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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Verstappen must learn lessons from Australian Grand Prix to challenge Hamilton and Vettel for title

Dutch driver had genuine, and reasonable, aspirations of challenging for the win at Albert Park but small mistakes ultimately had big consequences. 

Max Verstappen had reasonable aspirations of a race victory in Australia but had to settle for sixth place. Mark Thompson / Getty Images
Max Verstappen had reasonable aspirations of a race victory in Australia but had to settle for sixth place. Mark Thompson / Getty Images

Lewis Hamilton could be forgiven if he spent much of his time between now and the start of the Bahrain Grand Prix on April 8 thinking about what could have been.

The world champion dominated qualifying and then the opening stages of the Australian Grand Prix, the opening round of the 2018 Formula One season, but missed out on victory to Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.

While it might not be much of a consolation, Hamilton can be content that he did not put a wheel wrong and that it was a Virtual Safety Car (VSC) period and his Mercedes-GP team's misjudgments that led to him having to settle for second spot.

The same could not be said of Max Verstappen, who endured one of his scrappiest weekend performances since joining Red Bull Racing in 2016.

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Read more:

F1 analysis: Vettel should celebrate victory in Australia but Hamilton will be pleased with pace

Mercedes vow to come back stronger in Bahrain after 'bitter pill' of Australian Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton 'trying to break down new barriers as he chases fifth F1 title

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The Dutchman confessed that an error in qualifying cost him a chance of starting on the front row alongside Hamilton in Melbourne. He instead had to start fourth on the grid behind the two Ferraris of Kimi Raikkonen and Vettel. That would prove extremely costly.

He made a decent launch off the line at the start, but got boxed in behind the Ferrari pair on the run to Turn 1 and fell to fifth when he was passed around the outside by the opportunistic Kevin Magnussen in his Haas.

Magnussen, despite the considerable improvements of the Haas from 2017, was no match for the speed of Hamilton and the Ferraris and was dropping a second a lap to the cars in front.

Verstappen was stuck behind him but compounded his situation by pushing too hard and spinning at Turn 1 on Lap 8 and dropping down to eighth. He would eventually finish in sixth place but it was not a weekend he will look back on with any great fondness.

The Red Bull had good pace all weekend. Maybe not the equal of Mercedes, but certainly a match for Ferrari.

That was supported by Verstappen’s teammate Daniel Ricciardo, who had got past the 20 year old when he spun, hounding Raikkonen for third place in the closing laps before settling for fourth.

In hindsight, if Verstappen had enjoyed a clean weekend and not made his error in qualifying, he could have been on for at least second place, and possibly even better if the VSC had worked out for him as well as it did for Vettel.

Even without the spin he would have likely finished fourth, so there is a lot for Verstappen to reflect upon, in terms of dropped points, before he arrives in Bahrain.

This is not meant as a criticism of Verstappen. He has been a revelation in Formula One and some of his performances in 2017 were sensational. To win two races in arguably the third-fastest car in the field, performance wise, was a real achievement.

Australia was a reminder to Verstappen of the small margins in F1 between success and disappointment. One small mistake in qualifying transformed his weekend and turned aspirations of victory into a much harder race that created more problems.

Red Bull appear to have made a step forward in performance over the winter and they had reason to be encouraged by the weekend’s result.

But they still appear to have an engine in the Renault that is no match for the Mercedes and Ferrari. That seemed the case in Verstappen’s inability to pass Magnussen, although Albert Park has never been a particularly easy venue on which to overtake.

Verstappen left Melbourne with eight points, rather than a possible 18 for second, or even 12 for fourth.

There are still 20 races of the season for Verstappen to bounce back, but if he is has aspirations of challenging Hamilton and Vettel for the title, and becoming the sport’s youngest champion in the process, then the mistakes, even the small ones, need to be eliminated.