Max Verstappen’s attempted damage limitation job in the Hungarian Grand Prix was aided by Fernando Alonso looking like he was “driving for Red Bull” but suffered from Sebastian Vettel’s disqualification.
Verstappen lost the lead of the world championship last Sunday after finishing only 10th on the road with title rival and new points leader Lewis Hamilton third.
His recovery to the points at all was impressive given he had extensive car damage and admitted he was lucky to even keep going after the first-lap crash caused by Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas that wrecked his grand prix.
“He drove his heart out, he earned one point,” said Red Bull team principal Horner before Vettel’s penalty was announced.
“That point could be crucial at the end of the year.”
Vettel’s disqualification shifted that, but first our focus is on where Red Bull needed outside help.
Without two key interventions, Hamilton would probably have won the grand prix and inflicted more damage on Verstappen’s championship situation.
The first was of Mercedes’ own making, by not pitting Hamilton along with everybody else on the formation lap prior to the standing restart.
Even if Hamilton’s pitlane position and the need to wait for other cars to come through would have lost him some positions he wouldn’t have dropped as far back as he did.
The second was linked to that: Hamilton’s inability to recover as much as he might have. As outlined by my colleague Edd Straw, Alonso’s robust and impressive defence of Hamilton was an integral factor in stopping him from catching and trying to pass Esteban Ocon and Vettel.
That’s why Horner said: “Thankfully Mercedes made a howler strategically. Fernando Alonso looked like he was driving for Red Bull as well.
“Damage was limited compared to what could have been.”
Part of Horner’s hunt for a silver lining was “we’re within the difference of a first and second place in points differences”. That wouldn’t have been the case without Alonso. But it’s also no longer the case because of Vettel’s penalty.
Let’s briefly ignore that, though. Finishing third banked Hamilton 15 points to Verstappen’s one. But a Hamilton victory would have turned a 14-point gain into a 24-point one – which means Alonso initially saved Verstappen 10 points.
That’s huge and the sort of swing that could have a real difference in such a tight championship battle.
But we can’t ignore Vettel’s penalty. So assuming the disqualification is upheld, Hamilton actually scores 18 points to Verstappen’s two – a 16-point gain. That means Alonso has only saved Verstappen a net eight points.
Of course, that is still significant. But as Horner noted, every point counts. It’s why AlphaTauri driver Pierre Gasly having the chance to pit late on – thanks to team-mate Yuki Tsunoda’s spin – and grab the fastest lap was another Red Bull bonus as it took one point away from Hamilton.
So, yes, the point Verstappen originally earned could be important later in the season. But if ‘every point counts’ is the mentality here, then the net two-point loss to Hamilton in the wake of Vettel’s disqualification is twice as significant.
Verstappen and Red Bull should focus on what they can control as much as they can. The focus on Verstappen relative to Hamilton was illustrated during the grand prix by Red Bull’s instant response to Hamilton’s pitstop on lap 19.
Verstappen had track position but was only running ninth with Hamilton 11th. When Mercedes boxed Hamilton to get him into clear air and try to undercut the group he was stuck behind, Red Bull responded immediately.
The implication was clear: compromising Verstappen’s strategy was worthwhile if it meant Hamilton could be impeded longer. In this case, focusing on Hamilton was Red Bull focusing on what it could control.
But it didn’t work and Verstappen fell behind his rival. Hamilton was free to recover as much ground as he could, while Verstappen – with inferior tyre management as a result of his extensive damage – was always going to struggle after such an early stop.
He made the best of a bad situation and limited the points loss to Hamilton as best he could. The rest was out of his hands.
And as it turns out, Alonso has still done Verstappen a big favour. So all Red Bull can do is look at the situation optimistically.
Yes, Hamilton gained more out of Vettel’s disqualification. But regardless of Hamilton gaining an extra couple of points than Verstappen, he still didn’t win. And so he didn’t fully capitalise on the circumstances.
Any race in which two Red Bulls and a Mercedes are out of the picture but Hamilton still doesn’t win has to be considered a decent amount of damage limitation for Verstappen.