2021 Austrian Grand Prix strategy analysis

Max Verstappen’s third straight win was his easiest yet, his lights to flag victory with fastest lap, having never ceded the lead, delivering him his first grand slam of his career.

But more important to the Dutchman will be the impact his third win in five races — and Red Bull Racing’s fifth consecutive victory, stretching back to May’s Monaco Grand Prix — has had on the championship outlook. With Lewis Hamilton finishing a damage-compromised fourth, the gap between the pair has ballooned to 32 points, while Red Bull Racing is 44 points ahead of Mercedes in the constructors standings.

There was little Mercedes could do to disrupt Verstappen’s Red Bull Ring clinic, and having been pummelled for the duration of F1’s first triple-header of the season, it badly needs to regroup and stem the bleeding at the next round in Silverstone.


For the second year in a row Austria’s Red Bull Ring hosted back-to-back grands prix, but unlike last year, when the first round was defined by post-lockdown race rustiness and the second was affected by wet-weather qualifying, there was little to pick between the 2021 Styrian and Austrian grands prix.

Pirelli thought ahead and brought softer tyres to the second leg — C3–5, the softest in the range — but the move was seemingly matched by the weather. With the exception of qualifying on Saturday, when track temperatures burst well past 50°C, Friday and Sunday were cooler, ameliorating the degradation that we might otherwise have expected to see on the more delicate tyres.

Every team found gains with the extra week to perfect their set-ups, as the qualifying attested. Were it not for McLaren’s Norris and Williams’s George Russell, every team bar theirs and Alpine — where Fernando Alonso was poised to overperform before being blocked in Q2 — would have had its cars start alongside each other on the grid.

McLaren was the biggest improver, particularly in the hands of Lando Norris, to not only start on the front row but run quickly enough to hold off Lewis Hamilton for 20 laps and Valtteri Bottas for the entire first stint.

Through its struggles with Norris belie the fact, Mercedes also made race-pace gains, managing the tyres much more effectively this weekend than last, albeit falling a little back on single-lap pace. But these improvements were more than neutralised by yet more updates to the RB16B to ensure there was never going to be any competition in Austria.


Max Verstappen edging Norris for pole by just 0.048s despite not improving with his second flying lap was fundamentally enough to win the race. His getaway was clean, his safety car restart — left right until the final moment to keep the chasing pack guessing — was perfectly judged, and by the time he made his first pit stop on lap 33 he was too far ahead of the field for anything but the most catastrophic of problems to cause him to come back under threat.

His second stop on lap 60, not originally part of the plan, was a precaution against failure, Red Bull Racing still clearly scarred by the tyre explosion near the end of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix that robbed Verstappen of an easy win in Baku — and indeed the team found a cut on one of his tyres.

However, it also offered him the opportunity to take a point for fastest lap when Hamilton was otherwise destined to take it as a consolation prize, making his dominance of the weekend absolute.


The fight to join the rampant Verstappen on the podium came down to a late-race chase, with Norris pursuing Bottas for second place after the pair slipped past Hamilton — the former with a team order, the latter on pure performance over the damaged Mercedes.

Norris ultimately didn’t have the raw pace to make a move on the Finn, but he nonetheless had reason to believe he should have had second — the position had been decided long before their second-stint battle.

The McLaren driver had started a career-best second and held the place off the line and at the lap-four safety car restart when he came under assault from Sergio Perez. The Mexican was in the faster car but launched an ambitious move around Norris’s outside at turn four. He unsurprisingly ran out of room partway through, ending up un the gravel and dropping from third to 10th.

The stewards, to the surprise of McLaren and even Red Bull Racing principal Christian Horner, adjudged him liable and handed him a five-second penalty for his defence, which he had to serve at his sole pit stop.

Unfortunately for him, Bottas, who had been kept behind in fourth throughout the first stint, now had an easy way through, following him into pit lane and cruising into third while he served his time.

With Hamilton having already past him for second in the first stint, Norris’s podium shot seemed over — until the leading Mercedes driver picked up floor damage worth somewhere in the vicinity of half a second a lap at around lap 30.

This presented Mercedes with a dilemma. Hamilton clearly subsequently held up Bottas, but only the Briton, not the Finn, is in with a shout of the title. For a while the team instructed the pair to hold station, but with Norris fast approaching, it had no choice but to sacrifice Hamilton to help keep Bottas ahead and maximise constructors points.

The plan worked, and though Hamilton dropped back to fourth, Bottas had enough pace to keep Norris at bay through to the flag.


Sergio Perez was feisty in recovery from 10th to fifth — indeed too feisty, picking up two five-second penalties for pushing Charles Leclerc into the gravel in turns four and six, ironically enough in moves similar to those he tried to put on Norris.

Those penalties ultimately cost him a position in the final classification to Carlos Sainz, who executed a near photocopy of last weekend’s superb race to rise through the order with an offset strategy.

Sainz was one of only two drivers to start on the hard tyre, which cost him off the line, dropping him from 10th to 14th. But he ran long, the more durable rubber ably carrying him on full tanks, until lap 48, beyond the longest stint the C3 managed last week and right on the limit of what was thought possible. It had him rejoin just ahead of Yuki Tsunoda, the timing of the stop perfect.

He fell from fifth to eighth but was rapid on his barely used mediums. He was ordered past teammate Leclerc, slice past Daniel Ricciardo, who was then on ageing hard rubber, and sped after Perez, getting inside his penalty window by a slender 0.7 seconds to earn the extra place in the final classification.

Ricciardo’s strategy was founded on his excellent start and restart, boosting him from 13th to ninth at the resumption, and pre-empting the undercut from Leclerc behind with a stop on lap 29. He managed that successfully, but Sainz on the offset strategy proved too compelling on the penultimate lap.

Leclerc ultimately didn’t stop for another five laps. Given Ricciardo was on fresh mediums, he should have had at least that still in the rubber — a better balanced strategy could have seen him last the distance and capture sixth and perhaps fifth.


From the beginning of the weekend the C5 was thought unlikely to be of much use in the race, and so it transpired. Of the four cars that had to start the race on the soft compound only one scored points — Pierre Gasly in ninth, three places behind his starting position.

Gasly, teammate Yuki Tsunoda and Aston Martin pair Lance Stroll and Sebastian Vettel were destined to stop twice in a race that ultimately required only a single tyre change. An early first stop, all in the pits by lap 17, meant they all had to run in traffic for most of their second stint, forcing them out of touch with the points.

Some decisive moves by Gasly to pass Antonio Giovinazzi and Nicholas Latifi meant he was well placed to earn some clear air when most of the one-stoppers entered the pits, which ultimately allowed him to express better pace on his final stint to score a couple of points and finish less than a second behind Leclerc for a couple more.


George Russell was deprived of his first points finish for Williams four laps from the finish by a determined Fernando Alonso, who had the benefit of tyres two laps newer to get the job done.

But really the damage was done not by blinking too early at the first stop — indeed Russell stopped on lap 30, bang on average for the medium starters, while Alonso had newer rubber with which to run two laps longer — but by the Briton’s poor start, which dropped him from eighth to 13th. He didn’t make any on-track passes in recovery in the first stint, and in a slower car he was always going to be vulnerable late in the race.


Max Verstappen: medium (used) to lap 32, hard (new) to lap 60, hard (new) to flag.