Red Bull Ring is hosting a doubleheader yet again and the races have been given two different names: Styrian GP for the first one and Austrian GP for the second.
This is Red Bull’s home race and the team has a good ‘track’ record around here with at least one car on the podium every year since 2016 (with Max Verstappen scoring four of those). However, in 2020, both races at the Red Bull Ring were won by Mercedes – one by Valtteri Bottas and the other by Lewis Hamilton. So the Austrian team arrived intending to redeem themselves at home, boosted by the momentum of its three wins in a row.
Max topped the charts in Friday’s practice and then qualified for Pole position on Saturday. He was the only driver who broke into the 1min03s and was nearly two-tenths quicker than the second-fastest qualifier Bottas. Hamilton was only a few hundredths of a second slower than his teammate while Sergio Perez’s time was fifth fastest. The McLaren of Lando Norris had broken into the top four, another strong showing from the Brit who scored his first F1 podium at this very circuit last year. However, Valtteri had picked up a three-place grid penalty for a spin in the pitlane during practice which meant he’d be starting on the third row alongside Pierre Gasly who was sixth fastest in his AlphaTauri. Charles Leclerc was only seventh fastest and would be sharing his grid row with Fernando Alonso who managed another top-10 result in qualifying, just ahead of Lance Stroll. Yuki Tsunoda had made it to Q3 yet again and was eighth fastest, but he accidentally impeded Bottas’ fast lap in qualifying which earned the rookie a three-spot grid penalty which meant he’d be starting P11. This also allowed George Russell to start from the fifth row of the grid, his best start in a Williams.
When the lights went out on Sunday afternoon, Max had a slightly better start than Lewis which allowed him to easily cover off any threat into Turn 1. Behind them, Norris was able to hold off Perez while Bottas kept his distance to avoid getting caught up in any unfortunate tangles. Unfortunately, Leclerc did not have any similar plan as he, Gasly and Alonso were three-wide into Turn 1. The Alpine driver forced the AlphaTauri and Ferrari to go off with Leclerc furthest off track. As they sped towards Turn 3, Gasly got better traction and was ahead of Charles and Fernando. As the No. 16 Ferrari tried to stay on the racing line and get some slipstream off Gasly, its front wing clipped the rear left tyre of the AlphaTauri. This landed Pierre a puncture down the fastest part of the track on Lap 1 and he was a sitting duck as they all arrived at Turn 3. The limp AT02 ended up collecting the Alfa Romeo of Antonio Giovinazzi and Williams of Nicholas Latifi as well.
The damage to AlphaTauri was more than just a puncture as by the time it arrived in the pitlane, the rear left seemed to suffer from broken suspension as well which brought a premature end to Gasly’s Styrian GP and his point-scoring streak for the team. Leclerc also had to pit at the end of Lap 1 for a new front wing which placed him at the back of the grid but on the Hard tyres that would allow him a longer first stint at a faster pace than most of the middle order.
Sergio was battling Lando for P3 for the first 10 laps. He almost got past on Lap 1 down the inside of tricky Turn 4 but Norris was able to take the place back going around the outside. The No.11 Red Bull was on Softs compared to its podium rivals who started the race on Medium compound tyres and would be running an alternative strategy. While the McLaren driver was putting up a good defence, it was hurting his strategy for a best-possible finish which wouldn’t be a podium spot on pace alone. So, he ended up letting Perez through on Lap 10 and then Bottas the following lap before falling away from the front runners.
The 2021 Styrian GP did become a bit of a snooze fest when it came to the race leaders. Max was comfortably out of reach from Lewis who was nearly 13 seconds clear of Sergio by Lap 11. The title contenders were in a league of their own and Verstappen kept pulling away from Hamilton as the laps passed by. Meanwhile, Bottas was staying within 2 seconds of Perez, poised for a pit-stop based jump in track position for P3.
Sergio did well to make his Soft compound tyres last as long as they did before pitting on Lap 27 but that’s where it all went wrong. The crew struggled to mount the rear-left which cost them an extra 2.5 seconds than their usual pit times. This gave Mercedes’ Bottas the perfect cushion to pit the very next lap for a quicker stop and rejoin the race ahead of Perez, both drivers on similarly fresh Hard tyres. Mercedes then pitted Hamilton the following lap and Red Bull responded by pitting Verstappen.
By Lap 40, Max and Lewis were 20 seconds clear of Bottas and Perez was another 2-3 seconds behind in P4. The lead Red Bull was staying 3-5 seconds clear of the defending champion for most of the race but the gap began to grow to 8 or 9 seconds towards the final quarter of the race. Towards the end of the race, Lewis was a pit-stop clear of Bottas so Mercedes pitted him on Lap 70 to set the fastest time on the final lap. This meant that Verstappen was nearly 40 seconds clear as he approached the chequered flag.
Unlike Hamilton who is used to such dominance, Max opted for a cheeky finish and did something I’d do while racing AI in video games. He slowed right down towards the end, towards the pit wall where the team was cheering and did a burnout to cross the finish. It made for great TV but Red Bull was immediately told off by the FIA for the potential safety risk to others on track, so don’t expect to see that kind of showboating ever again.
Red Bull did lose P3 with a poor stop but hadn’t given up on it. They pitted Perez for a second time on Lap 55 of 71 for a set of fresh Medium tyres to launch an attack on Bottas. While Sergio did catch up to the Mercedes and was within a couple of seconds by the final 5 laps or so, but was unable to reel in the Finn. One more lap and the move would have been done. But it was still a strong performance from the Mexican to try and make the double-stop work in his favour and still securing an acceptable result for the team.
Bottas made it to the podium for the first time since Spain which would be some relief for the Finn who’s had a rough season so far. While he did outdo Hamilton in qualifying and was hurt by the grid penalty, it’s hard to ignore that he was nearly 30 seconds behind his teammate for most of the race. The rumour mills are busy talking about his exit from the team mid-season, I think it’s reasonable to assume we won’t see Bottas drive for the Mercedes factory team after this season. Still, we might see him get at least one more race win before then.
Lando Norris wasn’t anywhere close to a podium finish at the Red Bull Ring this time around, having been lapped by the race leader. But his decision to stick to the team strategy worked out, taking his Soft tyres to Lap 32 before pitting, and the Brit secured another P5 finish, best of the rest. Unfortunately, teammate Daniel Ricciardo seemed to have gone backwards after his strong result in France a week ago. The Aussie driver had a good start from 13th on the grid, making up positions on the first lap with Gasly’s incident and passing Tsunoda on the penultimate corner of the track. However, his hard work came undone when he suffered a loss of power that saw him slip back down to P14. The team was able to sort it out on track but the damage was done. He did 41 laps on the Medium tyres he started on but the overcut did not help either.
Ferrari recovered from their French GP debacle with a car that was pretty quick in race trim. Even though Carlos Sainz started 12th on the grid, he finished P6 thanks to a great first stint where he eked out 41 laps on his Medium tyres, maintaining a balance between tyre conservation and race pace. But it was his teammate who stole the show as he recovered from the silly mistake at the start that placed him at the back of the grid on Lap 2. Leclerc then charged through the field, making overtakes and all sorts, before finally crossing the finish in P7, exactly where he started.
You can watch the condensed version of his overtakes from F1’s official YouTube channel below:
Lance Stroll managed to finish the race in P8, earning crucial points for Aston Martin. The viewers didn’t see much of the Canadian during the race except when referenced by Alonso as a target to overtake. Teammate Sebastian Vettel started 14th and finished P12.
Fernando had to settle for a bitter P9, his attack on Stroll suffering from lapping the backmarkers and being lapped by the race leaders. Still, the former World Champion continues his point-scoring run for Alpine while teammate Esteban Ocon endured a rough Sunday to finish P14. Alonso also had an exciting start to his race with some key overtakes before losing places towards the end of his first stint. Yuki Tsunoda was able to hang onto the final point-scoring position, a small consolation for the team with Gasly retiring after the first lap.
It was another unfortunate Sunday for George Russell despite his strong result in qualifying. The Williams was looking racey for the first time in a while, running in the points early in the race. Just as things were looking good for the Brit to score his first Championship point, the car developed a hydraulic issue which forced him to slow his pace before retiring the car halfway through.
As someone who has criticised the dominant performances from Hamilton and Mercedes as dull viewing, it was equally boring with Verstappen doing the same. However, it was still very satisfying to see an underdog chip away at the reigning champions, as it is in almost every sport. The Styrian GP’s result sees Verstappen extend his lead in the driver standings to 18 points.
The teams will have a second go at the Red Bull Ring the following Sunday and we could see a role reversal with Mercedes outpacing Red Bull. As long as Verstappen stays out of first-lap accidents, we can still expect him on the podium at least. If it rains *fingers crossed despite the odds*, we might even get a third constructor in the top three.
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- M. Verstappen Red Bull Racing Honda — 1:22:18.925
- L. Hamilton Mercedes +35.743
- V. Bottas Mercedes +46.907
- S. Perez Red Bull Racing Honda +47.434
- L. Norris McLaren Mercedes +1 lap
- C. Sainz Ferrari +1 lap
- C. Leclerc Ferrari +1 lap
- L. Stroll Aston Martin Mercedes +1 lap
- F. Alonso Alpine Renault +1 lap
- Y. Tsunoda AlphaTauri Honda +1 lap
- K. Räikkönen Alfa Romeo Racing Ferrari +1 lap
- S. Vettel Aston Martin Mercedes +1 lap
- D. Ricciardo McLaren Mercedes +1 lap
- E. Ocon Alpine Renault +1 lap
- A. Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari +1 lap
- M. Schumacher Haas Ferrari +2 laps
- N. Latifi Williams Mercedes +3 laps
- N. Mazepin Haas Ferrari +3 laps
- G. Russell Williams Mercedes DNF
- P. Gasly AlphaTauri Honda DNF