Max Verstappen has come to the defence of his title rival Charles Leclerc after the Monegasque collided with the barrier at the 2022 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, throwing away a podium finish.
The Red Bull pair of Verstappen and Sergio Perez were comfortably clear of the Ferrari heading into the latter stages of the race, so Leclerc pitted for fresh Softs in an attempt to grab the fastest lap.
Such was the gap though, that Red Bull were able to negate the undercut and pit Perez, with the Mexican still re-joining in front of the 24-year-old.
The stop did allow Leclerc to squeeze up to the second Red Bull car, but as he pushed to set the quickest lap and hone in on Perez, he took too much kerb at Variante Alta and span into the wall.
In truth, he was fortunate not to suffer identical terminal damage to what Yuki Tsunoda had done the year previous in qualifying at the same corner, but he was able to bring the car back to the pits for a new front wing, eventually finishing the race P6.
He conceded that he was being “greedy” as he tried to gain as much time as he could behind Perez, but Verstappen maintains, having suffered a few collisions himself throughout his career thus far, that Leclerc’s mistake was a facile one to make, if a little “painful.”
“It’s easily done,” he said.
“Of course, he was pushing hard to try and fight Checo but… it is painful but I think he knows that himself, you know.
“But it’s still such a long championship. You can still gain a lot of points. But yeah, it’s not great. But you can’t change it now. I mean, he doesn’t do it on purpose.”
Dr Helmut Marko cited the various moments the Ferrari drivers had during Friday practice as the drivers acclimatised themselves to wet conditions in the new, ground effect-based cars for the first time, and indicated that Leclerc’s accident was caused by the pressure applied by Red Bull last weekend.
“What we also saw is that we put real pressure on them and they’re making mistakes. You could see that Leclerc span on Friday, twice. Sainz spun, then Leclerc again,” he explained.
The Austrian has previously suggested that there is a more respectful rivalry with Ferrari than there is with Mercedes, and he reiterated that there is a mutual appreciation between the teams.
“But it’s a very sportive and friendly competition between Ferrari and us,” he affirmed.
Team principal Christian Horner has a lot of respect for Leclerc and the way he has driven this season so, while he will of course be delighted with the fact that his team have closed the gap to Ferrari to just 11 points in the championship, he took little pleasure out of seeing Leclerc’s mistake.
“Charles has driven brilliantly this year,” explained the Briton.
“You can see he was being very aggressive at that chicane all the way through the race and he was trying to get into Checo [Perez’s] DRS.
“Unfortunately it bit him and he was lucky not to damage the car more.”
A large portion of the aforementioned pressure applied by Red Bull was implemented by the upgrades they brought to the weekend, which are said to have taken 5kg off their heavy car, and gain them over two tenths of a second in lap time.
When asked if the Scuderia will be able to keep pace with Red Bull’s development, Dr Marko replied: “I don’t think so,” exemplifying the confidence Red Bull have of more influential changes in the upcoming races.
The 78-year-old emphasises that his Dutch driver would be in front of Leclerc at the helm of the Drivers’ Championship had it not been for the reliability failures that have put him out of two of the first three rounds of the season, but he recognises that this championship fight could once again be a thriller.
“[Without his DNFs] he would be easily ahead but there are so many races coming the important thing is we know we have such a strong package so the championship will be very exciting,” he said.
“Hopefully it doesn’t go to the last race like last year!”
Leclerc leads Verstappen by 27 points after the first four rounds of the year, and is 48 points clear of team-mate Carlos Sainz as the Spaniard suffered another DNF in Italy last weekend, this time at the hands of Daniel Ricciardo.