The fine detail of the Verstappen/Ricciardo incident in Azerbaijan is as grey as the expression of Christian Horner’s rage as he walked briskly from the pit wall.
Red Bull Racing had just lost 22 points (perhaps more) and would remain only a similar margin ahead of McLaren – not that such an uncomfortable juxtaposition on the championship table would have been foremost in Horner’s thoughts at that particular moment.
Most fan surveys I’ve seen come down heavily against Verstappen. But should any of the blame be directed at the team itself? If ever there was a telegraphed accident, this was it.
Red Bull have to be commended for allowing their drivers to go for it and provide us with the very essence of racing. But is it fair to ask if there comes a point in the closing stages of a race when the interests of the team ought to come before what is rapidly turning into a brutal battle of egos?
There should have been no doubt about that when Verstappen, despite having being involved in incidents of some sort or another in every race thus far, was not allowing overdue circumspection to inform his behaviour as he banged wheels with his teammate.
Red Bull should have known this was becoming intensely personal from that moment on, just as they should have guessed Daniel was going to attack as soon as he came round Turn 1 on lap 39 to discover Max had managed to perform the overcut.
Verstappen’s determination not to lose the lead again after such a fierce contest would have been matched by Ricciardo’s struggle with temperature on the fresh ultrasofts telling him Max was about to have the same problem. So, he had to attack. Now!
Talk about an irresistible force meeting an immoveable object. We can debate what happened next from now to the end of the season. The stewards said Verstappen’s two moves were ‘relatively minor’. That’s their judgement and we have to accept the decision whether we agree with it or not.
The stewards also noted: ‘The driver of car 3 admitted he left his move to overtake on the left, too late.’ That, at least, is clearer than the definition of what does and does not constitute a ‘move’ in the braking area.
Either way, Ricciardo was going for it, much as he had been with Valtteri Bottas two weeks before in China. Daniel would have realised on Sunday that Max – rightly or wrongly – was unlikely to play as fair as the Finn. That doesn’t excuse Verstappen in the slightest any more than Ricciardo should desist from his incredible commitment because of who he is dealing with.
Would Ricciardo have made it round the corner, even if there had been enough room on the inside of car #33? Having finally dealt with Verstappen four laps previously, had frustration briefly clouded what is usually impeccable judgement? Only Daniel can answer that.
The stewards probably called it about right given the grey area under investigation. (I would like to think they would have done the same if, say, a novice such as Sergey Sirotkin had tanked into the back of the likes of Kimi Raikkonen under identical circumstances. Just saying…)
None of this brings back the points that were pissed down the escape road at Turn 1. Verstappen and Ricciardo are both appearing before the workforce in Milton Keynes to apologise in person.
Is it fair to suggest this would be a good moment for someone from the shop floor to ask if the management ought to have called time at three quarter distance on a bare-knuckle fight that was increasingly likely to end with more than a bloody nose?
Horner might say the pit wall is damned if they do and damned if they don’t. And he’d be right. But how else do you deal with two hard racers with personal points to prove?