Teenager Max Verstappen became the youngest ever Formula One winner today when he took full advantage of Mercedes’ first lap crash to claim a drama-laden Spanish Grand Prix.
In his maiden outing for Red Bull following his unexpected promotion from Toro Rosso, the 18-year-old Dutchman showed supreme composure under pressure as he resisted all attacks to claim a memorable victory in only his 24th F1 race.
At 18 years and 228 days he became the youngest race winner, replacing four-time champion Sebastian Vettel who had also taken that record as a Red Bull driver at 21 years and 74 days in 2008.
“It feels amazing, I can’t believe it,” said Verstappen. “It was a great race and it felt like an endurance race. To win straight away, in my first race, it’s an amazing feeling.
“From a very young age, my Dad has helped me a lot - it’s just amazing.” Verstappen, heralded as the sport’s hottest property, proved he has everything required to be a future world champion.
But he owed some of his good fortune also to Red Bull’s decision to put him on a three-stop strategy while his senior team-mate Daniel Ricciardo was on a two-stop plan.
That prevented the Australian from turning his early control of the race into victory after the opening lap collision between championship leader Nico Rosberg and his Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton had left them fuming in a gravel trap at Turn Four and out of the race.
Ricciardo eventually came home fourth, despite suffering a puncture on the penultimate 65th lap, behind the two Ferraris of Kimi Raikkonen who finished second ahead of Vettel.
Verstappen became the first Dutchman to win a F1 Grand Prix. “It’s unbelievable, I can’t believe this,” said Verstappen’s father Jos, who on Saturday had announced he had stood down as his son’s manager.
Valtteri Bottas came home fifth for Williams ahead of Carlos Sainz in a Toro Rosso, Sergio Perez of Force India, Felipe Massa in the second Williams, Jenson Button of McLaren and Daniil Kvyat on his return to Toro Rosso. In an extraordinary race, there was drama from start to Finish.
Hamilton and Rosberg collided when they were scrapping for the lead when they wrecked the team’s hopes of another one-two triumph and revived bitter memories of their collision in the 2014 Belgian Grand Prix.
“We have spoken to both drivers and it is not a clear cut decision - we have lost 43 points after lots of effort by the team in the last few difficult weeks,” said a strained Toto Wolff, the team chief. Non-executive director Niki Lauda said: “It is stupid. We could have won this race... Lewis was too aggressive.”
Hamilton was distraught. He threw his steering wheel and knew he had thrown away a chance of claiming his first victory in eight races since he won his third title in Texas last year.
It ended Rosberg’s run of four wins this season and seven in all, dating back to last year, but did nothing for Hamilton’s effort to close the 43-points lead that the German retained ahead of him. It also revived memories of their acrimonious scraps in the last two years.
After the drama at the start, the race resumed in more orderly fashion with Ricciardo controlling the from the front and Ferrari, under pressure to win despite chief executive Sergio Marchionne’s assurances that team chief Maurizio Arrivabene’s job is safe, for now, mounting a serious pursuit.
The removal of the two Mercedes set up the unexpected sight of a Red Bull battle with Ferrari and a fired-up Vettel chasing hard.
Ricciardo led Verstappen until lap 11 when he pitted and gifted the teenager the lead until he came in one lap later, Vettel taking over. When the German pitted on lap 16, Ricciardo was back in control.
Ricciardo then made his second stop, of his three, on lap 29, and regained his lead, but it was Verstappen, on a two-stop strategy, who appeared to have an advantage, both top teams having split their drivers’ strategies for this contest.
By the time Ricciardo had come in for his third stop, it was a four-way scrap with Verstappen resisting Raikkonen ahead of Vettel and the Australian, all of them in close contention and managing their tyres for the final 20 laps.
With ten laps remaining, Vertstappen was seven-tenths ahead of Raikkonen and it was all about tyre-wear management and nerves - and the teenager showed he could handle both.