ANALYSIS: 2019 Austrian Grand Prix – Assessing the field

by Sudha Sundararaj

The ninth race of the 2019 FIA Formula 1 World Championship finally produced an edge of the seat thriller that Formula 1 badly needed. The Austrian Grand Prix set in the picturesque surroundings of the Styrian mountains delivered the race that set alight the 2019 season.

Mercedes domination had resulted in eight wins in the first eight races for the Silver Arrows. The previous race at the Circuit Paul Ricard had produced a snoozefest that had triggered the collective angst of the fans.

Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes seemed to be in a Class of One. Another season of total Mercedes domination seemed to be on the cards. “Formula 1 is dying” was the verdict of the long suffering fans who were dreading another season of dull processional races lacking in competitive racing at the front.

The Austrian Grand Prix produced the thriller that was on-demand across the Formula 1 world. It was scripted for good measure by two of the young stars, Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc, who are undoubtedly the future of the sport.

Top of the class…

Max Verstappen  – Aston Martin Red Bull Racing Honda

Qualifying margin to team-mate: -0.760s

Race margin to team-mate: -75.231s

Max Verstappen scripted a masterful performance at the Austrian Grand Prix that delivered a classic race for the ages. The Dutch fans had descended on the Red Bull Ring in vast numbers and painted the stands in orange. It was a perfect setting for the young Dutchman to display his vast talent enhanced by his new found maturity.

The poor start that Verstappen made initially silenced the Dutch Army. Verstappen got bogged down as he hit the anti-stall and fell to seventh position from the front row. His main rivals including the pole-sitter Charles Leclerc made a clean start and started building a big gap to him.

Verstappen was overtaken by teammate Pierre Gasly on the first lap for good measure and then had to essay a stunning comeback drive from eighth position to clinch the thrilling win. The long first stint of 31 laps on the medium compound tyres resulted in fourth position behind Leclerc, Valtteri Bottas, and Sebastian Vettel.

Unlike the earlier version of Verstappen 1.0 who would bang wheels and make risky moves, he bided his time for the right opportunity to overtake Vettel and Bottas and regained second position with clean moves.

Fifteen laps left to catch the race leader Leclerc and Verstappen was in DRS-range by lap 66. Verstappen was not going to be denied even as Leclerc defended valiantly for three laps. On lap 69 coming out of Turn 3, Verstappen made the move on the inside and the two drivers banged wheels. Both drivers as was expected complained to their respective pitwalls about the other driver.

Verstappen was on his way to his second win in a row at the Austrian Grand Prix and his sixth career win. The orange-clad Dutch fans were ecstatic and all Formula 1 fans were thoroughly entertained by the battle between the two young superstars of the future. After the stewards thoroughly investigated the race-winning overtake, they pronounced it a racing incident.

“We did it with a few laps to go, so I’m extremely happy,” said Verstappen.

“All weekend we’ve been working really well. The updates we brought, they worked well. A big thank you to Red Bull Racing themselves, all the boys there, but also to Honda, because it’s not been easy for them in the past, but they’ve been incredible, so I’m really happy.

“At the moment, it’s an amazing feeling.”

Charles Leclerc – Scuderia Ferrari

Qualifying margin to team-mate: -0.289s (Q2)

Race margin to team-mate: -16.886s

Charles Leclerc was back to his Bahrain best. The young Monégasque driver was on song all weekend as he led the final two practice sessions. He also had the measure of his more experienced team-mate Vettel going into qualification.

Leclerc made his top form count with the second pole position of his career. The fans were denied the battle between Leclerc and Vettel for pole as Vettel could not participate in the last part of qualification because of an engine issue.

Leclerc started on the soft compound tyres as compared to his main rivals who elected to start on the more durable medium compound tyres. Leclerc pitted nine laps earlier than Verstappen for the hard compound tyres.

At the end of lap 60 with thirteen laps to go, Verstappen was a full 4.252 seconds behind Leclerc. By lap 66, Verstappen was on Leclerc’s gearbox and with DRS was always going to take the race lead.

Did Ferrari’s questionable strategy that led to Leclerc running out of tyres in the final laps help Verstappen reel Leclerc in? But there is no question that Leclerc did not put a foot wrong all weekend. Though the first win of Leclerc’s career that was so cruelly snatched from him in Bahrain still eluded him in Austria, many wins await this young superstar in the future.

Lando Norris – McLaren F1 Team

Qualifying margin to team-mate: N/A

Race margin to team-mate: +16.915s

Lando Norris does not have the race winning car that Verstappen and Leclerc have at the moment. But he showcased his talents and made the case to be part of the club of future stars of the sport.

Norris qualified in sixth position and started in fifth position. A great start saw Norris lead Hamilton into Turn 1. The young rookie driver held his nerve as he battled wheel to wheel with his illustrious countryman to keep third position. The superior Mercedes engine power helped Hamilton eventually shake off Norris.

On lap 14, a nice inside dive to get past the veteran Räikkönen for sixth position was again nicely executed. After the bitter experience of losing out on a heap of points due to a hydraulic issue in the final laps at the previous race, the sixth position and the eight points were sweet indeed.

With McLaren stepping up their game in recent races and opening up a gap from their midfield rivals, Norris and team-mate Carlos Sainz have a chance to score points consistently. Sainz started at the back of the grid in nineteenth position after grid penalties for new Power Unit elements and still finished in eighth position after an awesome recovery drive. The Spaniard deserved to be in the competition with Verstappen, Leclerc, and Norris for the “Driver of the Day” award.

“We’re performing very well in all areas, from pit stops, pace to reliability. The guys are doing a good job so we have to keep that up if we want to be ahead of what sometimes are the quicker cars,” said Norris.

Credit: Alfa Romeo Racing

 Antonio Giovinazzi – Alfa Romeo Racing

Qualifying margin to team-mate: +0.013s

Race margin to team-mate: +0.582s

Antonio Giovinazzi finished in tenth position and scored the very first Formula 1 point of his career. This solitary point was a major breakthrough for the Italian driver.

From the start of the season, Giovinazzi has been decisively outqualified and out-raced by team-mate Räikkönen. In the last two races, the young rookie driver had outqualified Räikkönen and seemed to be coming to terms with the car.

Another impressive qualification performance saw Giovinaazi qualify in eighth position, just 0.013 seconds slower than Räikkönen. He started in seventh position and mirrored Räikkönen’s strategy.

Giovinazzi kept pace with his veteran team-mate and crossed the line less than one second behind him. After the struggles in the first eight races, this first point lifts a lot of pressure from the shoulders of Giovinazzi.

“I’m so happy to score my first point. It’s a great feeling and it’s a big weight off my shoulders. I think this is the maximum we could have done today so I’m really pleased to have two cars in the top ten,” said an understandably ecstatic Giovinazzi.

Homework to do…

Pierre Gasly  – Aston Martin Red Bull Racing Honda

Qualifying margin to team-mate: +0.760s

Race margin to team-mate: +75.231s (+1 lap)

Pierre Gasly seemed to be closing the gap to team-mate Verstappen for a few races. But in the last two races, Gasly seems to be back where he started. The Frenchman qualified over seven-tenths slower in qualification on the soft compound tyres.

As in the previous race in France, a poor first stint saw him pit after twenty-five laps. Even as his team-mate was steadily moving forward, Gasly pushed too hard on the hard compound tyres in the first two laps of his second stint and the heavy blisters compromised his performance.

Gasly finished behind Norris in seventh position and a lap down to Verstappen. After briefly overtaking Verstappen for seventh position on the first lap, this end result was dire for Gasly.

It was never going to be easy being Verstappen’s team-mate. But nobody expected Gasly to be so far behind. The Red Bull Racing team management is known for its ruthlessness when dealing with their young drivers. The pressure is ramping up on Gasly with every race and he needs to get on top of his problems sooner rather than later.

Kevin Magnussen – Haas F1 team

Qualifying margin to team-mate: -0.024s (Q2)

Race margin to team-mate: +61.479s

Kevin Magnussen was ecstatic after he qualified in fifth position. A five-place grid penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change saw the Dane start in tenth position.

The Haas F1 team has gone backwards at an alarming rate in recent races. The one lap pace that saw them qualify well, even if they were going backwards in the race, had also evaporated. Haas F1 Team Principal Guenther Steiner termed the French Grand Prix as their worst weekend since the team entered Formula 1.

The 2018 Austrian Grand Prix was one of the better races for the team last season. So Magnussen’s superb qualifying lap brought back some faint smiles in the Haas garage and hopes of a repeat performance.

But it did not take long for the smiles to disappear on race day. Magnussen was the first driver to pit on lap 12 after he dropped to fifteenth position. He was one of only two drivers to pit twice in the race.

A drive-through penalty for being out of position at the start did not help matters. Magnussen ended in nineteenth position behind George Russell. The ever eloquent Steiner termed the dire weekend in Austria as “negatively amazing”.

Credit: Renault Sport Media Center

Nico Hulkenberg – Renault F1 team

Qualifying margin to team-mate: -0.274s

Race margin to team-mate: +1.727s

For the Renault F1 team a step forward at one race seems to lead to two steps backward at the next race. The R.S.19 seems to be a track-specific car with the performance varying widely from track to track.

The moderate gains made by the team at the French Grand Prix was completely negated in this race. That seasoned drivers like Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo are struggling to this extent to setup the car race after race does not bode well for the team.

Hulkenberg started in fifteenth position after he incurred a five-place grid penalty for use of a new power unit element. The German finished in thirteenth position for his sixth non-point scoring finish in nine races.

The rest…

Alfa Romeo Racing must get an honorable mention for a double-points finish after a recent dip in form. Räikkönen finished in ninth position after running as high as fourth position in the race.

Mercedes has always battled cooling issues at this race. The two leading drivers in the drivers’ championship, Hamilton and Bottas, were forced to lift and coast for most of the race. Hamilton and Bottas finished in fifth and third positions respectively. This was a less than commanding performance for the Silver Arrows for the first time this season.

Ricciardo started in twelfth position and finished in the same position. A long first stint on the medium compound tyres of forty-six laps did not yield any tangible results. The ever-smiling Australian spoke post-race about the team being honest with each other and trying to improve. But it must have hurt to see his former team-mate Verstappen storm to a race win even as he languishes in the midfield.

George Russell started in the pit lane and finished in eighteenth position ahead of Magnussen as Williams has shown incremental signs of progress in recent races.

The Racing Point team and Scuderia Toro Rosso did not score any points for the second race in a row. McLaren is the only midfield team making progress consistently even as all the other midfield teams are struggling to score points.

All the teams will assemble for the British Grand Prix at the iconic Silverstone circuit in two weeks time (July 12-14 2019).

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