By Alan Baldwin
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) – Max Verstappen celebrated his 21st birthday in style on Sunday with the Red Bull driver carving from the back of the Russian Grand Prix grid to first in the space of 19 laps.
He then stayed out in front until pitting 10 laps from the end to finish fifth.
If grid penalties due to engine changes had made sure Formula One’s youngest ever winner was unlikely to appear on the podium in Sochi, he at least made sure of his share of the limelight.
“They (the opening laps) were mega,” team boss Christian Horner told reporters. “Twenty first birthday today and he drove like a veteran.
“I think it was one of the most astounding first few laps we’ve seen for a long time… He led from lap 14 all the way to lap 42. It was just a shame he had to stop.”
Verstappen started 19th but had already made up 10 places after four laps.
The Dutch youngster was seventh after six laps and fifth after eight — the pre-race target and behind only Mercedes and Ferrari.
“We were hoping for a safety car, I think that would have been the only realistic chance (of a podium),” said Horner. “If it had grouped the field up in the last third of the race, then there might have been a chance on a grippier tyre.”
Verstappen had a rough start to the season, with plenty of incidents and two non-finishes in the first four races, but is ending it strongly as he did last year.
He won in Austria, with an army of fans in the grandstands, and has been on the podium six times.
“Really since after the Monaco Grand Prix, it’s been very strong,” said Horner.
“He’s driven some great races so he’s maturing, he’s obviously got quite a reasonable amount of experience now and he’s performing at an incredibly high level.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Christian Radnedge)