Red Bull’s Max Verstappen claimed a surprise victory in the boiling Austrian Grand Prix by controlling tyre blistering better than Ferrari and pushing both Mercedes to experience humiliating mechanical failures.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen leapt from fourth on the starting grid to take victory in the Austrian Grand Prix at the team’s own Red Bull Ring. In a Grand Prix that saw unexpected heat that blistering every available choice of racing tyre, unscheduled stops, and both Mercedes experience mechanical failure, the 20-year-old Dutchman nursed his tyres to the checkered flag. Despite Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari closing to within 1.5-seconds, Verstappen cooly claimed his first win of the season and fourth of his career in front of a packed circuit crowd including more than 20,000 of travelling Dutch fans.
At a race circuit where the Red Bull’s weren’t expected to be a factor against Mercedes or Ferrari during qualifying or the Grand Prix, Max Verstappen quickly muscled into third place at the start and then calmly capitalised on every opportunity that came his way.
“It was amazing. It was very hard to manage the tyres, we really had to look after them as well, there was a lot of blistering,” said Verstappen.
“I needed to catch up in the points, so today was definitely a very good day for me, and I just hope we can continue like this.”
Points-leading Mercedes arrived in Austria with new Series 2 engines and extensive aero updates and promptly locked out the front row in qualifying and were hands-down favourites to win but their first double-retirement since the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix gave Ferrari the opportunity to take valuable Constructor’s points to regain the Driver’s championship lead.
Valtteri Bottas’ was the first to drop out, a victim again with an early gearbox failure, while points leader Lewis Hamilton suffered first from his team’s poor virtual safety car tactics, falling from first to fourth place before finally dropping out with fuel pressure problems. It was his first DNF in 34 races while also losing the lead of the world championship as well.
Mercedes’ consummate mechanical debacle at the Red Bull Ring made Ferrari’s day with Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel taking second and third; with Vettel re-taking the Driver’s Championship lead by a single point.
Problems weren’t just with visited on Mercedes as the second Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo also dropped out with gearbox problems while he was fighting for a podium spot.
Haas driver Romain Grosjean finally picked up his first points of the season as he and Kevin Magnussen took fourth and fifth places, secured the team’s best-ever biggest ever points haul, ahead of the two Force Indias.
Fernando Alonso started his McLaren from the pit lane and climbed to eighth place while the Sauber Alfa Romeo duo of Charles Leclerc and Marcus Ericsson took the final two points finishes.
The Mercedes team awoke on race day to face ambient and track temperatures much hotter than Saturday’s qualifying sessions. Although they locked out the front row, they now met heat that could play havoc with their power advantage and tyre choice. Ferrari’s Vettel had qualified in third but was slapped with a three-place grid penalty for impeding Renault’s Carlos Sainz during Q2, dropping him to sixth. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen moved up to third and Verstappen to fourth.
Fitted with the ultrasoft tyres, Raikkonen got the jump on his supersoft-shod rivals off the line and muscled his Ferrari in between the two Mercedes going into Turn 1. Hamilton on the inside took the lead, with Raikkonen claiming second by slicing across Bottas’ path. Meanwhile, Verstappen used the congested bottleneck to blast past Bottas for third on the exit of the corner.
With the top four jostling for an advantage, Raikkonen attacked from the outside of Turn 3, but overshot his braking point and slid wide, creating another opportunity for his rivals. Approaching Turn 4, as Raikkonen was blocking another challenge from Verstappen, Bottas skated his Mercedes around the outside of the corner, passing both cars to reclaim second place. Unfazed, Verstappen went after Raikkonen again, this time sticking his nose on the inside of turn seven and, with a NASCAR-style nudge to the left-rear wheel of the Ferrari, he took third place.
Behind these battles Vettel was cautious, dropping back after the start to as low as ninth before passing Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg and the two Haas cars of Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean to reclaim sixth place. He then took off after fifth-placed Daniel Ricciardo.
The field had just started to spread out when Hulkenberg suffered an early power unit failure on Lap 13. Then, only two laps later, Bottas’ Mercedes gearbox let go without warning, and he was out in a haze of blue smoke. Bottas came to rest too close to the track, activating a virtual safety car period, which in turn triggered pit stops for almost the entire field.
Both Ferrari and Red Bull tacticians immediately chose to double-stack both team cars’ tyre stops, reducing their overall time loss but race-leader Hamilton stayed out. It would be his only shot. The abrupt end of the VSC moments later meant, baring another Safety Car period, Hamilton would now lose significant time to his rivals with his required stop. He was quick to grasp it was a turning point in the Grand Prix and questioned the team, leading Mercedes’ chief strategist James Vowles to admit the fault (also heard by the world’s listening audience) over the radio.
By Lap 23, Ricciardo was close enough to Raikkonen to take advantage of his slight bobble at Turn 3 to take third place on the outside of turn four.
Hamilton pitted on Lap 25 with severely blisters rear tyres, and Mercedes fitted their remaining car with soft tyres to keep him ahead of championship rival Vettel. Now it was Verstappen with a lead of 6.6-seconds over Raikkonen, Ricciardo, Hamilton and Vettel. Behind him, a fresh battle for second commenced with Ricciardo, Raikkonen, Hamilton and Vettel running close together.
Ricciardo had received soft tyres back on Lap 17 during the VSC period, with the belief they would last until the end of the race, but the super hot track surface was destroying his left-rear tyre. Raikkonen saw Ricciardo’s ominous line of blisters developing on the Australian’s right-rear and re-passed for second place. Ricciardo was immediately brought in for fresher supersoft tyres.
Three laps later, Vettel put his Ferrari on the edge of the grass on the inside approaching Turn 3 as he bravely sliced underneath championship rival Hamilton for third place.
Hamilton’s Mercedes was once again struggling with tyre blistering, and on Lap 53, he dove into the pits for fresh tyres (supersofts) returning to the track behind Ricciardo. A lap later the Red Bull driver came to a halt with gearbox problems, handing fourth place to Hamilton. They would be points the Brit would never keep.
Less than ten laps later, Hamilton parked his car with fuel pressure problems. With Vettel still running in third, Hamilton’s DNF meant the German regained the championship lead. Second-placed Raikkonen chipped away at Verstappen’s five-second lead over the last twenty laps, trying to end his 103-race win drought, but in the end, the young Dutchman drove a masterful race and had the Finn covered. Verstappen took on brutal conditions against the best by borrowing a page from three-time World Champion Jackie Stewarts playbook – win at the slowest speed possible – to capture his first victory of the season by 1.5-seconds at Red Bull’s home Grand Prix.
Mercedes suffered their first double mechanical DNF since the 1955 Monaco GP (where they had a triple mechanical DNF). Bottas had gearbox problems, and Hamilton had fuel pump pressure issues. Mercedes is being pushed to the limit by Ferrari’s performance this year which has probably affected its reliability. It’s possible that the new Mercedes upgrade is making the car faster but is eating the tyres. Hamilton was unable to manage the hardest compound. One has to wonder if Bottas’ tyres would have lasted as well. On the other hand, all six Ferrari engine cars finished in points.
Tactician James Vowles bravely and commendably held his hand up and said he cost Lewis Hamilton the race win. Ultimately, Lewis couldn’t make the softs last even after Mercedes kept him out, so arguably his call was not the wrong one, although racing behind the Ferraris may have exacerbated his tyre issues.
Max Verstappen’s secret for controlling his tyres’ blistering better than his rivals was to back off in the final two tyre-killing right-hand corners and make up that time in other parts of the circuit.
Finally, Austria was just the stimulant for Romain Grosjean. He loves the Red Bull Ring and duly delivered once again by finishing 4th. Thankfully, no apparent errors on race day after a great qualifying effort, and hopefully the Franco-Swiss driver can move on up from here.