Austrian Grand Prix conclusions: Red Bull’s Perez problem, dreaded track limits and more

Oliver Harden
2023 Austrian GP conclusions.

2023 Austrian Grand Prix conclusions.

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen claimed his fifth consecutive victory in the Austrian GP to extend his lead in the F1 2023 title race to a massive 81 points.

Charles Leclerc finished P2 for the resurgent Ferrari team to claim the Scuderia’s second podium finish of the season, with Sergio Perez recovering to third after a horror show in Friday qualifying.

On a weekend Verstappen and Perez came to blows in the sprint race, here are our conclusions from Styria…

Sergio Perez has caused Red Bull nothing but hassle for the last year

Care to remember how Verstappen described Perez at the height of their relationship at Abu Dhabi 2021?

“Checo’s a legend!” was the radio message broadcast to the world after Perez had successfully slowed down runaway leader Lewis Hamilton, bringing hope to a place where there previously was none (you know the rest…).

How that day – in more ways than one – feels such a long time ago now.

Perez back then was the model team-mate, the ideal wingman executing his duties in an understated yet beautifully efficient fashion, accepting of his standing and role within the team and assisting Verstappen when and wherever possible.

As he has grown in experience and confidence at Red Bull – and, yes, success also – maybe it was inevitable that he would gradually become more selfish too.

It was all going so well until May last year, when after publicly voicing his disapproval for the first time with the very job he was signed up to do in Barcelona he won – in quite a controversial manner it later transpired – in Monaco.

When the ill feeling from that weekend finally floated to the surface in Brazil at the end of the year, Perez’s desperation to pin the blame on his failure to finish as the 2022 runner-up on Verstappen’s refusal to hand him sixth place was a terrible attempt to brush over his woeful post-Monaco run of just three podiums in nine races in a car that was just beginning to dominate.

Perez may have made his best-ever start to a season in 2023, but his eagerness to talk up his title chances after winning in Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan – calling for equal treatment to Verstappen in Jeddah despite the fortunate nature of his victory – sounded totally out of touch in a team whose very world revolves around Max, and only succeeded in setting himself up for a fall.

Another brazen attempt to evade responsibility came in between those wins in Melbourne, where Perez’s claims of an unspecified issue behind his embarrassing Q1 exit came with the risk of alienating his colleagues as Red Bull’s Helmut Marko insisted the car was perfectly healthy.

And now as he failed to make Q3 for the fourth race in succession in Austria before proceeding to put Verstappen – Red Bull’s reigning double World Champion – on the wet grass at the team’s home event, questions must now be asked if Perez is really worth all the hassle.

Verstappen and Perez, perhaps mindful of how damaging an all-out civil war would be to the team, were eager to downplay the significance of their clash on the opening lap of the sprint race but few bought Checo’s argument that he couldn’t see his team-mate in the mirrors and this weekend seemed to mark a step change in Red Bull’s handling of the Perez problem.

Christian Horner, the team principal, was unable to contain his utter exasperation with his driver’s repeated track limits offences on live television despite having the entirety of Q3 to get over it – Verstappen’s latest pole position clearly did not soften the blow – with Marko criticising Perez’s poor teamwork after the sprint.

Perez may have embarked upon a good recovery in Sunday’s race, but a third-place finish was still one position lower than where he should have started.

When Red Bull broke the habit of a lifetime to sign Perez in late 2020, they did so with two expectations.

The first? That a driver of his age and experience, having been staring at the end of his F1 career until very recently, would be eternally grateful for the opportunity offered to him and not once seek conflict, instead acting as the placid, ready-and-willing Valtteri Bottas to Max’s Lewis.

The second? That the days of the other Red Bull being helplessly lost in the crowd of the midfield, as was the case throughout the Pierre Gasly/Alex Albon era, would be over for good.

On the evidence of this weekend, his form over recent weeks and indeed most of the 12 months, he is fulfilling neither of those roles.

The temptation to try the quieter life and give another go to Daniel Ricciardo – all fits and giggles at the back of the garage – has surely never been greater.

July a key month for Red Bull’s unbeaten season hopes

If Horner is already frustrated by talk of Red Bull winning every single race in 2023, he’d better get used to it.

Another comfortable pole-to-flag victory for Verstappen – at the end of another weekend in which he topped every session and set the fastest lap for good measure – means the prospect of Red Bull becoming the first team in F1 history to go through an entire season unbeaten is growing ever larger on the horizon.

Yet recent history tells us that if Red Bull are to stagger and stumble at some stage, it is likely to come in this breathless run of four (now three) races in five weeks leading into the summer break.

If we are to disregard 2020 (probably for the best really), the last team to start a season in such dominant style was Mercedes who started 2019 with eight straight victories.

It was just as the possibility of an invincible season was mentioned that it all began to fall apart, Mercedes strangely subdued in the blazing heat and high altitude of Austria before suffering what Toto Wolff described as the worst race of his entire tenure as team boss – at least until 2022 came along – in the rain at Hockenheim.

Proof, perhaps, of how quickly and easily a shot at greatness can be snatched away.

Already established as one of the most dominant F1 cars ever, the RB19 is a car for all seasons yet in one of the most demanding seasons ever July is arguably the most demanding month.

It is not just the four races at four different circuits, all with different challenges, but the road dust on team staff after so many weeks on the move with a Baku-Miami double header in early May followed just weeks later by another trip across the Atlantic to Canada.

At this stage of the season, with the summer break close enough to touch, human fatigue becomes almost as significant a factor as car performance (was it a mere coincidence, for instance, that Hamilton’s tortuous 50-second pit stop at Hockenheim 2019 occurred at this time of year?).

With such a clear advantage, it is not so much a matter of the gap to Red Bull closing but whether their impeccable standards in all areas – the standards that allow Verstappen to pit on Lap 70 of 71 of the Austrian GP in pursuit of the point for fastest lap with no thought at all that something might go wrong – can be sustained across the remaining 13 rounds.

If Red Bull can just make it through this month with their winning run still unblemished, history awaits.

As Mercedes keep talking the talk, Ferrari are walking the walk

Ferrari have made more progress across the first nine races of 2023 than Mercedes have managed over the last 18 months.

That may be a slight exaggeration, but with Ferrari’s upgrade delivering a more striking change in the car’s performance level it certainly feels that way.

For all the attention devoted to Mercedes’ move to finally ditch the zero-pod concept in Monaco, Ferrari made a call of similar magnitude at the following race in Spain as they pulled the plug on their own unique bathtub sidepod design.

It may have attracted far less fanfare but is proving to be a more immediately potent package than the Mercedes, which remains prone – as both Hamilton and George Russell discovered this weekend – to a humiliating early exit in qualifying.

Rather than the great leap forward the W14 sprouting sidepods was promised as, Mercedes have on the evidence so far done little more than shuffle sideways, with a huge amount now hinging on the next stage of the car’s evolution at Silverstone this coming weekend.

Verstappen may have claimed Red Bull’s eighth straight win back in Canada but Red Bull’s Dr Marko – alarmed by Charles Leclerc’s impressive long run in practice – admitted that Ferrari actually had the fastest car in Montreal and warned of their potential threat in Austria. recommends

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And sure enough, Leclerc – with one of his classic last-lap detonations at the climax of Q3 – ran Verstappen hard in qualifying and tried with all his might to edge ahead on the opening lap before the Red Bull scurried away.

As Russell highlighted after the sprint, the Ferrari like the Mercedes remains highly sensitive to conditions – the Ferraris were eight tenths off pole on Saturday morning after Leclerc had got within a tenth of Verstappen on Friday – and may have been flattered slightly by the circuit layouts in Canada and Austria.

Yet having lagged behind Aston Martin and Mercedes in the early months of this season, now Ferrari look as well placed as either of their rivals to end Red Bull’s winning run.

Mercedes continue to talk the talk – still after all this time telling their fans and sponsors what they want to hear by insisting a return to winning ways is imminent – but Ferrari are the ones currently walking the walk.

Lando Norris might just have a McLaren he can work with again (maybe)

Is this real life or is this just fantasy?

It is a question Mercedes have regularly asked themselves since the beginning of last season as a series of strong weekends – Spain/Brazil 2022, Australia/Spain 2023 – muddied the performance picture and occasionally misled the team into persevering with the wrong ideas.

Despite Lando Norris’s welcome return to the front in the heavily revised MCL60 in Austria, might McLaren be well advised to view his fifth-placed finish with a degree of caution?

First, the fantasy argument.

With pretty much half of the Red Bull Ring lap covered by DRS zones, McLaren’s main 2023 weakness of drag – a mark left behind by former technical director James Key – wasn’t quite the hindrance it normally would be here.

And combined with Norris’s obvious love of this circuit – he memorably claimed his first podium finish here in 2020 before intruding on the Mercedes/Red Bull battle for pole the following year – the unusual factors behind McLaren’s strongest weekend for some time were set in stone.

Now, the real life perspective.

After his last qualifying overachievement in Barcelona, Norris admitted that his unfortunate first-lap collision with Hamilton merely quickened the inevitable drop down the order, with the old-spec McLaren simply not fast enough to retain its place in the top three.

Albeit on a circuit with different characteristics, however, he was comfortable in containing Hamilton’s Mercedes in Austria and lapped team-mate Oscar Piastri – still driving the old car – en route to his best race result since Singapore 2022.

So, real life or fantasy?

Sorry to sit on the fence, but with McLaren’s upgrade arriving gradually over three separate race weekends until Hungary the picture will likely become clearer over the coming weeks on tracks with wildly different demands providing a greater and more accurate sample size.

Let’s hope for Lando’s sake, though – and for that matter Piastri, still awaiting the stunning result to truly announce his arrival in F1 – that he really does have a car with which he can work wonders again.

Happy track limits season, everyone

The Austrian round traditionally marks the start of track limits season which, we report with great regret, is set to be with us until at least the Hungarian GP on July 23 and quite possibly beyond.

Expect the exits of Copse/Stowe at Silverstone, plus the hotspots of Turns 4 and 11 in Budapest, to come under the same scrutiny reserved for the final two corners at the Red Bull Ring this weekend.

Track limits is, by some distance, the most boring subject in F1 but the sport’s inability to identify a suitable and permanent solution means we must keep having the same, tired old debate year after year after year. Joy.

Why does the track limits conversation crop up at this race every season?

Because kerb usage here is absolutely critical to lap time – recall back in 2020 how even the dominant Mercedes cars were left exposed when advised to avoid the kerbs to manage gearbox issues – and to consciously steer clear of them is to gift a performance advantage to the opposition.

The warning signs were there in Friday qualifying, when a total of 47 laps – almost three times more than the 2022 tally of 16 – were deleted and polesitter Verstappen drew attention to the unfair demands on the drivers to make such marginal judgements at such high speeds, especially when the kerbs are just so inviting.

The sensible thing, of course, would have been to relax the stance on track limits for the race, accepting that they’re all at it anyway and there would be no problem as long as nobody attempted to cross the border into Germany.

Yet Race Control and the stewards, with nothing better to do and not helped by the drivers grassing on each other – we’re looking at you, Mr Norris, whose complaints over the radio about Hamilton’s transgressions awakened the FIA to the situation and helped create this sorry mess – could not help themselves.

It made a mockery of the race at times with no fewer than seven drivers incurring five-second penalties, some twice, and Nico Hulkenberg even receiving a black-and-white flag for track limits just for pulling off the circuit to retire.

And worse was to come in the hours after the grand prix, with eight drivers handed post-race penalties after the FIA examined 1,200 potential track limits breaches.

The management of track limits was a PR disaster from beginning to end and showed F1 at its bureaucratic, inflexible worst.

It is at times like these you are reminded of the words of celebrity F1 enthusiast and Alpine’s official beer supplier Jeremy Clarkson, whose idea to instantly improve the sport in 2019 consisted of five simple words: “Get rid of the stewards.”

Look at the way Verstappen and Hamilton sorted out a blocking incident between themselves on track during Saturday’s sprint shootout – no need for an investigation here, thank you – and he might just be on to something, you know…

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