Four talking points from an epic Austrian Grand Prix
These have been tough times for Formula 1. But just when it needed it the most, the Austrian Grand Prix delivered an absolute zinger, as 21-year-olds Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc showed the way for the new generation.
But how close we came to F1 once again tying itself in knots with a three-hour stewards’ inquiry that almost turned the result on its head. Almost – but on this occasion, not quite. Thank goodness.
What a day for Red Bull at its home circuit, for Honda that claimed its first F1 win since Jenson Button in Hungary way back in 2006, and most of all for the main man himself. In front of an orange army of support, as half of Holland seemingly made this corner of Austria their own, Verstappen delivered a performance for the ages.
How their hearts must have all sunk at the start, as Verstappen’s Red Bull stuttered off the line and Max plummeted from the front row to seventh.
But all it did was set up one of the great comebacks, as Verstappen got his head down and made up for that disappointment – and then some, as Red Bull played a tactical blinder by pitting him 10 laps later than Leclerc. Those fresher Pirellis came into play as the final laps ticked down.
Before we get into the moment of controversy, what a feast of racing the pair put on three laps from home on lap 68, as the Red Bull asked challenging questions and the Ferrari answered them in determinedly firm but fair fashion. The yawn of Paul Ricard suddenly seemed a distant memory.
On the next lap, Verstappen wasn’t to be denied as he put a forceful move up the inside of Leclerc at Turn 3. Could he have given his rival more room. Yep – but as he said later, this is motor racing. He had the corner and he made sure Leclerc had no way of coming back at him down the straight that followed.
“What the hell is that?” fumed Leclerc, and understandably so. His first grand prix win was within reach, just as it had been in Bahrain. He was never going to take this well.
You’ll have your own view. But what is surely the case is that Verstappen could have avoided three deeply uncomfortable hours for himself, his team and his fans as the stewards considered their move. “I was sweating more now than during the race,” he smiled, eventually. “It’s hard racing, but it should be like that.”
But the pass could have been cleaner – then again, in the heat of the moment, having seen Leclerc’s momentum from Turns 3 to 4 in the previous lap, he would argue he did what he needed to do.
In the end, the result stood and he thoroughly deserved his sixth F1 victory, his second consecutive win at the Red Bull Ring and his team’s 60th in its relatively short history.
What a great day for F1.
More doubts over Bottas and Vettel
The worrying season narrative continued for both Valtteri Bottas and Sebastian Vettel in Austria as Mercedes lost its unbeaten record for 2019, but not to the team seemingly most likely to take it.
For Bottas, his underwhelming defence against the charging Verstappen was the most noteworthy moment of his day, even if he did deliver a podium third place. And yes, he beat his team-mate Lewis Hamilton, whose race was ruined all by his own making thanks to that required front wing change at his pitstop. No doubt Hamilton had a rare off-day. But Bottas, for his own sake and his team’s, needed to be much better in such circumstances. What’s happened to the anger and fire we saw in Australia?
As for Vettel, his place in Leclerc’s shadow left him a side-story in Austria. The pass on Hamilton for fourth at the close must have given him some cheer, but at a track where Ferrari seemingly had the pace advantage to win – save for those final laps – it once again wasn’t Vettel who positioned himself in the best place to capitalise.
We’re increasingly wondering: what does the future hold for the four-time world champion now?
Lando Norris once again showed he has everything in his armour to join Verstappen and Leclerc as the stars of F1’s new generation, with a mature and composed performance to score a sixth place, equalling his best result in F1 so far.
The side-by-side battle with Hamilton on lap one was impressive, largely because Norris looked totally at ease in such company. The kid was far from out of his depth.
Yes, he lost out and then Kimi Räikkönen rolled back the years with a great outside pass in his Alfa Romeo. But Norris wasn’t thrown by that. He delivered what McLaren needed.
Special commendation to his team-mate Carlos Sainz Jr., too, who put in an accomplished performance to rise from the back of the grid (because of grid penalties) to finish eighth. McLaren’s revival continues and both drivers are delivering what’s required.
Perhaps the good times really are returning for the team. And who needs Alonso?
Poor day for Gasly, Renault and Haas. Again.
Pierre Gasly is clearly hanging on to his Red Bull drive by his finger nails right now. As Christian Horner spelt out afterwards, it’s all down to him to close the gaping chasm to team-mate Verstappen and deliver the points the team needs to challenge Ferrari in the constructors’ battle.
But the Frenchman’s tentative attempts to pass Räikkönen only suggested a lack of confidence and belief right now. Such spirals are usually impossible to reverse.
Further back, it was another miserable day for the Renaults, with Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hülkenberg failing to even seriously challenge for points.
Ricciardo, open as ever, admitted once again that he can improve too. His move from Red Bull is increasingly looking like a move straight out of the Chris Amon book of terrible career decisions.
As for Haas, the day was even worse. “I don’t know what to say. Really confusing,” was all Kevin Magnussen could manage after finishing second from last. This was a team that was supposed to be knocking on the door behind the big three this year. Instead, the season is turning sour.
After this race, hopefully the opposite is the case for F1 as a whole. Austria answered the sport’s prayers in the best way possible. And Amen to that.