Leclerc and Verstappen prove Formula 1 isn’t doomed
In a season in which Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes have been strangling the competitive life out of Formula 1, the Austrian Grand Prix offered the fans a hoped-for glimpse into its future.
Barring the mother of all miracles and a collapse akin to that of Devon Loch in the 1956 Grand National (seek out the glorious YouTube Pathé clip for one of the most remarkable defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory performances), it is certain Hamilton will win his sixth drivers' title, and Mercedes its sixth consecutive constructors' championship, equalling Ferrari's record from 1999-2004.
Both driver and team could be forgiven for racking up such remarkable statistics if they were facing any kind of challenge. But six wins and two runner-up positions for Hamilton, and six one-twos for Mercedes in the opening eight races paints a stark picture as to the team's dominance as Ferrari, Red Bull et al have been found wanting.
Mercifully, in the heat of the picturesque Styrian mountains, F1 found sanctuary from Mercedes' blistering form as Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc stepped out of the shadow cast by Hamilton.
With an air temperature of 33 degrees Celsius, and track in the low 50s, the W10s of Hamilton and team-mate Valtteri Bottas suffered cooling issues that forced the drivers into lift and coast for a significant portion of the shortest circuit on the calendar in terms of lap time. The team's "Achilles heel" was exposed, according to team principal Toto Wolff, who said it was "painful" to watch his drivers coast.
For the majority of a watching F1 public – save for Mercedes, Hamilton and Bottas fans – and given the pain they have had to endure of seeing one team monopolise a campaign, what unfolded at the Red Bull Ring offered blessed relief.
On Saturday, after Hamilton was handed a three-place grid penalty for impeding Kimi Raikkonen in his Alfa Romeo during qualifying, it resulted in the formation of the youngest front row in F1 history – in terms of combined age – as polesitter Leclerc was joined by fellow 21-year-old Verstappen.
Come the start of the race, the expected battle between the duo failed to materialise as Verstappen suffered a miserable getaway. "After that start, I thought the race was over," exclaimed Verstappen.
While Leclerc beautifully controlled proceedings from the front, Verstappen battled his way back into contention, with the key to his eventual victory a pitstop for fresh tyres much later than any of his rivals.
On older rubber, Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel and Bottas were unable to offer too much resistance, leaving Leclerc five seconds away in the distance, and with only a handful of laps remaining for Verstappen to hunt down the Monegasque.
The battle that unfolded on laps 68 and 69 – and whatever your view of the stewards' investigation that followed Verstappen's move on Leclerc for the win (and thankfully, they made the right call) – provided captivating viewing.
As fans, we demand that uncertainty as to who will triumph as near to the end of a race as possible, and if we can get wheel-to-wheel action thrown in, that sense of amazement as two drivers push themselves and their cars to the limit, neither wanting to give an inch, then that makes for satisfying viewing.
Throughout a congested midfield, F1 often provides a spectacle. Sadly, we have been starved of such entertainment out front this season. As Racing Point driver Sergio Perez recently remarked: "There are some races that are incredibly boring at the front of the field."
It is likely the action in Austria will be the exception rather than the norm, and usual service will be resumed at the next two races in Britain and Germany, in particular, with Hamilton and Mercedes leading the way.
But for F1's future, and we are talking from 2021 onwards as the current regulations remain in place for 2020 before what is hoped will be a major overhaul for the following season going forwards, the show put on by Verstappen and Leclerc will be more commonplace.
From the moment he first arrived in F1 at the age of just 17, Verstappen has long been a champion-in-waiting. It is just a case of when he will have the machinery beneath him to produce a sustained, season-long challenge, rather than enjoy the odd win here or there as his success in Austria was only his sixth victory in 90 races.
Red Bull know how to produce a title-winning car, and hopefully, they now have a power-unit manufacturer to match in Honda, who enjoyed their first win since the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix after years of heartache in the current hybrid era.
Such a combination of Red Bull, Honda and Verstappen could one day prove potent, and if so, Ferrari and Leclerc are sure to be one of their major rivals. But for circumstances, Leclerc should have had his first win by now since switching from Sauber to Ferrari ahead of this season. He has certainly proven himself to be more than a match for his more illustrious, four-time champion team-mate Vettel, and it is surely only a matter of time before he takes the chequered flag.
Let us hope Sunday in Spielberg was a taster of more fireworks to come over the years from Leclerc and Verstappen, who may not have it all their own way if the likes of McLaren's Lando Norris, and even George Russell who is performing superbly in a dog of a Williams this season, continue to progress.
In a season of doom and gloom, overshadowed by Mercedes' overwhelming superiority, there are rays of hope.