“It’s a little bit of payback,” said Red Bull boss Christian Horner as Max Verstappen produced a predatory masterclass to deliver a second win in three races at Paul Ricard and a sensational hattrick for the championship-leading squad.
Having succumbed to a similar strategic play by Mercedes Benz at Barcelona three races previously, Lewis Hamilton became the biter bit as Verstappen stalked the world champion through the final 20 laps to deliver the coup de grace with impressive efficiency on the penultimate lap.
Stopping from the lead is always a brave call but in an old fashioned western duel, first to draw generally prevails and these two gunslingers can be relied upon to deliver time after time.
The Red Bull pitwall, in only intermittent contact with their lead driver thanks to a malfunctioning radio, asked their man to convert their strategic play and he answered the challenge with aplomb.
Had Valtteri Bottas been able to repel Verstappen’s attack on his second place for another lap the race for the victory a little while later might have had a different outcome but the Finn, as is often the case, was in even worse shape with his tyres than Hamilton and Verstappen wasn’t to be denied.
Both Hamilton and Verstappen are clearly a step above their teammates and consistently answer the big questions in the affirmative.
One-stop for Hamilton versus two-stop for Verstappen gave us a sensational conclusion and this time there were none of the unexpected elements which made for a crazy end to the Baku race.
This was a one-on-one scrap of the very highest calibre from two drivers and teams at the top of their game. It’s a delicious prospect for the remaining events.
Cold bloodedly hounding Hamilton in the final laps, Verstappen never put a wheel wrong, preserving his tyre advantage while clearing back marker traffic to close on the gearbox of the Mercedes as the race approached its conclusion.
In the end, the winning pass proved relatively uncomplicated. Scooped along by DRS, Verstappen got a clean run and the body language of Hamilton’s car barely wavered, suggesting perhaps that the Englishman was resigned to his fate and saw more value in making certain of second-place points.
It was a rapier-like thrust that has surely done more than just extend the Dutchman’s slender championship lead but also dealt a potentially significant blow to the serene impregnability of the Mercedes team’s confidence.
Horner had said before the race that should Red Bull win in Lewis Hamilton’s happy hunting ground of Paul Ricard then they can be competitive everywhere and Verstappen’s delivery of a 12th career win for himself and a fourth win of the season for the energy drink manufacturer has put them in the box seat.
Verstappen’s third win of 2021 matches Hamilton and has already equalled his F1 career maximum season total. With over two-thirds of the season to go, the 23-year-old will surely smash that personal record.
On current evidence, and as the championship moves to his team owner’s track in Austria where both Hamilton and Bottas tasted glory last season, the tide appears to be turning in the title fight.