What. A. Race! The Austrian Grand Prix was unquestionably the best race of the season. It had everything – drama, wheel-to-wheel action between the leaders, a popular winner, pit stop chaos and controversy! Through it all, Max Verstappen came out victorious for the second consecutive year at the Red Bull Ring and therefore gave Honda its first victory in Formula 1 since 2006, albeit as an engine supplier.
As we went through the weekend, it was becoming clear that we would not have a repeat of Paul Ricard, where the Mercedes drivers just waltzed off into the distance. The Red Bull Ring has shorter corners where the Ferrari doesn’t suffer as badly with an understeer-y balance like we saw them do in France. Throw in some long straights and very high temperatures that forced Mercedes to open up their cooling vents more than they would like, and all of a sudden the Ferraris were back in contention.
Charles Leclerc was in superb form all weekend and I think that even if Sebastian Vettel didn’t have a problem in Q3, he would have struggled to beat the Monegasque ace. He drove well all through the session and his changed approach of not changing the car too much and instead just letting the track come to him throughout qualifying seems to be paying dividends. Red Bull as usual didn’t look like they were in contention for pole, but Max’s race pace was very strong on Friday.
The big talking point out of the race has got to be the move Max pulled on Charles to take the lead. To be honest, I was a bit surprised to see Charles leave the door that wide open because it just invited Max to have a lunge – and we all know that Max doesn’t need a second invitation.
When Max was fully alongside him, Charles didn’t really have a defence, but this is where the difference lies today when compared to the days before tarmac runoffs. Back when tracks had grass and gravel on the edge, Charles would have had no choice but to back out of the situation and slot in behind. Now, knowing that he had a “get out of jail” option to go wide, he hung on around the outside a lot longer and eventually they made light contact.
I thought the stewards made the right call to let the result stand and effectively call it a racing incident. I stand by my view of what happened in Canada with Seb and Lewis because I think that if there is a 50-50 call to be made, you should give the benefit of the doubt to the sport and let the race continue. In this case, the stewards did so and that was a very popular decision with the paddock and the Dutch army of fans who were out in droves.
Taking a step back from the incident, it’s worth looking at how Max got to that position in the first place, because on the opening lap, thanks to a terrible start with anti-stall, he was down in seventh! Max showed great pace to work his way through the traffic on the first stint and ended up behind Lewis, going long on the first set of tyres. His pace at that part of the race was critical because he was able to go 10 laps longer than Vettel with decent pace and therefore come out of the pits with a reasonable tyre delta.
Ferrari were pacing Leclerc – understandably – but it seemed like they were a bit too slow to react to the challenge from Verstappen. Valtteri Bottas was in second and Vettel in third for that initial period after the stops and really at that point when Max came out on the hard tyre and started banging in the fast sectors, Ferrari should have given Leclerc the hurry-up, but they were nervous about hitting the cliff on the tyres. If Charles had picked up the pace seven or eight laps earlier, he would have probably have built up enough of a buffer not to be under pressure at the end. But it seemed like it was only after Max got past Sebastian that they asked Charles to speed up, and by that stage Max on his fresher tyres was driving like a man possessed.
It was brilliant to watch – like Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet at Silverstone in 1987. The crowd all cheering on the hunter, the hunted with less grip looking in his mirrors at every opportunity, desperately trying to hang on. It was enthralling and the sense of anticipation around the Red Bull Ring went up with every sector of the lap.
I was very pleased for Max and Red Bull as they’ve had a tricky start to the season, but I was especially happy for Honda as their return to F1 since 2015 hasn’t been the joyous ride they were hoping for. Honda still have work to do to catch Mercedes and Ferrari, but in Austria they showed that when the powerhouses have a tough day, they’re still close enough to pick up the odd victory.
McLaren continued to show that the resurgence is real with a strong weekend for Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz Jr., despite the Spaniard’s penalty. In contrast, the Haas cars had an appalling Sunday with just no pace and plummeted down the order after Kevin Magnussen delivered one of the best qualifying laps of the season on Saturday.
On to Silverstone next and the hoopla of “will it” or “won’t it” be the final British Grand Prix. Now that the cars are producing so much downforce, and corners like Copse and Abbey are flat out, it’s become more of a power circuit than it was pre-2017. This could be helpful to Ferrari but only if they can get over the understeer issues that plagued them at Paul Ricard through the longer corners. I still don’t think that either Ferrari will beat Lewis to the title this season, but if we could have a few more good races like Austria, I’ll be happy with that!
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