After his pair of victories on Red Bull’s home soil in Austria, Max Verstappen was riding the crest of a wave, denied five successive Formula 1 wins only by a late tire failure in Azerbaijan.
But his high-speed crash at Silverstone, triggered by a controversial clash with title rival Lewis Hamilton, was followed by a miserable afternoon in Sunday's F1 Hungarian Grand Prix at the Hungaroring.
A 33-point lead for Verstappen has washed away and is now a six-point deficit to Hamilton through 11 of a scheduled 23 races as Formula 1 enters its four-week summer hiatus.
Matters had initially appeared promising for Verstappen at the Hungaroring, a venue where he claimed his maiden pole in 2019, despite Red Bull’s lack of dry-weather pace compared to Mercedes. Slippery conditions, in which Verstappen historically thrives, ostensibly brought him into contention, but his prospects of a strong result lasted just one corner.
Valtteri Bottas’ error caused carnage at Turn 1, with the Mercedes driver rear-ending Lando Norris, who wiped into the side of Verstappen’s RB16.
In the impact Verstappen’s car sustained sizeable damage, including to the bargeboards and floor, costing him crucial downforce and subsequently lap time.
In a double blow for Red Bull, Bottas’ trajectory took him into the path of the sister car, driven by Sergio Perez, and he was out on the spot. Red Bull also suspects the impact caused terminal damage to Perez’s power unit, meaning he will likely face a grid penalty in the second half of the campaign due to the allocation restrictions. Verstappen moved onto his third and final permitted power unit in Hungary, too.
Verstappen recovered finish just inside the points, in 10th for one point in a race that had just 14 classified runners. It was miraculous that Verstappen did not retire on the spot.
“I think Mick Schumacher had more downforce today,” said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner on Verstappen’s car, referring to the backmarker Haas outfit that has had the slowest car in 2021.
Mercedes fumbled Hamilton’s strategy at the restart, but he still recovered to third, collecting 15 points, which means he moved ahead of Verstappen in the standings for the first time since May’s Monaco Grand Prix.
“It was all out of our hands in the race and I can’t believe I got taken out for the second week running,” said Verstappen.
“The mechanics did what they could to get me back in the race but I was carrying a lot of damage on the car after the incident and it was super difficult to drive. There was a lot of oversteer and understeer from the downforce loss.”
Perez, too, was frustrated at the situation.
“I don’t know what to say but it is unbelievable to be hit like that at Turn 1 and a massive blow for us as a team,” he said. “Bottas made a big mistake and braked too late into Turn 1 which took out a lot of cars, including me and caused bad damage to Max’s car. He came to me and apologized as he knew it was his mistake, and although it was not on purpose and is how racing goes sometimes, it doesn’t make a difference to the result for us right now as the large amount of damage ended our race and opportunity for points.”
Bottas was deemed culpable, and will take a five-place grid penalty into the next race in Belgium, but it provided little consolation for Red Bull. But the team has vowed to dust itself down and come back fighting.
“We’ve won six races in the first half of the year,” said Horner. “The races that we haven’t scored at: Azerbaijan wasn’t Max’s fault, Silverstone wasn’t Max’s fault, here wasn’t Max’s fault, so our luck will change, over the length of the season, it will balance out over the second half of the year.
“I think the whole team deserves a well-earned break, and believe you me we’ll come out fighting in the second half of the championship, so it’s going to be interesting.”