Austrian Grand Prix: Verstappen denies Leclerc in a thriller

Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc – the future stars of Formula 1 – slugged it out in a thrilling Austrian Grand Prix with the Red Bull driver taking a second victory in two years at the venue owned by his team.

It was a nail-biting duel as the pair dodged a weaved, rubbed wheels as Leclerc did all he could to keep Verstappen at bay, but in the end the Dutchman sent the orange army into euphoria in the heat of Spielberg as he muscled his way past the Ferrari.

It was a great drive from Verstappen, after messing up the start and was swallowed by the pack he dropped down to seventh and dropped 14 seconds behind the leader at one stage. But the Dutchman was relentless and kept his head down to deliver the kind of performance that fills grandstands, arguably his best drive to date and sets him up there with the very best drivers of this sport.

Afterwards, Verstappen said, “After that start I thought the race was over, but we just kept pushing hard. I had quite a bad flat spot on my first tyre, and then after the pit stop we were flying. You could see we had good pace on the straight to make the pass. I’m delighted for the team and for Honda.”

As for the ‘fisticuffs’ with the #16 Ferrari, “It’s hard racing, otherwise we have to stay at home. If those things are not allowed in racing, then what’s the point of being in F1.”

Leclerc was not happy with the move that cost him the race which looked like his to win as he seemed in control from the moment he took the lead from pole until Verstappen decided to change the script.

The FIA stewards had a long look at the incident and a chat to both drivers before, some three hours later, Verstappen’s win was confirmed with the matter ruled to be a racing incident.

“Car 33 sought to overtake car 16 at Turn 3 on lap 69 by out-braking car 16. When doing so, car 33 was alongside car 16 on the entry of the corner and was in full control of the car while attempting the overtaking move on the inside of car 16,” read the verdict.

“However, both car 33 and car 16 proceeded to negotiate the corner alongside each other but there was clearly insufficient space for both cars to do so. Shortly after the late apex, while exiting the corner, there was contact between the two cars. In the totality of the circumstances, we did not consider that either driver was wholly or predominantly to blame for the incident.

“We consider that this is a racing incident,” they declared.

Verstappen’s victory is packed with milestones including the big fact that Honda are back on the top step of the podium for the first time since their return to the top flight.

It was the first for a Honda-powered car since Jenson Button won in Hungary in 2006 for the Japanese manufacturer’s own team, and a welcome antidote to last weekend’s dull French Grand Prix.

And finally a non-Merc winner this year.

Leclerc summed up, “Overall the race was good, at the end, I had a bit more degradation than I thought so Max came back. I’ll let the stewards decide, but for me in the car, it was pretty clear. I don’t know how it looked on the outside, but we will see.”

“I was on the outside just like the lap before, it was fine because he left the space for the exit on the corner, but he didn’t on the next lap, so we touched and I had to go wide and then obviously I didn’t have another chance to pass back, so it’s a shame,” added the Ferrari driver.

Mercedes met their match this weekend at Red Bull Ring, the short circuit kinder to their rivals. Nevertheless, Valtteri Bottas did well to finish third while teammate Lewis Hamilton had one of his less flash afternoons as he damaged his front-wing on his way to fifth on a day he never found the sweet spot.

Bottas, who finished 19 seconds behind the leading duo, reflected, “It was a little bit more difficult than we expected, especially with the over-heating of the engines, so we couldn’t really race properly having to manage the temperatures.  That’s why defending and attacking was difficult but we got some good points. It’s not a bad weekend.”

Sebastian Vettel did well to recover from ninth on the grid to finish fourth, overtaking Hamilton with the flag in sight. The reigning F1 World Champion was fifth and thus ended a ten race streak of top three finishes.

Arguably the Drive of the Day went to the youngest driver on the day with Lando Norris slugging it out at the sharp end with the best of the best and rewarded with Best of the Rest and a fine sixth place for him

His teammate Carlos Sainz also delivered a strong performance to finish eighth from 19th on the grid on a great weekend for a revitalised McLaren team who were the class of the Renault powered brigade.

Alfa Romeo veteran Kimi Raikkonen led home his rookie teammate Antonio Giovinazzi, the Italian claining his first F1 point.

FIA Blow-By-Blow Report

Verstappen’s sixth career win and the first for power unit partner Honda since the Hungarian Grand Prix of 2006 seemed unlikely when the Dutchman’s RB15 bogged down and he was immediately passed by a swarm of rivals. Leclerc powered away into the lead ahead of the Mercedes cars of Bottas and Hamilton, the Alfa Romeo of fast-starting Räikkönen, the McLaren of Norris and the second Ferrari of Vettel.

Verstappen, though, dropped to P7 and looked to be out of contention. However, both Verstappen and Vettel passed Norris with relative ease and within a handful of laps, they had also cleared Räikkönen.

After a dozen laps, Leclerc was a healthy three seconds ahead of Bottas, with Hamilton a further 2.7 seconds back in third. Vettel was now fourth, 4.5s behind Hamilton, while Verstappen was a similar distance behind Vettel. Ahead of the first round of pit stops Leclerc had built an almost five-second advantage over Bottas, who triggered what would for most of the leading pack be a single pit stop.

Bottas made a clean stop on lap 21 but there was no such luck for Vettel who stopped at the same time. The Ferrari driver’s crew were not ready with a set of hard tyres and the German was forced to sit stationary for six seconds as a front left wheel was located and fitted. Leclerc made his stop at the end of the following lap and he emerged in P3 behind new leader Hamilton and Verstappen.

Hamilton was now suffering with degradation to his opening set of medium tyres and as Verstappen closed the gap, the Mercedes driver pushed too hard and damaged his front wing. He pitted at the end of lap 30, not only for hard tyres but also for a new front wing.

The stop saw Hamilton stand still in his pit box for 11 seconds and Red Bull responded by pitting Verstappen on lap 31. He emerged four seconds clear of Hamilton, in fourth place. And it was then, with hard tyres on board, that the race began to come to the Dutchman

He swiftly close on third-placed Vettel and on lap 50, breezed past the German on entry to Turn 4 to take third place.

Verstappen now had Bottas in his sights and on lap 56 her took second place, dismissing Bottas effortlessly with a move down the inside into Turn 3 under DRS.

With 10 laps to go Max was just 3.8 seconds behind the race leader and five laps later the Red Bull driver arrived on Ferrari’s gearbox. The two 21-year-old racers then engaged in the epic battle that ended with Verstappen spraying champagne from the top step of the podium but also facing a stewards’ investigation.

Vettel had also been on the move during the closing stages and he passed Hamilton to take a solid fourth place after starting from P9. Hamilton was left with fifth place ahead of Norris and Pierre crossed the line in P7 to score his seventh points finish of the season to date.

Eighth place was taken by Sainz who finished ahead of the Alfa Romeo cars of Räikkönen and Giovinazzi.