Monaco Grand Prix – Another race weekend, and another major error from Max Verstappen has cost his team dearly at a race where they appear to have the outright fastest car.
It wasn’t really a surprise when the TV cameras suddenly showed a Red Bull in the wall late in final practice on Saturday morning; it was even less of a surprise when the race number became visible and it was clear that Max Verstappen had, once again, pushed his luck too far. Fastest man on track in the final practice session, he was pushing hard to beat his own laptime when he crashed. The resulting damage meant his car wasn’t fixable in time for qualifying, thanks to a gearbox leak, meaning that one of the two men in the fastest car at this track starts from dead last. At a track that is virtually impossible to overtake on, there’s no doubt that Verstappen has cost his team major points yet again – obviously barring any particularly weird race circumstances. Points, a podium, a win, a 1-2, we now will never know what has been lost, but Red Bull themselves will have a fair idea.
The silly thing is that it was so needless. Fastest man in FP3 means nothing. Ricciardo went out on track after the green flags were shown again and immediately went faster, and said afterwards that, throughout the entire weekend, he treats it as a case of weighing up risk & reward. Without mentioning Max, he said that this venue is “one where you mustn’t overdrive the car” and that you “keep it clean and within the car’s limits” and “the lap time will just come to you”.
Verstappen is overdriving. So desperate to keep his reputation as being the fast wunderkind of F1, he has become a running joke. His crash was a carbon copy of the one he had in qualifying in 2016, while he also had a big shunt in 2015 at Ste. Devote while racing Romain Grosjean. It’s a track that rewards precision, patience, and an ability to keep within the confines of the circuit and the driver’s own ability. Verstappen’s error was not a big one. The difference between his crash turn-in point and the millimetre perfect turn-in we often see at the Swimming Pool was in the region of a few hundredths of a second and yet, that crash means he will spend his afternoon stuck behind other cars or, inevitably, colliding with one or two of them as he tries to pass them.
Verstappen has been very vocal and defensive about not wanting to change his approach to racing and, publicly at least, Red Bull don’t seem to have made any particular request of him in that area. Without a single, fully clean weekend behind him in 2018 so far, it’s time for Verstappen to rethink that strategy. Even Ricciardo, his biggest rival, appears to be trying to advise him on how to reign in his exuberance. Verstappen said after qualifying that he went to visit Ricciardo and congratulate his teammate but admitted that despite his happiness for the team, his own performance has once again let him down:
“It makes it a bit more painful knowing this is a track that we genuinely had a shot at pole and the win. It was a small mistake that resulted in us paying a big price. That is usually the way in Monaco. I saw Daniel back on the Energy Station after quali and congratulated him on a great performance. We know we have pace here but it is so hard to pass and when you get held up there is little you can do.”
Explaining the error itself, he said that he thought he might have distracted himself a little while passing the Renault of Carlos Sainz: “I got a little bit caught off guard passing the slow car, which isn’t an excuse, and clipped the inside barrier before hitting the wall. It happened so quick after getting a bit distracted and perhaps I turned in a bit too early. Like in China, this was my mistake. It is of course not what you like but unfortunately sometimes it happens.” Asked about what he can do to change his fortunes, he said “I don’t know, I can’t explain it.”
The question mark over this is how long Red Bull’s patience lasts. Ricciardo is not particularly far behind in the title chase and a win in Monte Carlo could underline his credentials as a serious championship contender. The second car also needs to be up there, serving as a buffer, a rearguard action, and to be there to pick up any pieces. Right now, Verstappen is not serving that role, and the public opinion has shifted away from him. Team members are, apparently, not pleased with his performance while upper management are getting worse at hiding their displeasure with whats going on. Should Ricciardo win on Sunday, with Verstappen nowhere or retired, Red Bull could decide to draw a line in the sand and start putting their big name star under some real, public pressure. And very few drivers ever recover from that.