Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc Outwit Sergio Perez in F1 Countdown
All eyes were as much on the Perez-Leclerc battle, as on the Perez-Verstappen-Red Bull drama
Even in the backdrop of the shadow battle for second spot in the world drivers championship between Charles Leclerc and Sergio Perez, there was a sense of subduedness about the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after last year's final lap theatrics. Still, late drama in the Red Bull garage unexpectedly put two time champion Max Verstappen at the centre of the championship decider that went the way of the Monegasque.
The grandeur of the Yas Marina circuit was paled by the fact that Verstappen was starting the race as the undisputed world champion, crowned the winner for a second consecutive year with 454 points – the most by any F1 driver and also, with a record 15 race wins for the season to go with his 11 last year.
Against the backdrop of such astounding numbers, it seemed almost trivial that Perez and Leclerc were rather distant runners up, eventually ending up on 305 and 308 points respectively. Neither scored even a handful of race wins to be counted in the same league as the Dutchman who put behind any dispute about the final race result last year even amidst controversy that Red Bull had marginally surpassed the budget cap with the potential to attract a penalty for the driver which did not materialise.
Although the Red Bull and Ferrari drivers had locked horns going into the final race for the second place, it was a far cry from where Leclerc began the year, putting Ferrari front and centre stage as Red Bull battled car reliability issues with Verstappen at the start of the season. From taking a commanding lead in the world drivers championship to finding his season being outclassed by not only a better performing Verstappen but also, by better strategy from Red Bull compared to Ferrari's own blundering ways that made for more than one self-goal, Leclerc has had to admit his own mistakes. He also had to swallow some of the indignation that came his way as his races were repeatedly thwarted by questionable decisions back in the garage, glaring mistakes that F1 fans watched in aghast for many a race.
Leclerc had to overcome his own brashness and ambition on circuit even as the Dutchman was showing an even more superior class in how he went about this season, looking increasingly more composed, less frantic and not afraid to play the temperament game in making his way to the front of the pack and in the end, making it look all too easy.
It was the way Verstappen finished the final race in Abu Dhabi, commanding from pole position to the chequered flag, in a league of his own. It was a long way away from the manner in which he and Lewis Hamilton crossed swords last year on track and then traded places in the course of that chaotic final race that awarded Verstappen his first world title and denied Hamilton his eighth.
Although Mercedes woke up rather late to the challenge with the younger George Russell on occasion outperforming his Brit compatriot and even winning his maiden F1 race at the penultimate race in Brazil this year, Hamilton continued to bristle and second guess, after coming to blows on track as it were with Ferrari's Carlos Sainz on the first lap. The bickering continued till the end when eventually his car had to be retired close to the finish.
Sainz himself must consider himself somewhat fortunate given that there has been more than one first lap exit for him this season, to not only survive but also, finish in fourth place while adopting a different strategy of two pit stops to one as modified for Leclerc.
In fact, it would seem the race was won for Leclerc as it was for Verstappen as Perez, stuck behind Verstappen, Hamilton and back markers at various points, pitted for a second change of tyres rather early than expected with over 20 laps still remaining, two thirds of the race having been covered of the 58 lap race. Ferrari went the opposite way and Red Bull simultaneously adopted a similar strategy for the Dutchman which meant that both drivers were on one pit stop strategies after careful watch of tyre degradation which has plagued Ferrari more than Red Bull and also, put Pirelli under the scanner this year.
The strategy, it could be argued, worked for Leclerc more than it worked for outgoing four time world champion, Sebastian Vettel, driving his final F1 race in the Aston Martin car. The German was heard over the radio, "How did we get the strategy so wrong?" after his team mate, Lance Stroll, overtook him. The one pit stop strategy certainly went against the German whose promising pace at the start seemed to fall away as the race went deep.
While there was a sense of occasion that seemed to overshadow the race itself, there was no getting around the fact that the eyes of the world were as much on the Perez-Leclerc battle as much as it was on the Perez-Verstappen-Red Bull drama.
Verstappen's stern message over the pit radio at the end of the Brazilian Grand Prix when asked to yield his position back to Perez in the hope for his team mate to gain a couple more points demonstrated that the uneasy relationship between the two drivers after the Mexican seemed a surprise third contender in the championship race at one point had hit a new low.
"We discussed it last time. You are not to ask me that again. You know my view on this. Are we clear about that?" was the lines on which Verstappen seemed to stab fiercely at the team's desperate attempts to get the world no.1 to give up the inconsequential place. It seemed a matter of principle and more importantly, angst on the part of the Dutchman and it painted him as the new villain in F1, a fall that was so far down the ladder that the thud sent shockwaves around the motorsport world.
Verstappen took down the media for painting him as less than a team player and an entitled no.1 in the garage, without going into details and the reason for taking an obtuse stance that seemed out of character for him. This though would not be the first time, as Vettel's own battles with Mark Webber were also anecdotes shared in good measure as also some of Michael Schumacher's antics and the position of no.1 drivers in teams.
Perez's detracting statement after his radio message in Brazil to the lines of, "That shows who he (Verstappen) is," was seen as backing down of the clear no.2 driver in the garage – a self-protective measure in essence, to which fans did not take kindly. It would not be the first time that drivers have shared disharmonious relationships within the team. But Red Bull had done a better job of putting up a more robust front than most teams in the past, which is why it came as a shock as to why Red Bull did not take cognisance of the growing dissonance, or of why they even asked of Verstappen if there were in the knowledge of the Dutchman's opinion in the first place.
The late re-signing of Daniel Ricciardo as the third/reserve driver by Red Bull after the Australian had an unhappy time at McLaren since leaving Red Bull for a better position was seen not only as eating humble pie for the Australian but also, as a signal to Perez that Red Bull could sign a player who had been shown his place and that he could be replaced, something they would not dare to do with their champion driver.
Perez has had a turbulent time this season, from being a worthy No. 2 at Abu Dhabi when he held off Hamilton for nearly 10 seconds to give Verstappen the heads up, to challenging the no.1 contest and winning in Monaco to then surprisingly losing steam to often look like a distant third as the Leclerc-Verstappen wheel-to-wheel action and rivalry took centre stage this year in rather exciting fashion.
Perez, who had won the seat at Red Bull at the eleventh hour when it seemed his F1 career was done and dusted two years ago, was awarded a contract extension, almost it seems, coinciding at a time when rumours swirled this year that the Mexican driver had not played fair in Monaco in order to keep himself ahead of the competition, namely, Verstappen. That the Mexican himself went onto win the Monaco Grand Prix only fuelled the speculation, building the rift reportedly between the two drivers.
Those rumours were almost given validation by the dramatic and rather unexpected reaction from the Dutchman when it came to returning the favour to his Mexican team mate after Perez had famously held off Lewis Hamilton in Abu Dhabi as the Brit fought fiercely and in vain to add to his seven world titles. This was one instance although not out of the ordinary, given that there is often a clear hierarchy between drivers within teams with the second driver often playing the perfect foil to either aid his team mate or thwart the competition, not only in a sentiment of team spirit but as part of an unwritten deal with the team.
The goal was to get Sergio Perez past Ferrari's Charles Leclerc to make it a 1-2 for the season in the world drivers championship for Red Bull, something the team is yet to taste success for. Verstappen said it as much going into the penultimate race at the Brazilian Grand Prix. Yet the final moments of the race in the South American country threw up more questions than answers and put the reputation of the two time world champion under the scanner in a rare, unexpected turn of events.
Although the two drivers, particularly Verstappen, claimed a heart-to-heart open discussion with the team in the wake of the shenanigans in Brazil, the damage to the PR machinery was done with questions asked of Red Bull over why these issues were raked up if as Verstappen claimed, the discussion had ended on an unsavoury but clear note. It is something Red Bull will struggle to live down as will Verstappen whose reputation took an unexpected tumble after comfortably closing out the season well before the final race at the Japanese Grand Prix under torrential rain conditions when he drove flawlessly as he had for much of the season.
It will be interesting whether Perez' public backdown with words will also be followed on track next season, particularly after the 31 year old tasted, albeit briefly, what going for the top place felt like.
Hamilton's season has had its own record, making it the first year in F1 when he did not win a single race and his retirement with hydraulics problem with three laps to go in Abu Dhabi making it Mercedes' first retirement and DNF (Did not Finish) for the season which speaks to their reliability but not how much they have had to struggle to catch up with the competition at the front in the end after being undisputed for seven years in the constructors and drivers championship before the new regulations came into play this year in a bid to level the playing field.
For Ferrari, it was small consolation to finish a distant second in the world constructors championship ahead of Mercedes given how strongly the year had begun for the Italian team in many a season. Although Leclerc had to fight off Perez in the end, it is no consolation for the fact that he seemed a good match for Verstappen. This was something even the fans got an early feel for, given how clean but tightly contested on track action the two drivers kept it amongst them, unlike the fractious and friction fuelled collisions between Verstappen and Hamilton last year, and another touchy situation that cost Verstappen in Brazil.
Unfortunately, the Ferrari drivers failed in consistency as did their strategy team in the pit garage, often calling on the drivers to call the shots in order to keep them in the hunt. As heads rolled immediately in the aftermath of the final race, the break gave the two time world champion a chance to unwind. Then there is the small matter to repair the late reputation damage at Red Bull, it will have given more than one team a lot of food for thought with 105 days to the next race.