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Sebastian Vettel in his car at the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix.

Inexperienced Verstappen still learning lessons the hard way

Formula One is going from strength to strength at the start of what is shaping up to be an exciting season, but one of its stars, Max Verstappen has been turning heads for all the wrong reasons.

The 20-year-old Dutchman has had an inauspicious opening three rounds, scoring just 18 points and sitting eighth in the championship for Red Bull Racing.

Few would’ve picked that Verstappen’s teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, would be 19 points ahead in the intra-team battle so early in the season, but while the Australian already has one win to his name, Verstappen has been more likely to spray carbon fibre across the track than champagne on the podium.

Starting in Australia, he damaged his diffuser running off the track in a fruitless pursuit of Kevin Magnussen for fourth place and later spun exiting the first turn, dropping three places.

Never mind — Melbourne’s street circuit has always been a difficult one for overtaking and the Bahrain Grand Prix was just two weeks away.

But Verstappen’s weekend at the island kingdom never really took off, with a crash borne of driver error in Q2 relegating him to P15 on the grid and a clash with Lewis Hamilton on the second lap earning him a puncture that ultimately forced his retirement.

Roll on China, then, where Red Bull Racing felt it had the opportunity to exploit what it believes is the best chassis on the grid in pursuit of its first win of the season.

The team was poised to do exactly that after a fortuitous mid-race safety car. Verstappen and Ricciardo, running fourth and fifth respectively and equipped with new soft tyres, began a charge for the podium, and their pace quickly made obvious that Ferrari and Mercedes resistance would be futile.

Why Verstappen felt a need to hang onto Hamilton around the outside of turn seven, well off the racing line, is therefore unclear. The Dutchman went wide off the track and lost a place to Ricciardo, who subsequently made short work of Hamilton into the hairpin.

While Daniel was powering to the top step of the podium, Verstappen was slogging his way back past Hamilton and then Vettel — or at least that was the plan. A clumsy attempt to pass the championship-leading Ferrari at the hairpin ended in contact that sent both tumbling down the order.

“That was of course my fault,” a downtrodden Verstappen told Sky Sports F1 after the race.

“It’s easy to say afterwards that I should’ve waited. It probably would’ve been the best idea, but unfortunately it happened.”

Vettel contended that in situations like this, particularly given the RB14’s pace advantage, a more measured approach was needed from the Dutchman.

“I wasn’t planning on resisting,” Vettel said. “I think in that situation he has to [change his style], otherwise it happens again.”

This is hardly the first time Verstappen’s racing style has been questioned. His tenure in the sport has been controversial for his aggressive, non-compromising attitude that has both attracted comparisons to some of the sport’s all-time greats, including Ayrton Senna, and also put his competitors offside on multiple occasion.

Verstappen is rightfully recognised as one of the most exciting talents of his generation, but his raw impetuousness behind the wheel was on full display in Shanghai. He lost a sure-fire win by making amateur errors and as a result was thoroughly outclassed by a teammate who’d been on the back foot all weekend.

“His judgement today, he was too impatient,” Red Bull Racing principal Christian Horner said. “He will have for sure learnt from that, I have no doubt of that.”

Unlike in previous altercations, when Verstappen has been able to power through criticism without changing tack, one gets the sense that seeing Ricciardo take the top step while he ended with a time penalty for his mistakes is forcing him into some genuine reflection. Most impacting is that he’ll have recognised that this was no minor misjudgement made in the heat of a wheel-to-wheel; it was a rookie error from a driver with the pedigree to know better.

Indeed Vettel believes the accident could have been avoided had Verstappen simply factored in the weather conditions as they sped down the straight.

“We had a bit of tailwind the whole race, and you have 41 laps to know that it’s tricky to stop the car there [at the hairpin],” he said.

The first three races of the year are testament to the fact that Verstappen’s place at the point end of the grid belies his experience. He may be past his half-century of grand prix race starts, but he had just one season of car racing under his belt beforehand, making him one of the least experienced drivers on the grid.

It adds an intriguing dimension to this year’s title race if indeed Red Bull Racing proves a contender. Verstappen has never been one to crack under pressure, but could his own eagerness be his undoing?

Christian Horner proffers one potential answer.

“Yes, he’s made some mistakes, but I remember when we had Sebastian [Vettel] at a similar stage of his career it wasn’t uncommon that he also made some mistakes.”

And we all know how that turned out.

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