After such a difficult build-up to race day, Max Verstappen made victory at the Miami Grand Prix last Sunday (May 8) look easy.
The weekend had been going poorly right up until lights out. He’d lost most of Friday practice to yet more technical issues, first an overheating gearbox and then a hydraulic problem and brake fire.
It was frustrating for the Dutchman, who’s already lost 36 points through terminal unreliability this season, but the impact was felt more keenly around the brand-new Miami Gardens circuit. Every lap of the new track was valuable; every lap lost would be felt in qualifying and the race.
He put a mistake in the final moments of the top-10 shootout down to his inexperience around the circuit relative to pole-getter Charles Leclerc. A twitch of oversteer as he searched for the limit at turn five ruined his lap and opened the door to Ferrari’s first front-row lockout in 2019.
“We have to start making the weekends less difficult, because like this you know it’s always going to be tricky,” he said frustratedly from third on the grid.
But on Sunday he took the race into his hands with a drive of measured aggression befitting the new world champion.
He was lightning off the line from the grippy side of the grid to muscle alongside second-place Carlos Sainz and force him to concede. It was then a matter of hunting down Leclerc.
It took him just nine laps to get the job done. His car’s straight-line speed was more than enough to counter Ferrari’s rapidity through the corners, and by half distance he had an unassailable lead.
Only a late safety car threatened to undo his good work by closing the gap, but a faultless 10-lap defensive drive snuffed out Ferrari’s victory chances for good.
“It’s a very good comeback,” he said. “At one point I think Charles started to struggle a bit more with the front tyres, and it seemed like our car was very good on the medium compound, so once I got ahead I think that basically made my race, because I opened up the gap.”
The divide between them in the championship is just 19 points, down from 46 only two rounds ago, and all of a sudden a comfortable early lead is looking vulnerable.
“it’s two races that the gap is slowly closing down,” Leclerc said of the two cars. “At the moment it seems that Red Bull has the upper hand in the in the races.”
There’s a fascinating dynamic behind Ferrari and Red Bull Racing early this season. The cars have very different strengths - the RB18 in straight lines, the SF-75 around the corners - but the teams also have opposing development plans.
RBR has brought upgrades to just about every round this season, the most substantial being weight-saving changes at the previous race in Imola. It’s why the team has crept from being a step behind to having the overall fastest car.
Ferrari instead is still racing fundamentally the same machine it launched in preseason testing with the aim of bringing a major update to the next round in Spain.
It’s a strategy the Italian team thinks is more efficient in the cost-cap era and will allow it to be more targeted in its development. But it also carries its own risk: if the upgrade package doesn’t work, it’ll be solidly on the back foot and find it difficult to respond. The buffer it built up in the first three races will be easily wiped clean.
“We need to keep pushing,” Leclerc said. “Upgrades will be very important throughout the year, and I hope now that we can do a step up from next race onwards.”
There can be no championship battle without the development war in this new regulatory era, when low-hanging fruit is plentiful, and it’s no exaggeration to say the title could be won or lost in the factories of Maranello and Milton Keynes.
Ferrari’s taken the first punch. It now needs to strike back.