SPIELBERG, Austria — If the French Grand Prix was a showcase of everything that’s wrong with modern F1, the Austrian Grand Prix proved that there is still plenty right with the sport. Despite having the same cars, the same drivers and the same rules, all the ingredients were there: wheel-to-wheel racing, a surprise winner and a dose of controversy.
Why did the Austrian Grand Prix develop into such a thriller? Are more races like it in store?
Red Bull back on top
Max Verstappen’s victory was as big a surprise to Red Bull as anyone else. It was the first non-Mercedes victory of the 2019 season, and it seemingly came out of nowhere after he dropped from a second-place grid position to eighth behind teammate Pierre Gasly on the opening lap of the race. He went on to not only take victory but also lap his struggling teammate.
“For the second half of the race, we were on fire. The car was incredibly quick,” team boss Christian Horner said. “The reality is we don’t fully understand why, but the updates we have been bringing to the last couple of races have started to come together and work well.
“This race was won the hard way: We had to pass three of the four main opposition. Max did that today.”
Even though Red Bull hasn’t had a car to match it, Verstappen’s talent has been clear to see all year. The fact that he leads both Ferrari drivers in the championship standings tells you all you need to know about the consistency and speed he has exhibited, and while Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel have made mistakes, Verstappen took his opportunity by the scruff of the neck.
The main reason the race was so entertaining to watch was that the top three teams were all in the running for victory. Ferrari had been fastest on a single lap in qualifying, but Vettel started out of position, meaning the Italian team knew it would have its work cut out fending off the Mercedes, which had the second-fastest car in qualifying.
The Red Bull looked reasonably competitive, but nobody expected it to be the fastest car in the second half of the race. That was largely down to the man behind the wheel, but he was also helped by a superior tyre strategy that allowed him to attack on fresher tyres at the end of the race.
The seeds for that strategy were sown in qualifying. F1’s rules dictate that the top 10 drivers must start the race on the same tyres they used in Q2, and while Ferrari went for softs, committing Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel to an early pit stop, Verstappen and the two Mercedes drivers opted for the mediums.
After Verstappen made his poor start, Mercedes and Ferrari soon occupied the top four positions and turned their focus on each other. Bottas and Vettel pitted on lap 21 as they attempted to gain an advantage by switching to fresh rubber early on, leading to Leclerc pitting on lap 22 to fend off that threat. Prior to those pit stops, Verstappen had been 13 seconds off the lead and wasn’t really factored into the equation. After all, Hamilton was still ahead of him on track and appeared to be the bigger threat.
As Hamilton and Verstappen ventured longer into the race, they remained split by seven seconds, with very little to choose between them, but on lap 27, Hamilton broke a flap on his front wing on the kerbs at Turn 10 and started haemorrhaging lap time. An 11-second pit stop followed on lap 30 to replace the nose assembly on his Mercedes. Verstappen went one lap longer before making his two-second pit stop on lap 31 and emerging ahead of Hamilton.
Then came the big surprise: On new hard tyres, Verstappen found a significant pace advantage over the rest of the field.
“His tyres were eight to 10 laps younger than the cars ahead, and he just put the hammer down,” Horner said. “The Ferraris are so fast on the straight here, but we were a lot quicker through Turn 1, so he was able to use that momentum, and then with the DRS, he passed Sebastian.
“Then you think, OK, Hamilton we were pulling away from, and we thought, at least we’ve got a podium back today. He started to catch Bottas, but seriously catch him, and then he set the fastest lap of the race, and he seemed to have everything under control.”
An accident in Friday practice meant Red Bull had no meaningful data of how the tyres would behave, but that also meant Mercedes and Ferrari were unaware of just how quick Verstappen would be. With no target times to drive to and the knowledge that his tyres were fresher than those on the cars in front, Verstappen was able to push hard — something that is so often not the case in modern F1.
“He passed Bottas pretty straightforwardly, and then with 10 laps to go, you start to believe this could be possible,” Horner said. “He kept working away at it, and he was just in much better shape than Charles. He passed him once at the top of the hill but didn’t get the traction out of the corner, and Charles was able to drag back past. And then the next lap, he got the move done.
“It was close racing. He had won the competition in the braking area. There was a touch, as Charles turned in, but I thought it was good racing, tough racing. By the time he got to the apex first, it was checkmate. Then he got his head down and was pulling away. To win here in Austria, Red Bull car, to get Honda’s first win as well since 2006, in the style and manner he did was the perfect day for us.”
Waiting for victory …
It had also been a perfect day for F1 — the only slight concern being a stewards’ investigation into Verstappen’s move on Leclerc that dragged on for three hours after the chequered flag. The race could have been rerun twice in the time it took the stewards to decide on five seconds of action, so what took so long?
“The first reason was the proximity [of when the incident took place] to the end [of the race],” race director Michael Masi said. “The primary part was we didn’t get going with the investigation until 6 p.m., with all the various media commitments with regard to the TV pen and postrace conference.
“The hearing itself was about an hour, with all parties involved. Then the stewards deliberated, looked at other cases, precedents, spoke between themselves, and by the time you write a decision and attempt to make sure there’s no typos or anything in it, summoning the teams back, delivering the decision to them … time drags on a lot more when you’re sitting outside like all of us than when you’re sitting in the room, I’d suggest.
“It was just that they were considering absolutely everything. They had all four people, both drivers and both team managers, in there for an hour.”
It wasn’t the perfect ending to a great day of racing, but it was the right decision for anyone who believes drivers should be free to race.
What happened to Mercedes?
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all on Sunday was Mercedes’ lack of pace. After winning the first eight races, the W10 looked like an unbeatable machine, but the Austrian Grand Prix exposed a concern that Mercedes had been harbouring since the start of the year.
Over the winter months, Mercedes went to great lengths to package its car as tightly as possible for the start of the season. When viewed from the front, the sidepods of the W10 are incredibly narrow, and the bodywork is shrink-wrapped around the radiators to help accelerate airflow to the rear of the car and minimise drag. The extreme design is part of the reason the car has been so competitive this year, but it comes with some limitations on cooling.
Prior to Austria, the team managed its cooling effectively to minimise performance loss, but the high ambient temperatures of 34 degrees Celsius on Sunday tipped it over the edge. What’s more, the Red Bull Ring is located 700 metres above sea level, which means the air is thinner and less effective at cooling. Combined, the conditions exposed the first major weakness we have seen in Mercedes’ 2019 package.
“We knew that it was our Achilles heel, and we were carrying the problems since the beginning of the season,” team boss Toto Wolff said. “We tried to work on mitigating the performance loss, but at the end, it was really painful to watch cruising, not being able to defend or attack.”
The drivers were told to lift off the throttle and coast into corners to combat the issue, while the engine was run in safe settings below the usual race modes the team uses on a Sunday.
“We were lifting and coasting like 400 metres-plus per lap,” Hamilton said. “So we were a long way down, and even if I didn’t have to do that, we wouldn’t have had the pace, I think, but unfortunately, that’s just the way it was.”
Mercedes opened up extra cooling on the car in anticipation of the race — losing performance in the process — but Wolff says the team could not have gone any further to combat the issue.
“The next step would have been to remove all the bodywork! So that was not really an option because the sponsors wouldn’t have liked it!
“We were right on the limit [in terms of opening up more cooling]. We couldn’t do anything anymore, and it was already very damaging for performance what we did. There was no step left anymore.”
It also helped explain why Bottas hardly put up a defence against Verstappen.
“To be honest, you can defend like a lion, but if you have a car that is fundamentally one-and-a-half second or two seconds off the pace, it’s just a question of time when you are being eaten up,” Wolff said. “You can see that Max just closed the gap so quickly to Charles. I think if Valtteri would not have been overtaken there, he would have lost more time and probably lost out to Sebastian in the end.”
Will we see another race like Austria?
Europe is set for another hot summer, with temperatures in Germany and Hungary likely to exceed 30 degrees Celsius later this month. Without the mix of altitude and extreme heat, the problems Mercedes faced in Austria will not be as prevalent, but that could give both Ferrari and Red Bull hope heading into the second half of the season.
“First of all, I’m really hoping for the typical English weather in [the next race at] Silverstone so we can gain a little bit of time to sort our problems out,” Wolff said. “But then there is no question: There is no alternative than to fix our problems for the coming hot European races, Hockenheim and Budapest. There is just no other option.”
Going into the weekend, Ferrari and Red Bull were lobbying for a switch to thicker tread tyres to try to hamstring Mercedes later in the season. It seemed like a desperate and impractical answer to the lack of competition at the front of the field, and there is a certain irony in that it was tabled in the week leading up to Mercedes’ first race loss of the year.
However, if Austria proved anything, it’s that F1 is far more exciting when multiple cars are in the running for victory. For the sake of the rest of the season, we have to hope that F1 continues to chase hot weather around the globe.