Max Verstappen makes most of Russian GP rain to finish second after starting last due to engine penalty; Red Bull driver loses championship lead to Lewis Hamilton but only trails Briton by two points; Christian Horner expects title race to go all the way to December’s Abu Dhabi GP
By Jonathan Green
Last Updated: 26/09/21 5:32pm
Max Verstappen’s drive to second from last on the grid “feels like a victory” to Red Bull, according to Christian Horner, while Lewis Hamilton admitted his title rival produced “mega damage limitation”.
Verstappen, the championship leader arriving at the Russian GP, was forced to start from the back of the grid after taking a penalty for using a brand new Honda power unit.
His progress through the field appeared to have stalled out in the dry as he ran in seventh place, but he was a major beneficiary of the late rain in Sochi as his early stop for intermediate tyres saw him overtake a number of cars trying to hold out on slicks and finish in second behind Hamilton.
The Dutchman now trails Hamilton by two points in the drivers’ championship, but his performance exceeded the top-five finish Red Bull were hopeful of pre-race.
“It feels like a victory for us today. To go from 20th to P2 with the engine penalty and the grid penalty, I don’t think we could’ve expected more than that coming here,” team boss Horner told Sky Sports F1.
“Max was confident going into the race, but we thought top five might be possible so to come away with that podium is hugely valuable.
“The last two venues we knew Mercedes have historically been very, very strong. I have to say congratulations to Lewis on his century of wins, which is insane. For us, to come away from here only two points behind in the drivers’ championship with an engine penalty taken, that’s great news.”
Verstappen thought second place may have been the best he could have hoped for even if he had started from the front of the grid.
“Realistically, even if we had started up front in the top three or four, this was maybe the best we could have done,” he told Sky Sports F1’s Craig Slater.
“We didn’t really lose out and it’s a big bonus taking the new engine and starting from last. I’m looking forward to the upcoming races.”
Hamilton added: “To come from last, have two penalties and come back to second, that’s mega damage limitation.”
Horner: Max nailed strategy call
When he pitted on lap 48, Verstappen was just the sixth driver to switch from slick tyres to intermediates, making the decision before those ahead of him on track.
It paid dividends as the increased grip saw him able to move ahead of Charles Leclerc, team-mate Sergio Perez and Fernando Alonso when they pitted on the next lap, while he also benefitted from leader Lando Norris sliding off track as he tried to stick it out on slicks.
“Max made the call today and he got it right. Checo decided to stick thinking he might be able to get through it and that was the wrong decision. It could have gone either way. Max benefitted massively, Checo lost out significantly,” Horner said.
“Sergio wasn’t alone, there was a whole bunch of guys who decided to brave it out thinking it was so close to the finish, if the rain stops the circuit will come back.
“But Max nailed it, he called it right and was able to make it stick. To come from 20th to P2, if you’d offered us that at the beginning of the day we would have absolutely taken it.”
Verstappen admitted it was one of his sweeter second-place finishes and beyond what he thought was possible pre-race.
“I’ve had a few second places but this one definitely came a little bit out of nowhere towards the end. We made the right call to go from the slicks to the inters,” he said.
“The team kept asking how were the conditions, what did I want to do, and at one point it was so tricky to drive I said to box now and we go for it. That was the right call and I’m super pleased to be second here from last.
“If somebody would’ve told me I’d be second here this morning, then I definitely wouldn’t have believed that.”
‘Title race will go to Abu Dhabi’
Horner says Red Bull have been re-energised by being back in a title fight and predicts the battle between Verstappen and Hamilton will go all the way to the final race in Abu Dhabi in December.
“Everybody in the team is really enjoying this,” he said. “We’ve finally got ourselves back into a competitive position and it’s all going to be about the next seven races and not making mistakes, getting the strategy right, having the pace and penalties will play a role as well. It will be fascinating to see how this unfolds.
“This is going to go all the way to Abu Dhabi, I’ve got absolutely no doubt about that, and it’s going to be a phenomenal competition.”