Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc revived his championship title bid with a crucial victory in the Austrian Grand Prix in Spielberg
Whether due to Ferrari team strategies and Leclerc’s recent inconsistent form over the last five Grands Prix, this wasn’t just the Monegasque’s first win since April’s Australian Grand Prix; it was also his first podium since the Miami Grand Prix in early May.
Once again, Leclerc lapped his Ferrari no better than second behind the Dutchman during Saturday’s sprint race qualifier. However, Leclerc found Sunday’s cooler ambient temperature suited his F1-75 perfectly, while Verstappen’s Red Bull RB18 immediately suffered excessive tyre degradation.
With the Ferrari again the quickest car in race trim, the exuberant Leclerc caught and passed the Dutchman three times after pit stops for the win.
All was not perfect. Ferrari teammate Carlos Sainz stopped with 14 laps remaining due to a catastrophic engine failure, after which Leclerc detected a throttle issue that put his long-awaited comeback in jeopardy.
“The end was incredibly difficult and it would get stuck at 20 or 30 per cent throttle in the low speed,” Leclerc said of his “scary” final laps.
“I had it [Sainz’s retirement] in my mind. Luckily it [the issue] went [before] the end of the race.”
Leclerc was not the only one worried. Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto was so concerned about the reliability of Leclerc’s car he admitted to being unable to watch the final three laps.
Max Verstappen hung on, finishing 1.53sec behind Leclerc, who cut the Dutchman’s lead in the Championship to 38 points at the halfway point of 2022. Lewis Hamilton completed his trouble-free race to take third alongside George Russell in fourth in their rejuvenated Mercedes W13.
Esteban Ocon (Alpine) was a solid fifth, holding his place on the grid and comfortably ahead of the battling Haas and McLaren drivers.
Mick Schumacher (Haas) headed that pack in sixth for his second consecutive points and his career-best finish in Formula 1. Lando Norris (McLaren) snatched seventh from Kevin Magnussen (Haas) in the final ten laps, while Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) scored his first points since Azerbaijan with ninth.
Fernando Alonso (Alpine) took a hard-earned point for 10th with three stops after starting 19th on the grid with a power unit penalty.
Max Verstappen made a clean sweep of the meaningful sessions, taking pole position in Friday’s qualifying session and winning Saturday’s sprint race relatively easily.
Mercedes revealed a significant pace that evaporated in the final minutes of Q3. Hamilton tried to make his second hot lap count. He lost the rear end of his car at Turn Seven, putting his car sideways into the barriers.
Yet Mercedes carnage was not finished. With hopes of setting a competitive time now resting with Russell, he followed Hamilton into the barriers, this time at Turn 10. He lost the rear at the final corner and went backwards into the barriers, like his teammate, causing extensive damage to the car.
The Sprint race offered a brief threat from Ferrari in the opening corners, but after Carlos Sainz washed out at Turn 3 – letting Charles Leclerc back through to second, the opportunities ended.
The Dutchman and championship leader never extended his lead beyond three seconds, but he remained in control. With the eight points for the Sprint victory, Verstappen extended his title lead again.
There was a good comeback drive from Sergio Perez, who went from 13th to fifth in the sprint.
The Red Bull Ring had rain overnight and into the morning, but the track was dry for the Grand Prix.
At lights out, Verstappen led Leclerc away, retaining his lead. Russell had a good start from fourth and overtook Sainz for third at the first corner, but Sainz ran off the track into Turn 3 and then retook the spot on the run to the braking zone.
Perez and Russell collided. Perez was out as Ocon moved to fifth place, with Hamilton taking seventh.
By Lap 4, Leclerc was already within range of Verstappen, but he couldn’t find an opening. A big DRS train formed behind Russell, and by Lap 9, he fought off the swarm of Ocon, Magnussen, Schumacher and Hamilton.
Verstappen already sounded under pressure on his radio. It’s serious, as Leclerc was close enough to get his nose ahead into Turn Four’s apex and make it stick! Ferrari now led in Spielberg.
The Dutchman recognized his RB18’s rapid tyre degradation and took on new rubber. Verstappen immediately lapped 2-3 tenths quicker than Leclerc and Sainz as he passed Hamilton for third on Lap 19. The Dutchman continued to gain ground, with an 0.8s advantage on Leclerc.
Meanwhile, an intensive battle was underway in the midfield, with Norris, Magnussen, Alonso, Schumacher and Zhou running two by one by one into Turn 3.
Leclerc finally pitted on Lap 26 for hard tyres. He rejoined six seconds behind Verstappen (now holding P2). Sainz then pitted on Lap 28, giving Verstappen the lead.
On Lap 33, Leclerc obtained DRS on the slowing Verstappen and stuck it up the inside in Turn 3. Two laps later, Verstappen trailed by 3.5s. The Dutchman’s pace had disappeared; his front-end grip was unpredictable.
Verstappen pitted on Lap 36 and rejoined P3 behind both Ferrari’s but ahead of Hamilton in P4.
By Lap 42, Leclerc led Sainz by four seconds but would need another stop. Verstappen was 19 seconds behind but about 0.9s quicker. With 24 laps remaining, Verstappen’s and Leclerc’s lap times had now converged.
On Lap 49, Leclerc pitted from the lead for a new set of hards to overtake Verstappen on track. Sainz now led Verstappen by 13s on Lap 50 when he stopped for tyres, handing the lead to the Dutchman.
By Lap 53, Leclerc was already within DRS range of Verstappen. He closed at Turn 1 but waited until Turn 3, with the Dutchman on the inside. Leclerc also moved inside and got an easy run into Turn 4. Despite Verstappen’s acceleration, Leclerc’s back into the lead!
Sainz took the provisional bonus lap point for the fastest lap on Lap 56. And, starting on Lap 57, that pace gave him DRS on Verstappen in second place. The Spaniard closed at Turn 1, waiting for Turn 3.
And Then Bang!
Sainz’s engine was gone! He pulled over to the side of the track as flames erupted from the side pods and deck, triggering the virtual safety car.
Leclerc and Verstappen pitted under the VSC for medium tyres on Lap 60, lifting Hamilton into a comfortable podium position. Leclerc rejoined, leading Verstappen by 4.3s with Hamilton a further 26 seconds behind the Dutchman.
Within seconds of rejoining, Leclerc reported that his throttle pedal was sticking, coming off the power, which triggered the car to reject some downshifts.” It’s a mess,” he reports.
Verstappen reacted with repeated fastest laps. The gap, then at 3.7s, dropped a couple of tenths each new lap.
It was now all in Leclerc’s hands, and he delivered. By lifting and coasting, and requesting downshifts early to compensate for the delay caused by the throttle not shutting off entirely, the Monegasque saved his brilliant win 1.532 seconds ahead of the closing Dutchman.