Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Red Bull Ring, 2022

Leclerc’s sprint race pace shows a Verstappen victory is no done deal in Austria

2022 Austrian Grand Prix pre-race analysis

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If adopting the sprint race format was designed to inject more drama and intrigue into all three days of a grand prix weekend, this year’s Austrian Grand Prix might be the best example of how this radical new approach can also be a double-edged sword.

A tight conclusion to qualifying on Friday offered a hint that Ferrari were evenly matched with Red Bull and championship leader Max Verstappen, with the trio separated by less than a tenth. Then there was the added interest of Mercedes threatening to be in contention too, had Lewis Hamilton and George Russell both not thrown their cars into barriers in the most important phase of qualifying.

But after a relatively uneventful sprint race – at least at the front of the field – had played out on Saturday, the same top four from Friday remained. Only now, everyone from the drivers and teams themselves to the millions watching around the world were left with very strong sense of how Sunday’s 71-lap main event would likely play out.

Having snatched pole position at the last possible moment on Friday, Verstappen had warned that his Red Bull would likely be stronger in a racing situation than it had been over a single lap. And while he may not have topped the second practice session on Saturday afternoon, his lap times on the medium tyres had been consistently quicker than what both Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jnr had been able to manage.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Red Bull Ring, 2022
Leclerc’s mirrors were filled by his team mate’s car
In the 23-lap sprint race, with all of those at the front on the mediums, Verstappen’s early pace advantage over the Ferraris was by no means vast. In the early stages, both Sainz and Leclerc successfully matched Verstappen for pace, with Leclerc continuing to equal or beat the championship leader’s times eight times over the first 14 laps of the sprint race as Sainz began to gradually fall away. What cost Ferrari the most – and particularly Leclerc – was the laps when the pair were focused more on fighting with each other than on catching the Red Bull ahead.

Although Verstappen kept Leclerc well out of his DRS range over the remaining laps and took the chequered flag to secure pole position for Sunday, he had to concede that he had not been simply cruising around with bags of spare pace in hand while Leclerc closed in pursuit at the end of the race.

“The sprint race of course does not give you the full picture heading into the race tomorrow, but pace-wise, it’s close between us and Ferrari,” said Verstappen.

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“I still expect it to be a tough battle tomorrow. It’s going to be very important to make good strategy calls during the race as you never know what can happen. It’s not going to be straightforward, but I’m looking forward to it.”

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Red Bull Ring, 2022
Verstappen bagged another sprint race win
The closest Ferrari got to Verstappen in the sprint race being Sainz’s unsuccessful attack into turn three on the opening lap. Nonetheless racing director Laurent Mekies came away from the pit wall more reassured by the team’s proximity to Verstappen at the chequered flag than frustrated that the Red Bull had beaten them to it.

“Today’s sprint race confirmed that on this track too, it’s really close between us and our main rivals,” Mekies explained.

“It was important to verify this in race conditions and I’d say that this afternoon’s 23 laps confirmed it. I think tomorrow’s race will be very closely contested and anything could happen.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, having been the Ferrari driver closest to Verstappen at the finish, Leclerc was of the view that he and team mate Sainz must not get bogged down fighting against each other on Sunday, lest they risk allowing Verstappen to get away from them again.

“I think tomorrow is going to be a long race and tyre management will be quite a bit more important compared to today.” Leclerc said. “So probably tomorrow we cannot afford to do what we did today, no.”

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Having showed no hesitation to fight for position against his team mate when the opportunity presented itself, Sainz is happy for Ferrari and team principal Mattia Binotto to allow them both to fight Sunday’s grand prix – unless Ferrari opt to tell him otherwise.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull, Red Bull Ring, 2022
Perez largely overcame his qualifying penalty
“Mattia will decide. And the team,” said Sainz. “It’s not like we lost a lot and it didn’t look like Max was panicking too much up front with our pace. But we need to make sure we stay closer at the beginning of a stint, and we are closer at the end of a stint. I think this is what we need to try and do tomorrow.”

One benefit for Ferrari on Saturday was that there only one Red Bull to focus on, with Sergio Perez starting from 13th on the sprint race grid after a penalty. That will not be the case on Sunday after Perez rose to fifth on the grid for the grand prix, cancelling out his qualifying penalty almost entirely, putting him firmly in striking distance of joining the party at the front when it matters most. But Perez knows he will have a lot more time on his hands during the longer race of the weekend.

“Patience will be key on Sunday,” said Perez. “I want to get a good start and get in the mix straight away in the race.

“I made up four places in the first lap today, so hopefully tomorrow is the same. We are still to unlock some potential from the car, so we can look forward to the race.”

Behind Red Bull and Ferrari, Mercedes would have felt very fortunate to have Russell able to start from fourth in the sprint race after crashing in Q3. The team’s practice pace on Friday had been encouraging, so would that translate when it came to a race situation? Based on Russell’s sprint race pace, it appears the answer would be ‘not quite’.

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“The gap was more than we were expecting,” admitted Russell, who had to switch to an older-specification rear wing following his crash. “We were 13 seconds behind after 23 laps, so that’s nearly half a second per lap.

George Russell, Mercedes, Red Bull Ring, 2022
Russell lacked pace in repaired Mercedes
“We need to work overnight to understand why we dropped off the pace. Small things can make a difference – the tyres weren’t easy to manage and different approaches to downforce levels will play a part tomorrow. But we are in no doubt that we’ve got work to do.”

Behind Russell and Perez on the grid will be Esteban Ocon in the Alpine, satisfied to have dropped only one place from his sprint race starting position, to Perez’s recovering Red Bull. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for his team mate Fernando Alonso, whose car seemingly objects to the sprint race format so strongly that it switched itself off prior to the formation lap and refused to turn back on in time for the start.

With the Alpine due to start on the back row of the grid alongside the penalised Valtteri Bottas on Sunday, watching the luckless Alonso attempt to make his way through the field with a strong car underneath him will be one of the more interesting elements of the grand prix. And with Alonso ending the second practice session fourth fastest, there’s plenty of reason to think the oldest driver on the grid will be planning on putting his wealth of experience to good use in the race.

After Friday, Pirelli predicted that the soft tyre could last the 24 laps of the sprint race with some careful management. While that was proven true by a handful of drivers, none of them were close to the top 10. Heading into Sunday’s 306km grand prix, Mario Isola expects the two harder compounds will likely be favoured by the field.

“Today the teams were able to get some useful long run data on the medium during the sprint race,” Isola explained. “Good information for the race tomorrow, which looks likely to be a medium-to-hard one-stopper, as also confirmed by the performance of the tyres today.

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Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Red Bull Ring, 2022
Leclerc is eager for a closer fight than this
“A two-stopper is slower under normal circumstances, but the best way to do it would be using all three compounds: medium, hard, then soft. There’s a reasonably high safety car probability here, on a tight and unforgiving track, so that could influence a two-stopper.”

The only element that could potentially shake things up for the Sunday is the impact of overnight rain washing away the rubber built up from the sprint race and potentially leaving a damp track for the start of the grand prix. The weather radars suggest rain isn’t likely to affect proceedings but should they come it could blow the battle at the front open much wider than in the dry.

Not that it will be likely to faze the pole-winner, who has not been beaten in any competitive session at the Red Bull Ring in the last two years and counting. If Ferrari want to prevent another Verstappen clean sweep in front of many of his adoring fans, they will need to play things smart on Sunday.

Over to you

Can the Ferrari drivers make a better fist of their second attempt to beat Verstappen? Share your views on the Austrian Grand Prix in the comments.

2022 Austrian Grand Prix

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Author information

Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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22 comments on “Leclerc’s sprint race pace shows a Verstappen victory is no done deal in Austria”

  1. So you’re expecting (or are at least hoping for) a close fight at the front because Max Verstappen has learned what to say for the good of the show?

    I’m not holding my breath.

    1. I’m also not expecting ferraris to challenge him in a trouble-free race.

      1. Verstappen seems slow on lap 1 and the Ferraris have shown that they can overtake the car in front on that lap.
        Thus if today Leclerc does the first overtake and Sainz the second then it will be an early 1-2 for them.

        PS good analysis and I like your writing style, @WillWood.

  2. Rain is still forecast for the race, so might not be a walk in the park for Max. I’m hoping Charles comes through

  3. So what this article is explaining is that the Red Bull and Ferrari are quite evenly matched. But this is the case for the entire season so far. There has not been a single race that either Red Bull or Ferrari were head and schoulders better than the other. The reason that Red Bull is the runaway leader is because of bad luck, mistakes and bad stategy at Ferrari’s side, not pace dominance.

    1. Would agree, with the exception of Australia (in Ferrari’s favour) and Imola (in Red Bull’s favour), it’s been quite close with Red Bull having a tyre management and top speed advantage which has proven crucial to various wins. And of course Ferrari’s awkward strategy antics.

  4. I still reckon Max will run away to a comfortable win if he gets an issue-free race like he would’ve done in the last race.

    Sprint ending was partly caused by him not pushing as much as he could’ve, given gap leeway.

  5. If Ferrari has any common sense at all, they would split strategies at the start of this race. Have one driver start on softs and the other on mediums. Maybe put Leclerc on softs so that he can pressure Max at the start and have a proper crack at taking track position. Sainz should stay on mediums and keep Perez and Russell on hold, while still posing an undercut threat to Max. If Sainz wants to justify his Ferrari contract it’s time for him to play wingman after a bunch of back marker rookie performances in the opening few races.

    But knowing binotto he’ll probably out both drivers in mediums and say that they are free to race each other while Max cruises to another victory.

    1. Can somebody please send this to the strategy guys at Ferrari.

      But if they read it, then I’m sure it will be a wet race.

    2. So basically you want Leclerc on a slower 2-stopper.

      1. They need to get one driver in front of Max.. And one driver just behind. I can’t see Carlos making the move stick or having the pace required on thr softs unfortunately.

    3. @todfod Softs would be a mistake here I think, unless it cools down a lot, because thermal degradation could be really bad within just 5-6 laps. They could start on mediums and still perform a pincer though.

      1. @wsrgo

        Would agree.. But the forecast for the race is cloudy with a chance of rain. The track temps should be lower than thr sprint race, and if it does rain.. Having track position is key. I also think there’s no advantage to be gained by Ferrari if they put both drivers on mediums and just imitate Red bulls strategy. They’ll never win a race that way.. This is slightly higher risk with a greater upside as compared to a safe 2-3 finish.

    4. petebaldwin (@)
      10th July 2022, 12:51

      I doubt Ferrari will do that but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Perez on softs – see if he can jump Russell at the start and then put pressure on the Ferraris.

    5. @todfod

      If Ferrari has any common sense at all

      I think you have already answered…

  6. All 4 wheels of the line should be an automatic penalty… This should be quite swift.

    We need 1 referee per car and be done with it.

    No point calling them track limits, when they are track limits only sometimes.

    Track limit suggestion lines?

  7. The inevitable red flag will determine the outcome. The trigger happiness for it, is going out of control.

    1. IfImnotverymuchmistaken
      10th July 2022, 10:16

      That’s why I’ve stopped hoping for wet races. If it’s even slightly too wet for intermediates they red flag the race and wait for it to dry out almost for slicks. And then a dry line appears, so there is no chance for overtakes.

    2. Real wet weather races won’t happen because for some reason nobody seems to trust the Pirelli full wets. It can’t be a coincidence that, as noted, they constantly wait for Intermediate-friendly weather.

      Also, the FIA is too lackluster to penalize people for ignoring flags so every minor incident requires safety cars or worse. If they were as forthcoming with penalties in F1 as they seemingly are in F2, things could improve quite quickly.

  8. I don’t think Sainz will accept a role as 2nd driver as we have seen in the sprint race. He is only 12 points behind LEC in the WDC so why should he sacrifice his own changes half way the season. I guess the RBs are going to split strategy and work as a team to fight the ferrari’s. Probably tyre mamagment and SCs will be key.

  9. It promises to be a very interesting race. Ferrari has a chance to win the race, it’s always interesting to see what Max will be able to do in this situation. In addition, the atmosphere at Ferrari between the drivers seems tense. Maybe something will happen that changes the course of the championship?

    My type for the race? Whoever takes the best care of the tyres will win.

  10. I liked your diagnosis of Alonso’s car problems. Almost certainly correct, and Zhou’s car appeared to be having similar doubts – unless it was spooked by the prospect of another scary first corner.

    Meanwhile, I hope somebody starts high up on softs and shakes things up a bit. Checo or Lewis would be fun.

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