Azerbaijan Grand Prix – Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen says his late race charge was stymied when his tyres got too cold under the Virtual Safety Car.Verstappen had been a constant presence close to the leaders during Sunday’s race. Having started from P4, he lost position to Racing Point’s Sergio Perez on the opening lap. By the time he got back ahead of the Mexican to resume P4, he had lost a handful of seconds. Running a longer first stint on the Soft tyres, excellent pace on the Medium tyres meant he slowly but surely reeled in the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel.
With the Ferrari driver himself having slowly inched closer to the leading Mercedes drivers, the four drivers looked set for a grandstand finish. However, a late race Virtual Safety Car slowed the pace, deployed to cover the incident between Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo and Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat. That seemed to nullify the race a little, as the drivers all got stretched out from each other.
Verstappen explained afterwards that this was due to the tyre temperatures dropping as the pace cooled: “In general we had a good race. I always had the Mercedes and Ferrari in sight and I was just trying to close the gap. At the start I was blocked and couldn’t really brake deep into the corner, which allowed Perez to get past me. Of course, that lost me a bit of ground but you don’t want to risk everything on Lap 1. Once I got back past, we went a little bit longer than the others on the soft tyre and I had a good feeling with the car.”
Eventually finishing in P4, Verstappen was pleased with the performance. Engine supplier Honda had brought along a new Spec 2 power unit and, with Baku having the longest flat out section of the year, Red Bull had compared favourably with Ferrari and Mercedes:
“We had good pace, especially on the medium tyre in the second stint where I closed the gap by seven or eight seconds. With the Virtual Safety Car, I think I lost too much tyre temperature and I couldn’t get it back as quickly as the others. Around here, tyre temperature is key and you end up sliding a lot more with low temperatures so it wasn’t worth risking the position in the final laps. The performance in Barcelona will of course depend on the upgrades that everyone is bringing but hopefully we can be even more competitive and close the gap even further.”
Team boss Christian Horner said that the team also instructed him to calm down for the final laps, especially to avoid the final big kerb at Turn 16. This was due to the team not being sure of what caused the retirement of the second Red Bull of Pierre Gasly from P6: “Max drove a strong race today. Unfortunately, after losing a position at the start to Perez, by the time he managed to get back past, he’d lost touch with the lead group. He then drove a very strong middle stint and caught the lead group by 10 seconds. He was within three seconds of Sebastian before the Virtual Safety Car, ironically caused by Pierre, which took too much temperature out of his tyres and he just didn’t have the same pace after that. Not knowing fully what had happened with Pierre’s car, we decided to make sure that we got Max to the finish and he drove a conservative final few laps.”