After a run of Grands Prix that could best be described as 0-0 stalemates, to coin a footballing term, Sunday’s Formula 1 Austrian Grand Prix was a high-scoring end-to-end encounter.
Back-to-back races are nothing new in F1, but the fifth race at the Red Bull Ring since its return in 2014 was the middle leg of a crucial run of three consecutive events, that could prove decisive come November.
Just a week on from Circuit Paul Ricard‘s 167 layout configuration, the quickest lap of the year awaited the drivers, with just 10 corners to contend with, and three DRS zones, which led to some fears about ‘Mario Kart’ -style overtaking.
Three strikes and you’re out
There was a time in F1’s not so distant past that a Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport front row lock-out would usually mean one thing come the chequered flag.
Indeed, the reigning world champions came into the race leading both championships comfortably and with a substantial upgrade package fitted to the W09 Hybrid, looked all set to continue their undefeated record in Austria since the turbo-hybrid era began.
There were fears that polesitter Valtteri Bottas and team-mate Lewis Hamilton would scarper off into the Austrian hills, never to be seen again by the chasing pack.
But at lights out, things started to go awry and you got that sense that it just would not be Mercedes’ day.
A poor initial getaway by Bottas, in contrast to his perfect start 12 months ago from pole, saw him swamped by those around, and he fell to fourth by Turn 3. Careful to avoid to concertina of the tight-right, the Finn held back a little, and the out-tractioned those ahead, regaining P2 after driving right around the outside of Kimi Räikkönen at Turn 4 to return Mercedes to some sort of equilibrium after a frantic start.
As the race settled down, with Hamilton holding a comfortable gap of around 2.5s to Bottas, who was in turn pulling away from Max Verstappen in third for Aston Martin Red Bull Racing. But then Mercedes’ race began to fall apart.
An hydraulic gremlin deep within in the car affected the gearbox, and suddenly an almost certain 1-2 victory was snatched away. Strike one.
As Bottas pulled off with gearbox failure at Turn 4, both Red Bull and Ferrari prepared their cars for a pitstop under the virtual safety car. Pitting under the vsc costs less than a stop under normal racing conditions, so the decision to pit was almost a given.
But as the chasing Max Verstappen and co dived to switch to soft compound Pirellis, inexplicably Hamilton drove on past. Strike two.
“We made a mistake,” said team boss Toto Wolff after the race. “We were controlling the race one and two and suddenly you see Valtteri stopping with a hydraulic leak.
“The VSC came out and we had half a lap to react and we didn’t. Fact. This is where we lost the race. At that stage of the race with the VSC pitting in is probably the 80% thing to do,” he added.
Mercedes, led by chief strategist James Vowles, “spent too much time” considering the negatives against pitting, especially as it just had a single car left in the race. “What would happen if the others spit the cars?, mused Wolff. “If we pit Lewis we would come out behind Kimi Raikkonen if they left him out and also behind Max.
As the VSC was withdrawn, Hamilton held a 13s lead over Verstappen, who was in effect the net race leader. Despite Vowles and Hamilton’s engineer Peter Bonnington trying to reassure him, Hamilton’s pace was nothing spectacular, on worn supersoft tyres.
The pitlane time loss at the Red Bull Ring was somewhere around the 20 second mark, meaning Hamilton would have to find at least seven seconds over a composed Verstappen. He didn’t come anywhere close.
A few tenths here and there was all the lead Mercedes could manage, as dived for the pits after 10 laps of green-flag racing, rejoining in fourth, in a Scuderia Ferrari sandwich. If he wanted to win the race, Hamilton would have to pass Raikkonen and both Red Bulls on the road. A tall order.
Complaining of blistering in the traffic, Hamilton was quickly switched to a two-stop strategy but it was simply academic when he pulled off with 10 laps to run with a fuel pressure problem. Three strikes and you’re out.
From an almost guaranteed 1-2 cruise to the flag, in little over an hour Mercedes’s race had gone from bad to over. No wonder then that Wolff described the day as the “worst” in his six-year stint with the team, even eclipsing Barcelona 2016, when Hamilton and Nico Rosberg played total wipeout on the opening lap.
To compound Wolff’s misery, Sebastian Vettel‘s third place, and 15 points was good enough to summit the drivers’ standings once more, by a single point from Hamilton. Ferrari also became the new constructors’ championship leaders, owing to a double podium.
Red Bull also gained a little ground, with Verstappen’s 25 points for the beautifully controlled win edging that team further up the standings.
Although Mercedes is confident that the double car failures, the first since the 1955 Italian Grand Prix, are not linked to its recent(delayed) power unit upgrade, the warnings are there for all those in the championship hunt.
Fine margins often decide the destination of the championship. A bad strategy call here, a £10 spark-plug there. A botched pitstop or a freak rain shower can all prove that crucial turning point. In such a high- pressure sport, mistakes will creep in. The challenge for all the title contenders, which Verstappen believes includesAston Martin Red Bull Racing, is to keep them to a minimum.
Mercedes has the chance to rebound instantly at Silverstone this weekend, on a circuit where it is undefeated in the turbo-hybrid era. Sound familiar?
An in-form Dutchie
After making contact with something or someone in the first six grands prix, there was a lot of talk that Verstappen was too inexperienced to cope with the pressures of running at the head of the field.
However, a simple change in Canada brought a first clean weekend of the season, and a third place finish the reward.
Max’s father Jos has been a constant in his son’s F1 career to date. Always seen in the rear of the Red Bull garage, with the rest of the family, Verstappen Snr did not make the trip to Canada.
(Max) Verstappen responded with a faultless weekend, to finish behind Vettel and Bottas. He went one better in France, taking a controlled second behind Hamilton after taking the position in the first lap chaos.
In effect, after a clean opening lap, he won the grand prix after his audacious move on Räikkönen at Turn 7. Clean, hard and fair racing have all been Verstappen trademarks since his debut in 2015 and he brought out the full repertoire of tricks later in the race.
Team-mate Ricciardo was struggling badly with a blistered left-rear Pirelli, as Hamilton also encountered later in the race. Despite track conditions being around 20 degrees hotter than in Friday practice, Verstappen kept his cool and nursed his tyres home, to perfection.
“Max drove a very mature race,” was team principal Christian Horner’s judgement. “[He was] managing a very tricky situation with the tyres and he completed a very controlled drive.”
Even when the Ferrari’s turned it up to full beans to hunt Verstappen down in the closing stages, he was not fazed. Carefully looking after the rear tyres he was still able to sit tantalisingly outside the DRS activation window, meaning Räikkönen was close, but never quite close enough.
Verstappen’s fourth grand prix victory was one of his best. Of course, he was lucky that the Mercedes duo dropped out of the race, but after he assumed the lead, he was rarely seen thereafter. After the race, he targeted the Hungaroring as Red Bull’s next big chance to win, something which would certainly raise the prospects of a six-driver, three-team title race.
The ice-man is still hot
Chances are, this season will be Räikkönen’s last at Ferrari, as speculation continues to grow that he is merely keeping the seat warm for Charles Leclerc in 2019. Last weekend’s French Grand Prix for some was the semi-confirmation. While Räikkönen languished in sixth, Leclerc gto into Q3 for the first time, and stuck the Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team car eighth on the grid. Directly behind the Ferrari’s gearbox.
Often made to be the bridesmaid on a Sunday, this was Räikkönen’s chance to show he still deserves a seat on the grid next season. McLaren F1 Team anybody?
Yes, the caveat that Vettel out-qualified his team-mate (again) must be taken into account before his penalty, but Räikkönen race was almost faultless.
Sensibly he backed out of the Turn 1 move against Hamilton after he utilised the extra bite of his softer ultrasoft Pirelli tyres to make a better start than the all-supersoft shod front row. Darting between the two Mercedes drivers, Räikkönen sens lifted off “to avoid them squeezing me, while hoping they would see me.”
Running wide at Turn 1 lost him momentum up the hill to Turn 3, where he lost further ground to Hamilton after running wide again. Räikkönen can be forgiven for these mistakes as the car’s brakes were not fully warmed up yet and he had 105kg of fuel riding shotgun behind him. He won’t be the last driver to make a Lap 1 mistake.
Arguably, after getting a little out of shape at Turn 6, he should have closed the door to Verstappen, who gave him a gentle nudge out the way at Turn 7. Little did anyone know that Verstappen, in effect had just won the grand prix, as he had Hamilton and Bottas ahead.
Ferrari pitted Räikkönen under the VSC, leaving him third behind both Red Bull cars, although Ricciardo was struggling badly with a blister on his left-rear. The time Räikkönen lost while treating the rear of the RB14 like a donkey was crucial, as it would come into play later in the race. Superior traction out of Turn 3, and a bit of the DRS allowed the Finn through to take second, around seven seconds behind Verstappen.
The call didn’t come. Ferrari were hesitant to allow Räikkönen, and team-mate Vettel, now in third to hunt the leader down, for fear of blistering themselves. However, once the call came, they got on with it.
Carving chunks out of Verstappen, Räikkönen soon had the Red Bull within his sights, but just out of DRS activation. The Red Bull pitwall allowed the Dutchman to turn his engine up a little to defend as a Barcelona 2016-type chase began.
As with that day in May, Räikkönen could just not get close enough to try and make a move, leaving Verstappen free to take the win. Räikkönen felt afterwards that had he been given a few extra laps in full power mode, he could have passed Verstappen for his first grand prix win in 104 starts.
Whether his future remains in Red or another colour, Räikkönen still has a lot to offer, as his development sense is highly regarded. A team who is lacking in the aero department would be well to have the experience and guidance of the 20-time grand prix winner in its rank to help steer development. Maybe, we haven’t seen the last of Räikkönen yet.
Leclerc also brought the Sauber home in the points again, for the fifth time in six races. He allowed team-mate Marcus Ericsson through to attack Fernando Alonso in the closing, but was given the ninth place back after the Swede failed to pass McLaren’s Alonso for eighth.
Renault’s quiet party
All four power unit suppliers now come equipped with so-called engine ‘party modes’ in qualifying, as standard. Renault were the only manufacturer not to offer the extra boost in power, but made it available to its customer teams, Red Bull and McLaren after the works squad had tested it at Paul Ricard.
Despite the upgrade in power, Red Bull boss Horner labelled it as ‘pre-drinks mode’, suggesting the limited improvement made.
Renault Sport Formula One Team driver Nico Hülkenberg said the works squad “did well” to get into Q3 despite running the upgrade.
Both McLaren’s were eliminated by the end of Q2, Stoffel Vandoorne out in Q1 , although that was as much to do with the chassis rather than the power unit, while Red Bull sat fourth and seventh, again much to do with the chassis.
Come race day, the power unit in the back of Hülkenberg’s car cried enough within the first 10 laps, deciding a coffee table future was appealing. The other five Renault-powered cars all ran reliably.
Ricciardo’s DNF was down to a loss of gearbox-sync while Verstappen was able to fend off the charging Ferrari’s late on to take the win. Reliability has not been a problem for Renault, it is on par with Mercedes and Ferrari, but how to unlock the power within the unit is still plaguing the team.
If Renault wants to be back challenging for titles by 2020, it must pour as much resource as it can into finding a lasting and strong fix to its inherent problems. It won’t be a title challenger until it does, and whats more there is a Fernando Alonso who is at the end of his tether with F1 already. One more failed upgrade and he could snap, with the Verizon IndyCar Series seemingly an ever-increasing allure.
Final tripler-header leg
Just how crucial the Austrian Grand Prix will be in the final standings is impossible to say. The mightier they are, the bigger they fall is a maxim that Mercedes themselves noted post-race and as the saying goes, if you fall off, get back on.
It has the chance to do so this weekend for the British GP at Silverstone, it has taken every pole and win since 2013. Another thing in Mercedes’ favour is that Silverstone will be the third grand prix of the season to have a newly resurfaced track.
Both the races in Spain and France were re-tarmaced ahead of the race, and Pirelli brought lower thread depths on the tyres to compensate, something which benefited Mercedes massively in Barcelona, with its only 1-2 of the season to date.
Nine races into the 2018 F1 season, the standings at the top are as close as they could be. Just one point separates Vettel and Hamilton in the drivers’, while Ferrari lead by just 10 in the constructors’.
Anymore slip-ups by the leading two teams, and Red Bull is there, ready to pounce. The Silver Arrows are flying, the Cavallino Rampante is galloping and the Bull has seen Red. Next stop, Silverstone.