Following Max Verstappen’s Austrian Grand Prix win, Lewis Hamilton is now more than a win’s worth of points away from the championship lead for the first time since 2016, and only once has he overcome a deficit this large before to win the title.Nico Rosberg but turned it around, only for Rosberg to get 33 points clear at one point later in the season. That time he had a car capable of beating his main title rival; this time he’s not so sure.
“These past races have been difficult, and he’s pretty much just cruising ahead, so there’s not really much I can do about that,” Hamilton told RaceFans after finishing fourth, 46 seconds behind Verstappen in Austria.
Mercedes lose time behind Norris
According to his team principal Toto Wolff, Hamilton had the pace in his Mercedes to race against Verstappen through the first stint of the race. If that was the case, it likely would have taken away the Red Bull driver’s strategic freedom which allowed him to make a second pit stop late in the race to ensure he claimed the extra point for fastest lap and guard against the possibility of Baku-style tyre blowout.
But as demonstrated by that stop, it was Verstappen’s race from start to finish and beyond. He set an unmatchable pace on new and old tyres. He also showed his racing savvy twice in the first four laps by escaping McLaren’s Lando Norris and the McLaren’s higher top speed. Having scampered clear on the original start, he did the same after a early Safety Car restart two laps later, timing his getaway cannily to return to racing pace as late as possible so Norris’s slipstream advantage was reduced.
“I just had to be awake in the restart,” Verstappen said. “I had a little bit of a gap and I knew that if I could go past lap one, or the restart, I could do my own race. But you always have to do that first.”
From that restart to when he pitted on lap 32, he built an advantage of 29 seconds in 29 laps. That meant he could have pit before any of his chasing rivals and ‘undercut’ them without the worry of any time loss, given his lead was enough to still emerge in front. Instead he was the last of the lead quartet to replace his starting set of medium tyres for the more durable hards.
Analysis of the second stint stands up to Wolff’s claims, so much so that it could have actually changed the direction of the race were it not for a Mercedes strategy decision. From the time Verstappen exited the pits to when Valtteri Bottas (who would go on to finish second) was told to hold station behind team mate Hamilton 12 laps later, the gap between the leader and Bottas grew by just 1.4 seconds.
A combination of running in Hamilton’s dirty air and having to temporarily hold station behind his team mate lost Bottas a further three seconds. Once Bottas was allowed past his team mate there was little between him and Verstappen on pace. However those three seconds helped give Red Bull the confidence to commit to a second stop for Verstappen.
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Verstappen came in with 11 laps to go, was turned around quickly by Red Bull and completed the next lap with seven seconds in hand over Bottas. Had Mercedes freed Bottas earlier, would that second stop have occurred? A slow stop may have put Verstappen behind in that case, but with fresher tyres it’s likely he could have got past Bottas with little bother.
So Bottas was no real threat to taking points away from Verstappen. But Horner revealed there was still concern the lead could be lost after a win went begging in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix after one of Verstappen’s rear tyres failed while he was leading.
“One stop, after Azerbaijan, when you’ve got a 25 second lead with a free pit stop – why take the risk?” said Horner.
Minor damage was spotted on one of Verstappen’s tyres after his pit stop, which was communicated to their driver. “We could see there was a small cut,” Horner explained. “It wasn’t significant, but it was enough to catch your attention.”
Damage delays Hamilton
Why didn’t Hamilton factor in these calculations? Around halfway through the race he incurred damage to his car which Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff estimated cost him 30 points of downforce which as well as sapping rear-end grip, and therefore lap time, also meant that the tyres were graining faster and needed Hamilton to drive slower too to take them to the end of the race. The team later estimated he lost as much as seven tenths of a second per lap because of the damage at the left-rear of his car.
In the end he opted to make a second stop instead, with enough of an advantage to fifth after getting passed for fourth by Norris to do so without losing a position, and his fresher tyres masked how much the damage was limiting his car’s pace.
But even before the damage, Hamilton was no rival to Verstappen. It took until lap 20 for him to pass Norris for second place, and while he did rapidly pull away from the McLaren driver after that, only on two laps did he actually get any closer to Verstappen and in total that was by less than a tenth of a second.
Shortly after his second stop he set his personal best lap, a 1’08.126. On the same lap Verstappen, despite 22-lap old tyres, was just 0.021s slower. Verstappen was faster on the in- and out-laps for their pit stops, underlining the fact this was a race where he had no rivals.
Because of that dominance, Sergio Perez didn’t have to be used by Red Bull as a strategic pawn. He started the race in the perfect position to serve as rear-gunner, ahead of both Mercedes, but within a few laps he was out of contention.
On lap four, the Safety Car restart lap, Perez tried overtaking Norris for second place around the outside of turn four. He ended up taking a trip through the gravel and dropping to 10th.
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Although Horner said even before the race was over that he considered the matter a racing incident, it didn’t stop Red Bull enquiring with Formula 1 race director Michael Masi if any action would be taken. It was – around 20 laps later – when Norris was hit with a five-second time penalty.
In Perez’s subsequent recovery he had two similar battles with Charles Leclerc where he also left the Ferrari driver little room at the exit of turns four and six, and the SF-21 ploughed the gravel. The Red Bull driver copped himself two five-second penalties as a result. On both occasions Ferrari also got in touch with Masi; Horner surmised that a precedent had been set by the original sanction for Perez.
Having to battle his way back up the order, Perez had to push hard on his mediums and as a result could take them no further than his team mate in clean air up front. Being unable to use his tyre management skills to good effect was hugely compromising because it meant when he did stop he dropped back into traffic. He lost a few tenths of a second on the stop too, forcing him to running behind McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo for much of the race.
Ricciardo salvages points finish
Ricciardo was comfortable on the hardest tyre – only the Ferrari and McLaren drivers ran on it during practice – and his top speed advantage also made it hard for Perez to progress. They started 10 positions apart, as Ricciardo qualified 13th, but finished in sixth and seventh after Perez’s penalties cos him fifth place, dropping him behind Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz Jnr.
Cooler conditions on race day, with track temperatures at around 35C, assisted Sainz’s strategy as he also qualified down the order. That gave him a free selection of starting tyre, and he opted for the hard with the intention of taking it as far as possible.
“Lower temperatures normally exposes you more to front graining. In this case, it would be negative for us,” he said pre-race.
“But also lower temperatures obviously means more grip at the rear, which could help our car balance and go the right way if there is no front graining.”
Sainz ‘played by eye’ and got it right with his tyre choice, with a car balance that allowed him to be incredibly consistent. Through a 10-lap segment in the first half of the race his lap times had a standard deviation of 0.096 seconds, a miniscule gap given how much pace can change when fighting other cars, and he took his tyres all the way to lap 48 before making his single stop.
After that stop he became the only driver other than Verstappen to lap sub-1’08, and that pace on low fuel was crucial to him snatching fifth by 0.771s from the penalised Perez. Ricciardo was another three seconds back.
“I was always in some battles, mostly defending,” admitted Ricciardo. “But it’s because we got a good start. I think two positions on the start, and then two on the restart. So we put ourselves in a good position.”
It was some redemption after qualifying so low while his team mate earned his maiden front row start on Saturday. Like Sainz, Ricciardo benefited from free tyre choice and started on a new set of mediums – saved from when he was running on the hards in practice.
“We at least put ourselves back in the fight. And I was trying to hold on to Perez, Charles, Carlos for as long as I could, and then probably the last eight laps started to run out of rear tyres.”
Ricciardo was helped at the end by Leclerc having his mirrors full of AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly, the highest-placed of the drivers who had committed to making two pit stops from the off. The AlphaTauri was one of the fastest cars over one lap, with Gasly trading fastest lap with Verstappen at times, but starting on the softest tyre meant he could only go 13 laps before pitting and that meant he spent a lot of time in traffic. His bursts of pace were the source of strategy regret rather than encouragement.
Alonso breaks Williams hearts
Fernando Alonso rued having his qualifying compromised by drivers slowing at the penultimate corner, believing he could have been in the top six rather than qualifying 14th, but he joined Ricciardo in being able to start on fresh rubber while most began on used sets.
He earned Alpine a point by managing his tyres while behind Williams’ George Russell through the second half of the grand prix, making sure there was enough life in them late on while Russell seemed to hit the point of no return with his rubber about 15 laps from the end and fell into the clutches of Alonso late on.
It took a few attempts, and lock-ups, before Alonso successfully made the move for 10th with four laps to go. Williams’ wait for their first point since 2019 goes on.
Yuki Tsunoda picked up penalties for crossing the line at the pit entry as he mirrored AlphaTauri team mate Gasly’s two-stop strategy, and finished 12th after Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen and Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel collided at turn five on the final lap while they eyed up Russell’s 11th place.
Vettel charged from 11th to fifth on used softs in the first 14 laps, but those tyres weren’t to last and he pitted soon after. He only briefly returned to the top 10 after that, as he had a repeat of qualifying where “it felt okay” in the car but the pace wasn’t consistently there for himself or team mate Lance Stroll, who inherited 13th following the crash.
Raikkonen climbed 10 places to sixth over the race’s first half, as the only driver other than Sainz to start on the hard, but the ‘overcut’ didn’t work in gaining places. However taking those tyres as long as he did enabled him to push harder after switching to mediums, particularly in the closing laps when every other driver around him was on the slower hard tyre.
In 14th was Raikkonen’s team mate Antonio Giovinazzi, whose race began with light contact with Esteban Ocon – enough to put the Alpine out of the race – and a pit stop at the end of lap two. That freed him of the medium tyre and meant he was on hards for the rest of the race. It was a decision made after rising temperatures on the grid suggested a one-stop would not be possible on the softer and faster-wearing tyres nominated for this weekend.
Nicholas Latifi finished almost a minute behind Williams team mate George Russell, but he did finish on the same lap as the five cars ahead of him. He finished the race one lap up on Haas duo Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher, who like Latifi only had to worry about blue and yellow flags rather than any battles for position of their own.
Verstappen’s points lead swells
There were only crumbs of comfort for Mercedes after Red Bull’s sixth win from nine races, and Verstappen’s fifth. The track and tyre combination may not have suited the W12s, and Hamilton’s damage cost him another six points, yet their underlying pace was not uncompetitive.
Wolff put a positive spin on their latest defeat afterwards, pointing out Verstappen was “only a DNF” ahead of Hamilton in the points standings. But the inexorable growth in Verstappen’s lead is making him look more like a champion with every passing race. Mercedes must respond at Silverstone.
2021 Austrian Grand Prix
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