Amid all of the commotion in the wake of Max Verstappen’s altercation with Esteban Ocon following the Brazilian Grand Prix, a crucial fact was almost lost: there had in fact been an excellent Formula 1 race taking place at Interlagos on Sunday!

It was a raceday that saw Verstappen at both his very best on-track and his impetuous worst off it. He was right to feel aggrieved over the incident with Ocon, for it had cost him a surefire race win he would have earned in spectacular fashion. But his actions in the FIA garage were needless, childish and petty, souring what had otherwise been one of the outstanding days of his F1 career to date.

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Verstappen may have arrived in Brazil off the back of his crushing display in Mexico, yet he was highly sceptical of Red Bull’s chances of a repeat, even going as far as saying that if “nothing crazy” happened, P5 and P6 would be set in stone. Naturally, this had nothing to do with the Red Bull RB14 car itself, but instead the Renault power unit, which on a power-sensitive track like Interlagos would struggle to keep up with the Mercedes and Ferraris ahead.

Red Bull put all of its chips on the race, sacrificing the setup on Verstappen and teammate Daniel Ricciardo’s cars in qualifying in the hope a better showing over long runs. Fifth and sixth were duly secured in Q3, with Ricciardo falling to 11th as a result of his grid penalty.

Come the race, Verstappen wasted little time in breaching the Mercedes-Ferrari monopoly at the front of the pack. Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen both took the start on Soft tyres in the hope of going longer before pitting that the Supersoft runners, but it left them struggling for pace early on. Vettel dropped from second to third behind Valtteri Bottas and was then powerless to stop Verstappen diving down the inside at Turn 1 on Lap 4, with Raikkonen having fallen to the same fate one lap earlier.

But it was surely down to the tyre advantage, right? Surely Verstappen wouldn’t be able to match the Supersoft-shod Mercedes at the front for pace and put them to the sword in the same fashion?

Yet he did exactly that. Verstappen quickly latched onto the back of Bottas’ Mercedes, spent five laps plotting move, dropped back slightly to find some cleaner air and then pushed hard. Bottas proved to be the most difficult driver to pass in the race, putting up a stern defence to Raikkonen, Vettel and Ricciardo, but Verstappen had little issue completing a brave move down the inside at Turn 1 on Lap 10.

Bottas hadn’t managed to create much of a buffer to Hamilton at the front, leaving Verstappen just a couple of seconds adrift of the race leader. While Hamilton began to report concerns about his tyres, Verstappen was able to edge towards DRS range, prompting Mercedes to bring the five-time world champion into the pits for a set of Mediums.

As Hamilton’s tyres were removed from the car with evident signs of wear, Verstappen’s were still in very good shape. Yet there was no immediate response from Red Bull in the pits, with the team instead aiming to keep Verstappen out to stick to the original strategy of going from Supersofts to Softs.

It was this phase of the race where Hamilton lost his edge. While he put in a set of quick times to begin the stint, cutting the gap to Verstappen at the front down to just 16.8 seconds on Lap 23. With a trip through the pits costing around 23 seconds, it was a decent buffer – albeit not a comfortable one.

Hamilton failed to turn the screw and whittle the gap down further, reporting early concerns with his tyres that would have to last 52 laps if he were to avoid a second stop. The short lap at Interlagos meant traffic was a big issue, causing Hamilton’s deficit to Verstappen to stretch back out again to over 20 seconds.

Content Verstappen had gone far enough into the race to be able to get a set of Softs to the end of the race, Red Bull brought the Dutchman in at the end of Lap 35. A measured stop late – three seconds stationary – meant Verstappen emerged three seconds down on Hamilton, who had managed to find a bit of clear air to reduce the gap slightly.

But the tyre advantage and strength of the RB14 car through the middle sector meant the gap was nowhere near enough. Verstappen got his tyres up to temperature, lined up Hamilton, and got the move done in incisive fashion, needing just one bite of the cherry. Hamilton’s fightback was in vain as Verstappen quickly skipped out of DRS range, the gap growing the nearly three seconds.

And then came the Ocon clash. Having pitted on Lap 40, Ocon was running strongly on a fresh set of tyres, matching Verstappen’s pace and even gaining time on the lap before their collision. Ocon felt he had the pace to pass the race leader, with the Force India pit wall giving him the green light to try and unlap himself.

Ocon held to the outside of Turn 1 to try and give himself the inside line for Turn 2, only to collide with Verstappen (who, naturally, wasn’t expecting a fight from the Force India) and send both cars into a spin.

“If you are faster, you are allowed to unlap yourself,” Ocon wrote on Twitter after the race. “I overtook seven times into Turn 2 this race. It was always tight, but always fair.” As true as that may have been, there is a big difference between passing Fernando Alonso’s McLaren for P15 and trying to get ahead of the race leader who is one lap ahead of you…

While unlapping yourself is allowed, there is an expected fashion in which it should be done, as explained by FIA race director Charlie Whiting after the race.

“You expect it to be done safely, but more to the point, I think it should be done cleanly and absolutely without fighting. You shouldn’t be fighting to get past,” Whiting said.

“If he’s got the pace, then normally one would expect Red Bull to say ‘Ocon’s got the pace, just let him through,’ that sort of thing. But it seemed that he just went for it, and it was just a bit unfortunate that he decided to fight for it which was wholly unacceptable.”

Verstappen was unsurprisingly fuming, giving his expletive-laden thoughts on the matter as he rejoined the track in second place, Hamilton having slipped ahead.

“I saw it happen and it wasn’t something that… I wasn’t surprised by it or anything like that,” Hamilton said post-race.

“I saw them racing but they weren’t racing for the same position. In my mind, I would have been in a different frame of mind. Fortunately, he was able to keep going, no one got hurt, and they kept going, it’s a racing incident I guess. Max is that go-getter guy and every now and then it bites you.”

The bite was more than just a loss of position, with the contact also taking a big chunk out of Verstappen’s floor. “You know all the cut-outs you have on the side of the floor, that whole area, so I guess that’s [15-20 cm] that was completely gone so it was pretty bad,” he explained.

“I lost a lot of downforce. I had to lock a lot of tools on the steering wheel but that was still not enough. But still the car was quick. We could have been much faster, for sure.”

Without all of the tools he needed at his disposal, Verstappen was powerless to catch Hamilton at the front. He was able to make gains here and there when the leader hit traffic, only to then come across the same cars a few seconds later, also slowing him down. Hamilton could manage his tyres well, setting his best time on the penultimate lap of the race, and ultimately taking the chequered flag with a 1.4-second buffer to the fuming Verstappen behind.

On paper going into the weekend, Verstappen stood little chance of victory without something out of the ordinary happening. Yet with nothing but some canny setup work, excellent tyre wear and some sensational race pace, Verstappen disrupted the Mercedes-Ferrari dominance we’ve come to expect at tracks like Interlagos. Unlike Monaco and Mexico, which were track-specific, or Austria, which was inherited with a stroke of fortune, Red Bull sprung a real shock in Brazil. It’s a deeply encouraging sign for 2019.

And yet it won’t be remembered for that at all. The 2018 Brazilian Grand Prix will always be the race where Verstappen let emotions boil over and pushed Ocon in the FIA garage, and, perhaps the worst part, showed zero remorse whatsoever.

Verstappen has an ability behind the wheel that far outstrips his 21 years. But when you call your rival a “pussy” after you go and push him, it shatters the illusion of being beyond your years.

Let’s hope Max can learn from this incident, because as a result of it, F1 history will likely forget a truly outstanding display at Interlagos.

 

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