Few phenomena have intrigued sports psychologists as much as that of home field advantage.
Motorsport is no different. From Nigel Mansell attributing a genuine gain in lap time to the sheer energy of support from his legion of fans at Silverstone to the success Ferrari have enjoyed over the decades in front of their loyal Tifosi, it’s an advantage that can help determine race winners.
Could it also determine the destination of this year’s world championship?
When Max Verstappen and Red Bull arrived the Austrian circuit that carries their name, they did so fresh from having well and truly beaten their Mercedes rivals at their own game in France. Using an aggressive strategy to chase down and pass Lewis Hamilton in the dying laps to increase their lead in both championships was retribution for how Mercedes had defeated them with a similar tactic just a month prior in Barcelona.
Just like on that Sunday in Spain, the two championship protagonists lined up on the front row of the grid at the Red Bull Ring alongside each other – although this time it was Verstappen in the favoured position. Hamilton had inherited his place alongside his championship rival by virtue of his team mate Valtteri Bottas relinquishing his second place after a three-place grid penalty for his contentious pit lane spin in Friday practice.
The thousands of orange-shirted supporters in the limited-capacity crowd around the circuit cheered their approval when the lights went out and Verstappen launched into the lead ahead of Hamilton. Behind, Lando Norris’ third placed McLaren came under intense pressure from Sergio Perez’s Red Bull, Norris using all of the track and even slightly more to keep himself ahead through the tight first turn.
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As the field sprinted up the hill, Pierre Gasly found his mirrors filled with Fernando Alonso’s Alpine to his right and Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari to his left. Leclerc tried to pull behind the AlphaTauri to catch a tow, but instead ended up catching his front wing on Gasly’s left-rear wheel. “Puncture. Puncture,” Gasly immediately reported.
As Gasly fought to keep control of his car, he was swallowed up by the chasing pack, where further contact was inevitable. Antonio Giovinazzi was caught out when trying to navigate the damaged AlphaTauri and was pitched into a spin as the field reached turn three. Nicholas Latifi was also clipped, giving him a punctured right-rear.
This left Leclerc, Latifi and Gasly all limping to the pits, the latter did not emerge after somehow bringing his mortally wounded car back. Ferrari were able to replace Leclerc’s wing and send him back out, and Latifi was also able to resume.
As manic as the opening lap had been, the track remained clear enough to avoid the intervention of a Safety Car. Verstappen and Hamilton hastily ran away from Norris and the rest of the field behind them, leaving Red Bull and Mercedes both eager to get their second drivers past the orange roadblock to help provide strategic support for their team mates ahead.
When Perez eventually made a half-hearted move from well back up the inside of Norris into turn three on lap 10, Norris left the door open with a level of generosity rarely offered to drivers of rival teams to allow the Red Bull comfortably through into third. One lap later and Bottas was also through with similar ease as they rounded the uphill kink of turn two.
“With how much quicker Red Bull and Mercedes were today, I had no chance,” Norris later explained. “I tried holding them off for as long as possible in the first stint but they were so much quicker I was starting to ruin my own race by harming my tyres and stuff.”
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As Norris continued to mind his own business, his former Formula 2 rival George Russell was doing much the same in eighth place in the Williams. Having enjoyed arguably his best ever performance for the Grove team the previous weekend in France, Russell was going even better in Styria.
Sitting in eighth place on pure merit, this was already looking to be surely his best chance of taking his long overdue first points in a Williams. But like so many other opportunities before, those chances evaporated when a loss of pneumatic pressure in his power unit left him sitting in his pit box for over 20 excruciating seconds as those hopes vanished.
Russell was forced to make several more stops to address the fault had he wanted any hope of seeing the chequered flag, but by this stage, there was little point in continuing.
“Racing’s cruel sometimes,” he rued. “It’s never straightforward, it’s never easy pickings.”
Red Bull had pre-empted Mercedes to perfection with their strategy in France and looked to do the same by calling in Perez from third at the end of lap 27 to cover off the possibility Bottas would spring a tactical attack by stopping for few tyres before him. But while the call was a good one, the stop was not: a problem on the left-rear delayed his departure by a vital couple of seconds.
Mercedes pounced on the slender window of opportunity to bring Bottas in and rejoin the track ahead of Perez. By the time they had brought their man in a lap later and sent him back on his way, Bottas had captured a valuable position from the Red Bull driver.
But while Red Bull had lost third place to Mercedes, they still held a firm grip on the most important position in the race. With an advantage of just under six seconds, there was little Mercedes could do to overcome the margin before Verstappen would simply come in for his own switch to the hard tyres and retain the lead. Hamilton rid himself of the mediums on lap 28, with Verstappen doing the same a lap later, remerging with a gap of almost five seconds and clear road ahead of him.
Back in the pack, Leclerc was making up for lost time with his new front wing. After dropping through the field like a stone in the previous race around Paul Ricard just seven days prior, a combination of track characteristics and the idiosyncrasies of the SF21 was now producing a very different kind of performance for Ferrari.
Moving onto the hard tyres so early on allowed Leclerc to take advantage of clear air while many of the drivers ahead began to pit, moving him up into the top 10 until he was eventually brought in to try the hard rubber.
Leclerc had already passed the likes of Esteban Ocon and Giovinazzi into turn four when he began to close on Kimi Raikkonen. He made a move around the outside into turn four and clipped the Alfa Romeo’s front wing, send a small piece of it flying through the air.
“I actually didn’t feel any contact with Kimi,” Leclerc later explained. “I learned just before that we had touched with Kimi, but I didn’t feel anything in the car.” Raikkonen was unimpressed by Leclerc’s latest uncompromising move, but said the damage ultimately made no difference to his result.
Leclerc emerged unscathed from his brush with a rival and later dispatched Sebastian Vettel’s Aston Martin and then Yuki Tsunoda in the sole remaining AlphaTauri. Remarkably, Leclerc had his third touch with another car when he tried to pass Alonso around the outside of turn three, but both emerged unscathed.
With Perez close enough to Bottas in third to occasionally flash in his mirrors but also have to put up with the full impact of dirty air, it was looking like a fairly difficult rest of the afternoon for the number 11 car. With nothing to lose – such was the gap now to Norris behind – Red Bull brought Perez in for a second time on lap 54 for fresh rubber. With a new set of medium tyres on his car, the question became whether Bottas would be able to hold off the second Red Bull in what looked like being a final lap rendezvous.
Out front, race leader Verstappen looked comfortable – but his team radio indicated the team weren’t without causes for concern. On two occasions he reported a problem with his brake-by-wire system which was giving him a strange sensation when he hit the left pedal. On the second time Red Bull discovered the problem could be managed by avoiding the punishing kerb approaching turn 10 while braking.
It was a distraction that the race leader could have done without, but behind him the threat from Hamilton had faded to nothing. The rear tyres of the Mercedes were visible suffering around the traction-limited Red Bull Ring.
This was a concern for Mercedes, who not only appeared to lack any real response to Verstappen’s pace but who had been working hard on their simulator in the week between rounds to try various experimental setups in search of a way for them to challenge Red Bull, as the team’s director of track engineering Andrew Shovlin explained after the race.
“We were sort of going further than we’ve ever gone and just really understanding the effects of that. Lewis, before he came here, was doing a lot of work in the driver-in-loop simulator and it looked like an interesting direction.”
But whatever set-up Hamilton was running, towards the end of his second stint he began slipping back quickly from Verstappen. His race pace was now unable to match that of the lapped Carlos Sainz Jnr, who had been hunting Lando Norris’s McLaren.
“I never thought I would say this,” Sainz explained afterwards, “but unfortunately, I was stuck behind Lewis.”
Ferrari even resorted to politely asking Mercedes to allow Sainz to unlap himself to allow him to chase Norris ahead. Whether intentional or otherwise, Hamilton offered little resistance when Sainz eventually did pull alongside him.
With no chance of catching Verstappen, but a gap of half a minute to his team mate behind, Hamilton was called in on the penultimate lap to switch to soft tyres for a sprint finish to try and take the point for fastest lap – Mercedes having to limit the inevitable points loss in whatever way they could.
As Verstappen was now half a minute clear, he could afford to cruise to the line. He took the chequered flag to take his fourth win of the season and his third over the previous four races to move his championship lead to 19 points over Hamilton. It had been his most dominant victory of the season thus far – a Hamilton-esque triumph for the Red Bull driver.
Slowing down to treat his faithful fans to a celebratory burn-out – earning the disapproval of race director Michael Masi in the process – Verstappen’s joy was only enhanced by the knowledge his home advantage would be extended to the following weekend’s race.
“That’s very positive,” he said. “But of course, we have to show [the same] again next week, so we’ll definitely have a look what we can do better. I’m looking forward to it next week. We just have to keep on going, keep pushing really hard, and then I’m confident that we can do a very good job.”
Hamilton succeeded in setting the fastest lap on the final tour, reducing Verstappen’s points lead by just a single point to 18. It had been an unusual case of Hamilton and Mercedes simply having no answer to their rivals’ superior performance.
“Naturally they’re faster so there’s not a lot that I can do in that respect”, Hamilton said. “Just got to keep trying to do the best that I can each weekend.”
Bottas took the final podium position in third with Perez having been unable to close the gap down in time – instead catching the second Mercedes on the final lap of the race.
Norris finished fifth after a relatively lonely afternoon, but with team mate Daniel Ricciardo out of the points after an early power loss problem, McLaren lost ground to the Ferrari as Sainz and Leclerc occupied sixth and seventh, respectively.
Lance Stroll had a quiet but impressive afternoon to secure a solid eighth place for Aston Martin, while Alonso and Tsunoda were both satisfied to be rewarded for their weekend’s work with the final points positions.
In many ways, Verstappen and Red Bull had given Mercedes a taste of their own medicine for the second consecutive race weekend. How many grands prix in recent years had Verstappen been made to settle for second as he was unable to match the sheer pace of Hamilton and Mercedes over the course of 300 kilometres?
At this stage in the season, it’s clear that the advantage lies with Red Bull. And unless Mercedes can do something drastic to address this new reality, it seems almost inevitable that Red Bull and Verstappen will make the most of their home field advantage when the sport returns for a second Red Bull Ring rodeo next weekend.
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2021 Styrian Grand Prix
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