Max Verstappen’s dominance over Formula 1‘s weekend in Austria continued, as the Red Bull ace won the Sprint Race after initial pressure from Sergio Perez.
The Dutchman has been leading proceedings at the Red Bull Ring ever since the F1 cars turned a wheel around the track in Spielberg, topping FP1, then taking pole for Sunday’s Grand Prix on Friday, and followed up on that with the Sprint Pole in Saturday’s Sprint Shootout.
The only challenge Verstappen faced was from Perez who jumped him at the start for the lead, but after what could’ve felt like the longest lap for the Red Bull pit wall, Verstappen prevailed and started pulling off into the lead, never relinquishing it and taking the chequered flag 21s ahead of his teammate.
That is going to be an interesting debrief for Red Bull after the Sprint following their drivers’ Lap 1 tussle, as both drivers were blaming each other over the team radio.
Despite many teams switching to slick tyres and setting fastest laps, Mercedes’ George Russell a prime example, Red Bull kept cool and stuck to their Inters till the end of the race, their pace advantage giving them confidence with such a decision.
Carlos Sainz in the Ferrari had a quiet race to third after starting from fourth on the grid.
What the top three said
Winner of the second Sprint Race of 2023, Verstappen, said: “The start wasn’t ideal, a bit of wheelspin.
“But after lap 1 when we got back into the lead it was just about managing the tyres, knowing if it wasn’t going to rain any more that 24 laps on intermediates was quite long,” he added.
“The slicks were quite a bit faster the last five laps but for us so far in the lead it didn’t make sense to pit. We just hung in there.
“It was a little bit of a hairy moment out of Turn One,” he said of his fight with Perez. “When you get forced onto the grass it’s very slippery but we managed to keep control and from there we just did our race again.”
Perez added: “It was a good start. A bit of a fight with Max – ended up losing a place to Nico. He was very strong in the first few laps and it was hard to get by him”
Asked about the fight with Verstappen, Perez tried to downplay it; he said: “I think Max was angry that I went into Turn Two. But I didn’t see him there. I had a bad Turn One, so I tried to protect.
“One I realised he was there, I opened the door and gave the place back into Turn Two. But it was all fine, we spoke about it.
“Although we were 1-2, it was very bad the visibility out there,” the Mexican concluded.
Sainz reflected on his race, he said: “Tricky conditions out there. It looked like we had decent pace. I could stay close to Checo but the Red Bulls were just a bit too quick for us today.
“I think they were maybe a bit quicker but there was a point in the middle of the race when I felt a bit more confident. My tyres degraded a bit and I couldn’t stay close to Checo in dirty air,” he added.
How the Sprint unraveled
The track received another rainfall ahead of the Sprint Race, and while it stopped before lights out, the track did not dry up enough for slicks, so Intermediate tyres were the way to go.
Valtteri Bottas starting from 19th bucked the trend and went with Medium tyres at the start of 24-lap race, but the team called him in immediately at the end of the formation lap for Inters.
Perez immediately had a moment at Turn 3, locking up on the formation lap as the tyres were still cold, no damage though.
The Red Bulls were off to a feisty start to the Sprint, with Perez pouncing on Verstappen who was having non of it, and in the end the reigning F1 Champion retained his lead, while Nico Hulkenberg made use of the Red Bull mini civil war to steal second place.
Lando Norris on the other hand dropped from third to tenth while he was trying to avoid contact with the Bulls ahead of him, but Lewis Hamilton jumped to 13th on that opening lap, as for Charles Leclerc who started from ninth after his grid penalty remained in ninth at the end of the lap.
Things settled down a bit, and Verstappen started building a lead, while in the back, Norris was having quite the battle with Leclerc who in turn was chasing Esteban Ocon for eighth, while up front, Hulkenberg was doing a great job keeping Perez at bay.
Charles Leclerc is chasing Esteban Ocon down hard in the battle for P9!
By Lap 8, Hamilton was still in 13th with Russell ahead of him in 12th as the pair where stuck behind Kevin Magnussen, but the #63 Mercedes soon finds its way past the Haas at Turn 3 on Lap 9. Hamilton followed suit a lap later.
Verstappen was warned by his team to take care of his front left tyre, as dry patches start to appear on the track at that point.
Back to the front, Perez finally found his way past Hulkenberg by lap 13, while the fight between Norris and Leclerc was getting heated for ninth place.
By Lap 17, race control allowed the use of DRS and immediately Stroll made use of it to overtake Hulkenberg, as Alonso also fancied his chances of taking fifth place from the German who was instructed to box by Lap 18.
Hulkenberg bolted a set of Mediums, while Hamilton also boxed for Soft tyres, that was on Lap 19, while Verstappen was leading from Perez by 14.5s.
Leclerc also pitted but took on new Medium tyres, as Russell continued to set fastest laps on his Soft tyres, now up to temperature.
By Lap 21, Hamilton pulled off a brilliant double overtake on Bottas and Oscar Piastri to take 12th and set his sights on Alex Albon in 11th, as teammate Russell was getting close to the points, ninth.
Hamilton soon overtook Albon for 11th with the next target being Pierre Gasly, as Verstappen’s lead up front was up to 20s, the Bulls not considering any tyre changes, preferring to keep their track positions.
On the final lap Hulkenberg was up to seventh after overtaking Norris and soon took down Ocon for sixth, but was far off the Aston Martins.