Christian Horner has admitted Max Verstappen surprised him and his Red Bull team with his tactics in his Abu Dhabi epic with Lewis Hamilton last season. Verstappen overtook Hamilton on the last lap to win the 2021 Formula One Drivers’ Championship in contentious circumstances.
The FIA have since admitted a ‘human error’ helped Verstappen triumph over Hamilton after race director Michael Masi allowed the lapped cars in between the two drivers to overtake the safety car. Those lapped drivers behind Verstappen were not able to unlap themselves, however.
On fresh tyres, Verstappen was able to get past Hamilton in their last-lap shootout for the title and claim his first ever world championship. Red Bull team principal Horner admitted the team were surprised, as was Hamilton, by the Dutchman’s overtake.
Speaking on the Diary of a CEO podcast, Horner explained: “We went into Abu Dhabi equal on points, with Max being ahead by virtue of race victories. Mercedes had gone there with barristers because they were convinced that Max was just going to drive into Lewis on the first lap, and they’d be arguing it out with the stewards.
“But we qualified on pole, and then for the majority of that race, we felt that decisions went against us at the beginning of the race because Max had made a pass, and Lewis had cut the chicane, but he wasn’t told to give the position back.
“And everything we tried in that race… it felt like it was slipping away, so what was going through my mind was like, ‘how am I going to pick the guys up? You know, afterwards, what am I going to say to Max after such an intense season like this? What am I going to say to them?’
“And then suddenly, it just shows that anything can happen in life, a window of opportunity presented itself with one of the backmarkers crashing. And you know, we had to be on our feet. We took risks, we made the pitstop, we bolted on the new set of tires, and Mercedes went defensive and conservative.
“And that gave us a window of opportunity to challenge for one racing lap. And with a fresh set of tires and Max Verstappen in your car, he was going to go for it. So then he pulled the move off at a corner that we completely unexpected, and I think Lewis totally unexpected it because he left the door open trying to get a good exit onto the straight. It was like, ‘oh my God’, and then you’re going down the street.
“They’re side by side, and they get to the chicane, and he went in a little bit deep, and you know the strength of the Mercedes engine on the straight line. You’ve got to get the exit onto the neck straight, and then they’re side by side.
“And then he managed to keep and protect the inside line into the next left hand, and you know, at that point, it’s done, barring something breaking on the car.
“And then the feeling of just everything being lifted, and to see him after seven long years of being nowhere, we hadn’t even been able to change them, suddenly to see everything culminate and seeing your driver and car and team cross the checking that flags to become the world champion.
“That was just very emotional, and you just felt all this pressure suddenly lift from you.” Verstappen has since clinched a second world title, which he won at the recent Japanese Grand Prix. His first is under scrutiny though as it has emerged breached F1’s cost cap last season. But it is considered highly unlikely he will have his 2021 triumph stripped from the record regardless of the team’s transgressions.