after it and it just worked out,” he said. This was the fifth points score in six races for the driver who is increasingly being linked with a Ferrari race seat in 2019.
The fifth running of the Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring since it returned to the calendar finally produced a win for someone other than Mercedes. Not only that, an overdue home team win.
And for Verstappen, a vindication of the approach to driving he swore he’d never change. “Sometimes you have difficult moments and then you try to work hard and you keep working hard even when it’s difficult and you overcome the situation,” he said.
As last year, a huge contingent of Verstappen fans amassed at the Red Bull Ring to see him in action. Last year he made it no further than turn one before being taken out.
Unreliability, tactical errors, driving errors: Mistakes by one name or another. Verstappen’s rivals could each count at least one of these reasons why he won and they didn’t.
Quotes: Dieter Rencken
2018 Austrian Grand Prix
- 2018 Austrian Grand Prix Star Performers
- Four wins, no poles: Verstappen equals an unusual record
- Top ten pictures from the 2018 Austrian Grand Prix
- Error-free Verstappen hands Red Bull a home win
- Why the Red Bull Ring showed Paul Ricard how to run a race
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