Austrian GP: Grand chelem for Red Bull's Max Verstappen

The Red Bull driver made it two wins in two weeks at his team’s home circuit and extended his lead over Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton to 32 points.

Max Verstappen held a nine-second lead over Valtter Bottas even after an extra pit stop for new tyres 10 laps from the end, eventually taking chequered flag by 18 seconds from the Finn, with Lewis Hamilton a further 26 behind in fourth.   -  AP

“The car was on rails,” Max Verstappen, the World Drivers’ Championship leader, said after delivering an inch-perfect performance over the Austrian Grand Prix weekend that had the Dutch fans chanting “Campione” at the first Formula One race to feature a full crowd since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The Red Bull Racing driver opened up a 32-point lead at the top of the standings over title rival Lewis Hamilton, who nursed his Mercedes home in fourth a day after announcing a contract extension that will see the British seven-time world champion race with the Silver Arrows at least till the end of 2023.

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But more importantly for Verstappen, he and Red Bull delivered a psychological blow to Hamilton & Co. as the Dutch driver became only the third racer in the turbo-hybrid era of F1 to win three races in a row, after Hamilton and his former teammate Nico Rosberg. Hamilton has now gone five races without a win to match his longest dry run since the 2016 season, when Rosberg beat him to the title by five points.

“We’re miles away from them. So we’ve got a lot of work to do. We need all hands on deck, which I know there already are,” Hamilton said after the race. “They’ve brought a lot of updates, clearly, over these past few races and we haven’t brought any. So we’ve got to bring some, find as much performance as possible — otherwise this will be the result most often.”

Mercedes is bringing upgrades to its cars for the British Grand Prix, the next race on the calendar, but Hamilton is wary: “The upgrade is...definitely not going to make up for the time.”

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Racing away in the distance

Verstappen took his third pole position in as many races despite not improving on his final run in qualifying in Austria. McLaren’s Lando Norris took a strong second on the grid, just 0.048s behind. The second Red Bull of Sergio Perez lined up in third, ahead of the two Mercedes of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.

A collision between Alpine’s Esteban Ocon and the Alfa Romeo of Antonio Giovinazzi on the opening lap brought out the safety car. When racing resumed on lap four, Perez made a move on Norris on turn four but went off track after a brief burst of wheel-to-wheel racing. The Red Bull driver rejoined in 10th place, but Norris was given a five-second time penalty — served at his pit stop — for what was obviously a racing incident.

That wasn’t the race stewards only questionable decision of the day. Perez himself was subjected to not one, but two five-second penalties for aggressive defending against the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc late in the race. It seemed like silly season when Yuki Tsunoda also was given two five-second penalties, but at least those were for genuine infractions – crossing the white line when exiting the pit lane, a rookie error that the AlphaTauri was guilty of (twice over).

Mercedes is bringing upgrades to its cars for the British Grand Prix, the next race on the calendar, but Lewis Hamilton is wary: “The upgrade is...definitely not going to make up for the time.”   -  AP

 

Meanwhile, after holding off Hamilton for second for nearly 20 laps, Norris finally ceded the position as well as third after pitting on lap 31.

At the front, Verstappen continued to pull away, comfortably staying in the lead as the frontrunners all went in for their only scheduled stop of the race. Hamilton began to move slightly backwards after suffering damage to the floor of his car on lap 30 — right before pitting — and losing a large amount of downforce, which his team — incredibly — believes was due to the load he was carrying over the kerbs on turn 10 and not driver error. Mercedes swapped Bottas and Hamilton around on lap 52 to protect the team’s second place in the race, and Norris swept past his countryman to take third a lap later.

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Hamilton’s loss of downforce cost him two places at the finish, but it mattered little in his race with Verstappen. The Dutchman held a nine-second lead over Bottas even after an extra pit stop for new rubber 10 laps from the end, eventually taking chequered flag by 18 seconds from the Finn, with Hamilton a further 26 behind.

Behind the top four, Perez was engaged in a battle with the second McLaren of Daniel Ricciardo and the two Ferraris of Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr. The Red Bull racer finished fifth but was classified sixth, behind Sainz, on account of the times penalties he incurred in his battles with Leclerc. Ricciardo was seventh, ahead of Leclerc, Pierre Gasly of AlphaTauri and double world champion Fernando Alonso.

‘Grand chelem’

At 23 years and 277 days, Verstappen became the youngest ‘grand chelem’ winner in F1 history — pole, win, fastest lap and led every lap. The victory came a week after he won the Styrian GP at the same circuit by nearly 36 seconds — the biggest winning margin in the history of the Red Bull Ring by some distance.

It was a demolition, if ever there was one, of the competition in a manner reminiscent of Hamilton himself.

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The reigning world champion was left with no answers as Verstappen sped off in the distance, holding on to the hope of his rival’s tyres wearing out faster and, when that didn’t happen, rain. That win came just a week after the 23-year-old Dutch driver took the first hat-trick of pole position, victory and fastest lap of his F1 career at the French Grand Prix.

But with 14 races of a planned 23-race season to go, Verstappen’s 32-point lead is certainly not insurmountable, and neither is Red Bull’s 44-point advantage over Mercedes.

McLaren’s Lando Norris’ third place in Austria was his third podium finish of the season.   -  AP

 

“I think the result probably looks worse in terms of pace than the reality,” said Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff. “We were stuck behind the McLaren, which cost us a lot of time. Otherwise our pace was good, maybe not enough to win the race, but right up there at the front, which is a step forward.”

After two races at Red Bull’s home track, it’s time for Hamilton’s home turf — and the debut of the ‘Sprint Qualifying’ format at the British Grand Prix. Normal qualifying but on a Friday afternoon will decide the grid for Sprint Qualifying, with the results of the latter deciding the starting order of the main race on Sunday. The top three in Sprint Qualifying will get one, two and three points, respectively.

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