Red Bull team principal Christian Horner believes Max Verstappen’s performances early in 2022 kept Ferrari from delivering a significant blow to its championship hopes.

Charles Leclerc won two of the first three races and was second to Verstappen in a close battle in Saudi Arabia, opening up a comfortable lead at that stage of the year. With the Ferrari appearing to be a slightly quicker car, Horner says the gap could have become close to insurmountable if it wasn’t for Verstappen’s ability to take victory in Imola and Miami despite qualifying behind Leclerc.

“I think Max, after winning that first world championship last year — which was like a heavyweight bout from the first race to the last race — again has made another step forward as a driver,” H orner said. “He’s driven with such maturity, with such composure, and he’s delivered some massive wins under huge pressure.

“It’s only when you look back at the season, when you think of some of the races like Saudi or Miami or Montreal, there’s been some massive moments there. Likewise with Checo (Perez) for example in Singapore… so it’s been an outstanding year.

“We didn’t have the quickest car at the beginning of the year and (Verstappen) very much kept us in contention and just kept pushing and drove with phenomenal precision and pace. Whenever there was an opportunity there to take he grabbed it with both hands.”

Horner highlights Red Bull’s one-two in Imola — where Leclerc spun trying to attack Perez for second place late in the race — as a turning point in the season.

“I think (Ferrari) had a faster car than us in the early part of the season and I think we were able to stay in touch, and that was very important. Our championship was 21 races, because we missed the first one by having a double DNF, but we had to stick with them.

“For me, one of the crucial weekends was Imola with the sprint race and then the victory, and to win both those races, to achieve the one-two finish and to beat Ferrari on their home ground, I think was psychologically a big thing for us as a team, and potentially for them as well.

“Then as we developed the car and we improved the car and we lost a little bit of weight, then the speed came.”