As Daniel Ricciardo surged down the home stretch to clinch his first win of the season in Shanghai, you couldn’t help but wonder what might have been if Max Verstappen had kept a cool head.
The Red Bull cars charged past the field with fresh tyres, thanks to an opportunistic pit stop under the late Safety Car on lap 31, and they oozed pace and power.
Verstappen had already run wide on Lewis Hamilton as he chased third place, and after passing him three laps later, he closed in on Sebastian Vettel – championship leader and winner of the opening two races.
The Dutchman dove late and hit Vettel, resulting in a ten second penalty – and the Ferrari man subsequently dropped from third place to seventh.
The ‘over-optimistic’ driving robbed Red Bull of the chance for a sensational one-two finish, with Ricciardo’s sublime victory showing just how much pace the team had over its rivals in the closing stages.
Verstappen, who had come into the race answering questions about a clash with Lewis Hamilton in Bahrain, was pulled into the spotlight for the second week in a row.
His hit on Vettel raised questions about his maturity on the track and perhaps what he could learn from his older and more experienced teammate.
Although the 20-year-old has had more success – marginally – than Ricciardo in his three seasons in F1, he is yet to really show a run of consistency in the championship.
It is clear Verstappen is the most talented youngster on the grid, but in a 21-race season, to show flashes of class is not enough to win a world championship.
Car reliability may have curtailed his prospects in seven of the races in 2017, but in a more competitive Red Bull car, he has no excuse for inexperience, especially after completing 63 F1 races to date.
If he can’t improve and mature now, when will he?
Verstappen is his own man and time and practice will help his steady improvement as a driver and person.
It can be argued that he is third youngest of the 20 drivers, but the reality is he needs to relax and pick his opportunities at the right time instead of going hell for leather when he eyes a break.
In Shanghai, Red Bull’s brave decision to pit during the safety car was an outstanding and decisive decision – and if Verstappen hadn’t hit Vettel – both drivers could have been on the podium.
The Dutchman had a better track position after the safety car, but Ricciardo made the moves at the right time – each overtake looking better than the next.
The Australian is more successful at clean passes, while Max attempts more and fails to make it stick.
You rarely see Ricciardo make a driving error, which is down to his experience behind the wheel – and his four extra years in the sport.
Both Ricciardo and Verstappen are great drivers, but look at the difference in how they moved through the field in those closing 20 laps.
Ricciardo looked efficient, Verstappen utterly chaotic.
He could have gotten more out of the race if he had kept composed when attacking Vettel in that pivotal moment.
In contrast, Ricciardo’s move on the inside of Bottas to take the lead with 11 laps remaining was utterly sublime – and proved that the Australian has the tools to challenge at the top.
With Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen now in the final year of their respective deals, the Perth native is a front runner to secure one of the Mercedes or Ferrari seats.
He’s a likeable character, drives to perfection and looks primed to be a world champion in the right car.
Eight years his junior, Max has the potential to be a future world champion himself, but needs to minimise silly mistakes that are costing him his reputation among the drivers and his team vital points in the constructors’ championship.
When he leaves China for his base in Monaco this evening, it will cross his mind about what he needs to do to prevent this from recurring for the rest of this season.
He may be young, fearless and talented, but for now, he could and should learn a few lessons from Ricciardo.
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