After crashes and passed missed opportunities, Max Verstappen is finally a Monaco GP winner; Red Bull driver moves ahead of Lewis Hamilton in world championship fight for the first time as record of top-two finishes in 2021 is maintained
Monday 24 May 2021 11:45, UK
Max Verstappen admitted his first victory in the Monaco Grand Prix felt like "redemption" after tough past experiences of the legendary but famously unforgiving street race.
On a significant Sunday in the early froes of 2021's title battles, Verstappen and Red Bull overturned Mercedes' leads in both championships for the first time this season for their second win of a competitive campaign.
Verstappen's victory moved the 23-year-old into the led the Drivers' Championship for the first time in his 124th race in the sport, while Red Bull now top the Constructors' Championship for the first time since 2013.
"I've never been on the podium here and then the first time is straight away a win," said the victorious Dutchman to Sky Sports F1.
"So, it's a bit of redemption for all the other races here because I've never really had a lovely feeling on a Sunday here."
Verstappen had certainly experienced a tumultuous time in Monaco up until this year.
On his debut at the F1's showpiece event as a 17-year-old in 2015, Verstappen made a spectacular exit from the race when he crashed his Toro Rosso into the back of Romain Grosjean's car and ploughed into the barriers at Ste Devote.
The incident earned him a grid penalty for following event.
One year later and he crashed out again on his second race for Red Bull - just a fortnight after winning on his debut for the team in Spain - having already found the barriers in both practice and qualifying.
A fifth place was achieved in 2017 but he was back in the Monte Carlo wars again to particularly costly effect the next season, this time in final practice in an accident that ruled him out of qualifying. Team-mate Daniel Ricciardo claimed pole and won the race, Verstappen finished ninth.
And although he did finish a close second on the road to Hamilton on F1's last visit to the Principality two years ago, a time penalty for contact with Valtteri Bottas in the pits shuffled him off the podium to fourth.
But that Monaco podium itch was finally - and conclusively - scratched in a serene winning performance on Sunday.
"Of course, it always looks until control but to keep your focus for so many laps, that's the hardest bit," explained Verstappen after winning from Ferrari's Carlos Sainz by nine seconds.
"It's easy to relax a bit when you're in the lead and it's easy to make a mistake, so you have to keep reminding yourself to stay focused and keep your thoughts on the road.
"Pace-wise it was very controlled because all the time if somebody tried to push me a little bit in terms of lap time we could answer and make the gap bigger and they started to struggle with tyres."
Having admitted he "wasn't happy at all" with his start to the weekend on Thursday, when he struggled with understeer from the RB16B in opening practice, Verstappen was left frustrated at the end of qualifying on Saturday when Charles Leclerc's crash on the final laps put paid to what he believes would have been his own pole-winning attempt.
Leclerc instead held on to what is usually the most crucial pole of the whole season, but the Monegasque suffered heartache in the 30 minutes before Sunday's race when a driveshaft failure on his Ferrari ruled him out of the grand prix.
From his second-place slot on the grid, Verstappen therefore started with nobody in front of him for the crucial first run to Ste Devote, although had to be wary of covering off Valtteri Bottas' Mercedes.
"When you realise he [Leclerc]'s not there you quickly have to shift focus and make sure that you make a good start still," said Verstappen.
"You're starting more or less first but the guy on the inside is still trying to get you off the line."
Having successfully fended off Bottas, Verstappen led for all 78 of the race's laps.
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And with Hamilton finishing down in seventh, Verstappen has established a slender four-point championship lead over his Mercedes rival heading to Baku, another street track, for the next event on June 4-6.
"We are competitive, but Mercedes are still I think the ones to beat," he insisted.
"They are very quick on more normal tracks. But very happy with what we achieved as a team this weekend.
"We are leading the championship and I hope of course to be there at the end of the season because that's the most important [thing]."
Meanwhile, seemingly referring to comments made by Hamilton in Wednesday's press conference, Verstappen said in response to a question about the importance of the result: "Well, first of all, actions always speak louder than words.
"I think that's a good lesson after this weekend. You know you have to talk on the track. That's what I like and yes, we, as a team, so far, made the smallest mistakes and that's why we are ahead. So I hope we can keep that going for the rest of the season."
Hamilton had suggested that Verstappen "perhaps he feels he has a lot to prove" after wheel-to-wheel battles with his Red Bull rival in the season's opening rounds, while the Mercedes driver had also said at the previous race in Spain: "I think they still have performance on us, they're just making a lot of mistakes."
For his part, Hamilton laughed off the suggestion that he was attempting to play 'mind games' against Verstappen.