Bold were those who picked Max Verstappen to win the Austrian Grand Prix, but bolder still were those who forecast he would get there thanks to Mercedes unreliability and miscalculation.
The Austrian Grand Prix features the quickest lap and one of the smoothest surfaces on the calendar and comprises not long straights, excessively fast bends nor particularly slow corners. Frightening, then, was how effortlessly Mercedes, equipped with updated power unit and new bodywork, cruised through the weekend, threatening to win the Spielberg race for the fifth season in a row.
Lewis Hamilton, who had taken a 14-point championship lead over Sebastian Vettel with an easy victory in France one week earlier, had his German counterpart’s measure, and though the Briton qualified second to teammate Valtteri Bottas, Vettel was dealt a three-place grid penalty for impeding Carlos Sainz during qualifying and was forced to start from sixth.
Red Bull Racing, not for the first time at the team’s home race around the Red Bull Racing, was out of sorts. Based on practice times neither Max Verstappen nor Daniel Ricciardo had the race pace to challenge for the podium, never mind victory, and they duly qualified fifth and seventh respectively.
When Hamilton jumped Bottas for the lead at turn one the team looked set for a comfortable one-two victory, but by lap 14 the dream began unravelling.
Bottas pulled to the side of the road with a hydraulics problem, triggering a virtual safety car under which all four Ferrari and Red Bull Racing drivers dived into the pits, leaving Hamilton leading on his own. Once racing resumed, with their fresher tyres they began bearing down on the Briton.
It was a strategic own-goal, and Mercedes chief strategist James Vowles took the rare measure of coming over team radio to concede responsibility to the unhappy Hamilton, who pitted 10 laps later and dropped to fourth.
It left Red Bull Racing’s Verstappen and Ricciardo leading Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, but Ricciardo was fading fast. The Australian’s tyres blistering under the unexpectedly warm Styrian sun, and he made a second pit stop on lap 38, only for his car to break down with an exhaust problem on lap 54.
By then, however, Hamilton had begun experiencing blistering of his own. He furiously returned to this pits on lap 52 for a second stop, effectively eliminating himself from victory contention, and he was finally put out of his misery on lap 63 of 71 with a loss of fuel pressure.
“This is definitely the worst weekend that I can remember for a long time,” lamented Hamilton. “Everyone in the team will be feeling pain today.”
Verstappen led Raikkonen and Vettel home, all three masterfully managing their tyres, to record Red Bull Racing’s first home win and give Vettel back a one-point lead in the drivers championship.
“We can’t throw away points,” Hamilton continued. “So we’ll have to find a bulletproof method going forward.”
Team boss Toto Wolff said it was the team’s most painful race since 2013
“A double retirement through reliability is hard to stomach,” he said. “But we know from bitter experience that the difficult days are when we learn the most.”
Wolff had told the media at the beginning of the weekend, albeit in relations to Vettel’s messy crash at the previous race, that the championship would be decided by who makes the fewest errors and who can maximise their points haul each race.
By the end of the weekend, with both cars halted on the circuit and with Ferrari taking control of both championships, his words now appear ironically prophetic.