Max Verstappen won a comfortable victory at the first of two races at the Red Bull Ring, and the ease with which he dominated the Styrian Grand Prix had all the hallmarks of a decisive moment in the championship fight.
His win over Lewis Hamilton took his championship advantage to 18 points and put Red Bull Racing 40 ahead in the constructors standings.
At no point during the Styrian Grand Prix did Mercedes look a match for Red Bull Racing. Max Verstappen held a roughly 0.2-second advantage over Lewis Hamilton all weekend, made up mostly down the straights but without sacrificing performance in the corners, to ensure he was out of range of any strategic gambles on Sunday.
It meant the Dutchman was able to lead every lap from pole, missing only the fastest lap in his quest for a perfect weekend thanks to a late risk-free pit stop by Hamilton.
This is just round eight of a nominally 23-race season, but the RB16B’s rate of development, particularly in addressing the key weaknesses that hamstrung it early in the season, and Mercedes’s decision to abandon development of the W12 in favour of next year’s new regulations, make this result an important waypoint on the trajectory of performance.
The last time Hamilton went four races without a win in a single season was 2016, the only year since 2014 he didn’t win the championship.
It’s premature to say it’s Verstappen’s championship to lose, but this is by far the sternest test of Mercedes in the turbo-hybrid era, and it’s fair to say Red Bull Racing’s challenge is more comprehensive than that Ferrari mounted in 2017.
Red Bull Racing was buoyant from its close-fought win at the French Grand Prix, where Mercedes was expected to return to the form that comfortably won it the Spanish Grand Prix in May but where the German marque ultimately held only a small pace advantage.
There Red Bull Racing’s victory window was partly down to race-day conditions that facilitated the strategy gamble that enabled Verstappen to overcome his slower car, but it was clear that relative to Barcelona the RB16B was a much-improved machine.
Gone were the tyre wear problems that hamstrung it early in the season, and a fresh engine in France combined with a new oil formulation meant it could run its power unit harder. The Honda motor is a rough match for the Mercedes, but the RB16B is also a more efficient car aerodynamically, allowing the team to run a lower-downforce package without sacrificing corner speed.
Red Bull Racing is now an all-round threat to Mercedes, no longer a circuit-specific specialist.
That point was rammed home in Austria. Lewis Hamilton complained that he had no answer to Verstappen’s straight-line speed, but he was hardly closing in on the Dutchman’s gearbox through the corners either. The W12, at the Red Bull Ring at least, was just the slower car.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has stressed this weekend that his team is no longer updating the car, whereas Red Bull Racing is clearly keeping the development taps open, with reports as many as five vans of parts were furnished to the RB16B during the weekend. Christian Horner says he’s confident his team is balancing the demands of its best shot at a title in eight years with keeping ahead of the curve of next year’s new rules.
It’s a fascinating front in this year’s title fight. Mercedes, with nothing to prove under these rules, has its eyes on the long term. But Red Bull Racing, knowing there are no guarantees even if it were fully devoted to 2022, is hungry to return from its champion-in-exile status with he circumstances presented to it.
There was little more to Verstappen’s race than his perfect getaway from pole. Helpful to was that by the third lap he was more than 1.5 seconds up the road, ensuring Hamilton couldn’t use DRS to keep with him, exposing the pace difference between the cars and ensuring Verstappen could simply lap to a delta that would ensure he could comfortably take the tyres to their stint length.
Hamilton was too far back to attempt the already weak undercut onto the hard tyre on lap 28, and Verstappen covered him comfortably on the following tour. The Briton briefly looked to make inroads on fresh tyres early in the stint, but Verstappen had plenty of pace in reserve to break Hamilton’s resolve, and by lap 45 he was easily pulling away again.
Mercedes told its driver to effectively settle for second, and the only weapon left in his armoury was to make the late stop for soft tyres to take the point for fastest lap, a small consolation on a chastening weekend.
Sergio Perez and Valtteri Bottas were bottled behind fourth-placed Lando Norris early in the race, getting past on laps 10 and 11 respectively, by which time they were already more than 10 seconds behind leader Verstappen.
But even after getting clear of the slower McLaren neither driver had the pace to match the frontrunning duo ahead, and it was clear almost immediately that this would be a private battle for the final podium place.
Perez was always likely to be the first stopper between them, having started on the soft tyre, and he pulled the trigger on lap 26 with less than two seconds on Bottas.
It was earlier than Mercedes wanted, and there was reason to think that Bottas, still with pace in the medium tyres at that stage, could have managed the overcut — moving to the harder tyre on the circuit reduced the effectiveness of the undercut. But when Perez’s stop was slow with a sticking left-rear wheel Bottas was hauled in to take advantage on the next lap, securing him the place.
Perez harried the Finn in the second stint but didn’t have the pace advantage required to pass, so Red Bull Racing rolled the dice on lap 54 for a second stop, putting its driver back on the medium compound.
Moving him to the grippier tyre while Bottas started to struggle on his hards, having switched earlier than he expected, meant the undercut was effective. Having had only 1.6-second advantage before the stop meant the Finn couldn’t respond on the following lap to cover.
Perez had 17 laps to close a 20-second deficit to Bottas. He got to within 1.5 second at the start of the last lap, but that was just long of the gap needed to make a move in the first sector, and the Mercedes survived the chase by just half a second over the line.
It was a nice try by Red Bull Racing — had the call been made even one lap earlier, it may even have paid off.
BEST OF THE REST: NORRIS vs SAINZ
Lando Norris started a superb third — up one from his qualifying result after Valtteri Bottas’s penalty — and a perfect start meant he was well placed to hold onto fifth at the head of the midfield, and he tactically put up only a limited fight against Perez and Bottas after 10 laps considering the broader picture of his race result.
With no-one attacking from behind and no-one to attack ahead, he was able to run a full 31 laps on the soft tyre — easily the longest of anyone on that compound — before switching to hards to run out the rest of the race.
It was upon rejoining that he had his sole interaction with the competition in Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz. Sainz had started a lowly 12th after a difficult Saturday and had gained only a place off the line, but Ferrari was clearly confident its work post-France addressing its devastating tyre wear was ready to pay dividends, because it was armed with an ambitious strategy.
The Spaniard had great early pace on the medium tyre and ran until lap 41 before making his sole scheduled stop. By then he was up to fourth — after Norris had stopped — and he dropped only two places, to the McLaren and to Lance Stroll, the latter of whom he dispatched with in just two laps.
Sainz was clearly faster than Norris and had the balance of the race to close 13 seconds. Ironically, however, his run was suspended with seven seconds to make up on lap 58 when he got caught behind Hamilton, who was one lap up on the Ferrari but struggling with his tyres, which were 13 laps older.
It’s ever easy to unlap yourself in a race, especially when the leading car is a title contender, and it took Sainz until lap 65 to get through. But by then the best of his tyres had deserted him, and he finished seven seconds short of Norris.
DRIVER OF THE DAY: CHARLES LECLERC
Charles Leclerc won the F1 fan-voted driver of the day award for a daring performance that took him from 18th at the end of the first lap to seventh behind his teammate, 10 of which place were won through on-track battles.
It underlined how performant the Ferrari was in Austria, and had either Sainz started higher up the grid or Leclerc not tumbled to the back after the first lap, both likely would have beaten Norris.
That said, Leclerc’s race was controversial, and his need to battle forward was of his own making. He bumped Gasly twice on the first lap, first out of the first corner and second on the run of to turn three, braking his front wing in the process and thereby requiring the lap-one stop that dropped him to the back. Still, he fared better than Gasly, who had to retire from the race with damage.
But the early stop at least gave Leclerc an opportunity to get off the soft tyre and onto the hard, which he took to lap 37, after most of the rest of the midfield had dropped back having taken their first stops. Not only did it earn him a tyre offset, but he was able to switch to the faster medium tyre to slice through the field with ease until he was up to seventh, his maximum given the first-lap carnage.
There’s an interesting comparison here to be drawn between Daniel Ricciardo and the two Ferrari drivers. Ricciardo started behind Sainz but got ahead of him and up to ninth on the first lap, seemingly assured of decent points — and the fact he ran the same strategy as Sainz suggested he would’ve been in with a shout in the battle for fifth to seventh.
But a loss of power on lap seven lost him all the places he’d gained, dropping to 13th, and though his engine was recovered with some switch changes, he lost momentum mired among the cars of the lower midfield and struggled to make progress thereafter.
It served to underline that Ferrari had the faster car — and also that Ricciardo still lacks the confidence in the McLaren to extract its ultimate pace.
RAIKKONEN GAMBLES ON HARDS, JUST MISSES POINTS
Kimi Raikkonen was the only drive to start on the hard tyre, having qualified a lowly 18th, and as Leclerc incidentally ultimately demonstrated, there were great gains to be made by running long and ending on the grippier mediums.
Raikkonen was aided by a fantastic start, jumping to 13th, and left his stop until lap 36, when he was running in seventh ahead of Daniel Riccardo and Leclerc.
The early switch kept him ahead of Leclerc, albeit temporarily — Leclerc’s pace was ultimately too strong, and the Monegasque got past three laps after his top — and ultimately assured him of position ahead of Daniel Ricciardo.
Ricciardo had been 1.5 seconds behind Raikkonen before the Finn’s stop but was left out until lap 41, which cost him an extra 1.5 seconds to the Alfa Romeo car. In the late-race DRS train of the midfield the pair got past Antonio Giovinazzi and Sebastian Vettel, but the Australian couldn’t get past Raikkonen, and the pair finished 11th and 12th.
THE WINNING STRATEGY
Max Verstappen: medium (used) to lap 29, hard (new) to lap 71.