The Austrian Grand Prix Strategy Report podcast features Crash.net F1 editor Luke Smith.
The Austrian Grand Prix was a classic, won by Max Verstappen after a wheel-to-wheel duel with poleman Charles Leclerc with just three laps to go.
Their fleeting but thrilling battle was the culmination of diverse strategies meeting in the dying moments of the race, exactly as the sport hopes is possible at every round, and while the men in the cockpit ultimately decided the result, there were a great deal more influencing factors that delivered this memorable ending.
The European heatwave persists, and the Red Bull Ring was usually warm throughout the weekend. On race day ambient temperatures reached 33°C, rocketing the track to 55°C, which was marginally hotter than the conditions experienced during Friday practice.
However, unlike in France one week earlier, the weather didn’t work to destroy the tyres — the Red Bull Ring isn’t abrasive enough nor a stringent enough test to tip the rubber over the cliff — but instead it put a strain on engine cooling. This would play a crucial role in effectively eliminating Mercedes from victory contention, with Toto Wolff admitted after the race that temperature management remains the team’s Achilles heel, as was briefly witnessed in Canada.
Adding some extra intrigue to the race was the choice of starting tyre. All three compounds — C2, C3 and C4 — performed solidly in Austria and therefore made the one-stop strategy the favoured tactic, but the flexibility of the medium was thought to offer greater flexibility in making it to the end on the hard with less management.
However, only the two Mercedes drivers and Max Verstappen qualified on the medium rubber in Q2; the rest of the top 10 were forced to start on softs. The bottom 10 all opted to start on mediums.
The race-winning move
It’s difficult to identify a single race-defining move; in reality it was a combination of Verstappen qualifying on the medium tyre in Q2 and the Mercedes drivers attempting to pincer then race leader Leclerc by opening the pit window early, incidentally playing into Red Bull Racing’s hands.
Verstappen fell to seventh at the start and recovered to fifth by the time Mercedes attempted to undercut Leclerc with Valtteri Bottas on lap 21. Sebastian Vettel attempted to cover on lap 21, but a slow stop lost him crucial seconds and dropped him back into the midfield.
Leclerc had a clean stop on the follow lap to maintain his four-second advantage, but he had the pace and tyre life to run far deeper into the race. At the time the team felt it had to cover Bottas, but the Finn’s problems with cooling in the second stint meant he would never present a threat.
This early pit call would ultimately cost Leclerc towards the end of his 49-lap stint on his used hards.
Lewis Hamilton inherited the lead and prepared to run long, but front wing damage from an excursion on the kerbs at turn 10 cruelled his pace and forced a stop on lap 30. It took almost 12 seconds to replace his nose cone, eliminating him from contention, and problems with overheating locked him into fifth.
So it fell to Verstappen, who took over the lead for one lap before stopping on lap 31, to make the long first stint work. He emerged from pit lane fourth but with tyres up to 10 laps fresher than those of Leclerc, Bottas and Vettel ahead.
He made short work of all three, his RB15 extremely comfortable in the conditions and with the hard tyre, to make the race-winning move on lap 69.
Ferrari finally makes a good call (after a bad one)
Sebastian Vettel’s weekend was compromised from the moment he encountered engine troubles before the start of Q3, but a strong recovery to fourth early in the race put him in a position to play a key role in the outcome — right up until a botched call to the pits to cover Bottas on lap 21.
A communication problem meant the Ferrari mechanics didn’t hear the call to the pit lane and were therefore late bringing out the tyres, costing the German three to four seconds on a regular stop and dropping him back into midfield traffic.
Hamilton’s problem and Verstappen’s long first stint elevated him to third, but he didn’t have the pace to defend the place from Max, after which Ferrari made the bold and ultimately correct call to switch him to a two-stop strategy with a new set of softs.
He fell to fifth with 21 laps to go, passed Hamilton for fourth with two laps to spare and finished just 0.650 seconds off the podium. Bottas admitted another lap or so would likely have seen the wheezing, overheating Mercedes bested, but it retrospectively made sense of his relatively limp-wristed defence against Verstappen — had he lost any time fighting that losing battle, Vettel may have had the time to overcome him.
McLaren nail strategy
McLaren is a team growing in confidence, and just as it is back to taking risks with development of the car, Austria saw the team play boldly to score a double points finish and consolidate fourth in the constructors standings.
Lando Norris started a sensational fifth and ran to lap 25 on the soft tyre, effectively losing place to only teammate Carlos Sainz and Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo, who were running long first stints on the medium compound. However, rather than switching to the hard, as per just about everyone else, Lando was moved onto the medium tyre for what would be a 45-lap stint.
It seemed overly ambitious given Pierre Gasly, in the substantially faster Red Bull Racing car, would be challenging him for position, but Lando’s pace management was superb and justified the choice of the faster compound. He held of the Frenchman from lap 32 until the end of the race and kept his tyres fresh enough that his fastest lap came on the penultimate tour.
Sainz likewise turned in a phenomenal drive. The Spaniard started 20th with a power unit penalty but ran until lap 41 on the medium tyre, dropping from fifth to 13th. Now equipped with the study hard tyre and a substantial offset, Sainz made mincemeat of the field, scything up to eighth behind Pierre Gasly and maximising McLaren’s weekend.
While best-of-the-rest rival McLaren executed a just about perfect weekend, Renault struggled to make an impact. Both drivers were eliminated in Q2, and despite Ricciardo starting on mediums and running a similar strategy to Sainz — indeed he was only four seconds behind the orange car when it stopped on lap 41 — he ended up four places back and out of the points.
The Australian lost almost 15 seconds to Sainz when he made his stop for the soft tyre on lap 46, and though he closed that down to a little over six seconds with the benefit of the soft tyre, his lack of points suggests he was left out too late in the first stint and was therefore too short on time to recover places.
Nico Hulkenberg, running a conventional medium-hard strategy with a stop on lap 26, finished 13th, two places ahead of where he started.
The winner’s strategy
Max Verstappen: medium (used) to lap 31, hard (new) to flag.