Charles Leclerc will wake up on Monday morning, July 1, and will wonder how the Austrian F1 Grand Prix got away. The Monaco born 21 year old lead for all but three laps of the race, but in a contentious decision made some three hours after the race finished, the stewards declared that Max Verstappen from Red Bull had won. Why? Verstappen had gone for a dive bomb inside Leclerc on Turn 3, there was contact, and Leclerc felt that he had been unfairly pushed wide. Leclerc was also aiming to create a piece of history as Ferrari had not won at the Spielberg based circuit since 2003, in one of the many wins by former champion, Michael Schumacher. Verstappen himself won here last year and in a way can count himself lucky due to a truly terrible start after his anti-stall system kicked in on the line.
Adding to the tenseness of the situation was the fact that track temperatures were above 5- degrees Celcius, meaning the medium and hard rubber tires would be working harder to provide the grip levels needed for the F1 cars, racing in a country where most of the land lies above 1600 feet above sea level.
Veteran Kimi Raikkonen had a blinder of a start too, with the Finn inside the top five for the first few laps. Lewis Hamilton didn’t have a great start, falling back as far as 8th and being pushed by Lando Norris early before Hamilton’s composure got him back to third, sitting behind Valterri Bottas in second.
Ten laps in and Verstappen was still down in 6th before Raikkonen opened the door at Turn 3, allowing the obviously quicker Dutchman through safely. Leclerc was leading Bottas by 2.6 seconds, with Hamilton a massive five seconds off the lead. Back in the lower midpack, Romain Grosjean and Alexander Albon were racing as if they were in the lead, with side by side racing across most of the circuit.
Kevin Magnussen was given a drive through penalty on lap 15. The stewards had reviewed the start and deemed the hapless Haas driver was out of position at the start of the race, adding to an already miserable season for the Danish driver.
Vettel and Bottas pitted for tires on lap 22 in what was a quiet race so far. Quietly, too, was the progress of Verstappen, carving his way up to second unhindered and untroubled by the rest of the field by lap 25 but well over seven seconds adrift of Leclerc who pitted on lap 27. Hamilton took the lead here but had not yet pitted for fresh rubber. Hulkenberg pitted on lap 27 and he was down in P15. Teammate Daniel Ricciardo was up as high as eighth.
Lap 30 and Hamilton was brought in. The uncharacteristically subdued championship leader had told the team his front end grip was diminishing lap by lap. Tires were swapped as was the front wing however positions were lost to Verstappen, Vettel Bottas, and Leclerc who was back in the lead. Carlos Sainz in 6th and Ricciardo in 7th hadn’t yet pitted. Grosjean was on mediums and was on a long run, as was Daniil Kvyat.
Half race distance and Verstappen was battling for 3rd behind Vettel, and was three seconds clear of Hamilton. Kvyat made his pit stop but a right rear tire refused to go on cleanly, adding a vital second or two to the stop. Kvyat was down in 17th at the swapover.
Meanwhile Mercedes driver Valterri Bottas continued his dogged drive. Second behind Leclerc, he was consistently around five seconds shy of the race leader. Lap 40 and Ricciardo was still on his starting rubber, leading to questions from the commentary box as to what Renault’s strategy for the Australian was. Norris and Red Bull’s Pierre Gasly both were hard on his heels here, with Norris within a half second.
Lap 43 and finally Carlos Sainz gets fresh rubber. But it cost him, with a drop to 14th from 6th! Ricciardo was still out on his original rubber and Gasly was still within a half second. Verstappen’s calculated charge begins here with his times going down and indeed the race’s fastest lap was his on lap 44. Gasly finally got past Ricciardo a lap later and began his hunt of Lando Norris. Lap 48 and Verstappen is under a half car length of Vettel, with the Ferrari’s rubber ten laps older. Sainz on his new rubber was making his mark, and was back up to 11th.
Verstappen finally gets through on Vettel on lap 50, who pitted for soft tires straight away to try and take advantage of the higher grip levels that compound offers. In all of the noise up front, Ricciardo’s pitstop went unnoticed and he’s fallen back to 14th. Sainz in his McLaren continues his climb and he’s back inside the top ten behind Raikkonen. Verstappen continues his charge to the lead, pressuring Bottas into his fastest lap, and Vettel lays down a race record 1:07 in response.
Suddenly there is a drama for Red Bull and Verstappen, with a frantic call from the 21 year old to the garage that his power was dropping off. The response was swift with a reset of the power unit’s exhaust sensor allowing Verstappen to get past Bottas and be five and a half seconds down on Leclerc. Lewis Hamilton’s run of wins was clearly coming to an end, with his pace 11 seconds off his team mate.
Back markers were coming into play for the front runners. Crucial, too, was race position for Giovinazzi, with the Alfa Romeo driver looking to score his first ever F1 point. Leclerc shows his pace on lap 63 by lapping Carlos Sainz, who was in eighth position. Verstappen is now under three seconds from Leclerc. Lap 66 and Verstappen is now inside a second of the leader. Vettel is in 5th and with five laps to go is a second behind the Mercedes.
Lap 68 and finally Verstappen makes his move. Or tries to as Leclerc shows his mettle by driving perfectly defensively. A lap later and it’s the incident that has Leclerc fuming. Replays showed that Leclerc had room but turned in to his right and the front wheels bumped. Somehow it was just enough for either car’s front suspension to not break. Another lap down and Vettel breaks his shackles, getting past Hamilton and he’s up into 4th. Verstappen leaps away to take the win and does do by 2.72 seconds.
Bottas gets points for third ahead of Vettel and Hamilton. Norris and Sainz take 6th and 8th for valuable McLaren points. Gasly ultimately snares 7th with Raikkonen back in the points for 9th, and Giovinazzi did indeed hang on for 1oth. Perez for Racing point takes 11th ahead of the Renault pairing of Ricciardo and Hulkenberg. Lance Stroll was untroubled for 14th with Alexander Albon, Romain Grosjean, Daniil Kvyat, George Russell, Kevin Magnussen, and Robert Kubica all finishing.
The finish marks the second youngest front row in F1 history and rewards for Red Bull’s new engine supplier, Honda.
“At the start I had anti-stall, we set the clutch too aggressive,” said Verstappen. “But yeah, from then onwards, my first stint was a little bit limited with a flat-spot I had after lap one, but still we stayed out quite long.
“Once we came out again, we had great pace, we were looking after the tyres a bit, just settling in. One by one we were overtaking the cars ahead. The car really came alive.”
The next race is at the historic Silverstone circuit for the Great Britain F1 GP in two weeks time.