Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc made a timely return to the top step of the Formula 1 podium in Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring.
Here are our conclusions from Spielberg…
A much-needed win for Leclerc and Ferrari
After going without a victory for exactly three months, might a return to winning ways have a magical healing effect on the relationship between Leclerc and Ferrari?
Make no mistake, the trust between team and driver had been eroded since their last triumph in Australia in April as Leclerc retired from the lead in Barcelona and Azerbaijan and was taken out of victory contention by Ferrari’s strategy mistakes in Monaco and Britain.
Leclerc had been fiercely critical of Ferrari after Monaco and Baku in particular and was about to do the same at Silverstone before being met by his finger-pointing team boss Mattia Binotto, their confrontation in parc ferme providing the defining image of how his season, once so promising, had crumbled apart.
His team-mate Carlos Sainz capitalised on Ferrari’s tactical error at Silverstone to claim his maiden F1 win and move within 11 points of Leclerc, having trailed him by 48 after four rounds.
And when Sainz attacked on the opening lap of Saturday’s sprint race in Austria it was as though Leclerc was fighting not only to defend second place but his very status within the team.
The great shame about Leclerc’s rotten run of bad luck is that the F1-75 car remains just as competitive as at the start of the season – see his four consecutive pole positions between Miami and Baku – and even after finishing behind Verstappen in the sprint Ferrari were convinced they were just as quick as Red Bull in Styria.
The cooler conditions of race day appeared to tip the balance decisively in Ferrari’s favour as Leclerc passed Verstappen at will on three separate occasions.
Leclerc is back in front again!
— Formula 1 (@F1) July 10, 2022
Yet even as he closed in on victory concerns over the cause of Sainz’s retirement from third – reopening his deficit to Leclerc to 37 points as well as, potentially, the team orders debate at Ferrari – and a sticky throttle pedal threatened to take it away.
It was crucial – not only for his season but his enduring faith in Ferrari – that he made it across the line and Leclerc’s fifth career victory, his first to be taken without the advantage of pole position, has cut Verstappen’s lead in the Championship to 38 points at the halfway point of 2022.
With Ferrari still so fragile it may already be too late to rescue Leclerc’s title challenge, but if nothing else this victory offered a reminder that all the raw ingredients are there for them to win.
The only thing stopping them, as ever, is themselves.
The evolution of Max Verstappen
Despite a well-taken victory in Saturday’s sprint race, Verstappen was unable to replicate his crowd-pleasing performances of Styria/Austria 2021 at his team’s home grand prix.
Excessive tyre degradation in the cooler conditions denied him the chance of a fifth victory at the Red Bull Ring, but this race demonstrated Verstappen’s growth in maturity since claiming his first World Championship last year.
Verstappen left Spielberg with a lead of 32 points in the Drivers’ standings after winning the Austria double-header a year ago, but two rounds later he was trailing Lewis Hamilton by eight after encountering trouble at Silverstone and Hungary.
There was little he could do about the first corner skittles in Budapest, of course, but his infamous collision with Hamilton at Copse was avoidable, a reflection of a driver who potentially needed to pick his battles a little better and recognise the days when it was perfectly OK to settle for second.
His constant need to prove himself was partly his undoing on that occasion and made his journey to his first title more complicated (albeit way more thrilling) than it might otherwise have been.
Compare and contrast that Max to the one who raced in Austria on Sunday, accepting at an early stage that there was only so much he could do to keep Leclerc behind.
His revised outlook was shared by Red Bull who at one stage even advised Verstappen over the radio to do the bare minimum and match the lap times of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes, much to the disgust of Max who continued to fight and ultimately retained P2 when Sainz retired.
“It was a tricky day,” he said. “Immediately it seemed like we were struggling quite a bit with the tyres, and basically that continued on every single compound. Too much degradation to really attack Charles especially. But nevertheless still second place is a good result for us on a difficult day.”
After winning five of the six races between Imola and Canada, the last two have been considerably more challenging for Verstappen, but it is to his and Red Bull’s credit that they have only lost 11 points to Leclerc in that time.
If it is true that World Championships are won and lost on the strength of a driver’s bad days, Verstappen remains in an extremely strong position at the halfway stage of the season.
This is a driver with his eyes firmly on the prize.
Enjoyed it out there today! 🤩
— Max Verstappen (@Max33Verstappen) July 10, 2022
Esteban Ocon: still thriving in Alonso’s shadow
With Antonio Giovinazzi losing his seat at the end of 2021, Esteban Ocon has inherited the role of Formula 1’s invisible man this season.
Such is the strength of the two-time World Champion’s personality and performances that being Fernando Alonso’s team-mate is arguably the hardest job in F1 – ask Giancarlo Fisichella, ask Felipe Massa, ask Stoffel Vandoorne – and requires a certain maturity just to avoid being eaten alive.
The key? Don’t get too downhearted on Alonso’s untouchable days – when he magics a podium out of nowhere in Qatar, for instance, or qualifies an Alpine on the front row in Canada.
That’s just what Fernando does. Deal with it.
Ocon has dealt with it better than most have over the years, making life as an Alpine driver work for him despite rarely hitting the heights of his decorated team-mate.
When Alonso was wheeled off the Austria sprint grid on Saturday, it felt as though he was taking with him his team’s hopes of a strong result in Austria – yet there, eternally unnoticed, was Ocon in fifth.
On the weekend of his 100th grand prix appearance it was a position Ocon retained on race day to record his strongest result of the season, the only driver outside of the top three teams to avoid being lapped.
P🖐🏼!! What a weekend 🔥 Next up: HOME GP! 💙🤍❤️ pic.twitter.com/fCJvt0g0fS
— Esteban Ocon (@OconEsteban) July 10, 2022
With Alonso recovering to 10th, Alpine are now level on points with McLaren in the fight for P4 in the Constructors’ standings and – with Daniel Ricciardo’s struggles persisting despite a rare points finish in Styria – recent history tells us teams with two reliable and consistent drivers are most likely to come out on top in tight battles.
Advantage Alpine? Alonso may be the one hitting the headlines, but Ocon’s contribution cannot be underestimated.
The floodgates are well and truly open for Mick Schumacher
Mick Schumacher is spookily reminiscent of his father at the best of times, but as he conducted his media interviews with a scowl on his face in the aftermath of the sprint race you’d have been forgiven for thinking it was Michael.
Gone, briefly, was the charming, good-natured kid – a credit to his family in every way – who landed in F1 last year to reveal, perhaps for the first time in public, a glimpse of the competitor burning within. The mask was off.
Schumacher was angered by his Haas team’s handling of the sprint, believing the team should have swapped positions with team-mate Kevin Magnussen to contain the threat of Hamilton’s Mercedes.
It was tempting to remind him that it was only the sprint race, that tomorrow was the one that mattered, but after scoring his first F1 points for the first time at Silverstone it is clear Schumacher is now a man in a rush.
Those who suspected it was all a matter of confidence for Schumacher – that he would take off after finally claiming his maiden points finish – appeared to be vindicated in Austria as he delivered arguably his most complete performance to date.
Schumacher surged to sixth in the grand prix itself and was voted Driver of the Day (for what it’s worth…) as Haas secured a second successive double-points finish for the first time since the end of 2018.
— Formula 1 (@F1) July 10, 2022
Now just 10 points behind his team-mate, Michael’s boy is rapidly coming of age.
Gasly’s career is suddenly going nowhere fast
Pierre Gasly performances over the last few years have won him plenty of admirers but, stuck with an uncompetitive AlphaTauri in 2022, there have been signs of his career losing some momentum in recent months.
After Sergio Perez’s contract extension was confirmed after May’s Monaco GP there was much talk that the time was right for Gasly, with no chance of ever returning to the senior team, to move on and flee the Red Bull system.
Many fans naturally linked him with Ricciardo’s McLaren seat, but AlphaTauri’s quick decision to retain Gasly for 2023 last month protected him from the uncomfortable truth that Zak Brown probably wasn’t particularly interested in his services anyway.
Only once in the last eight races has he scored points – albeit a fine P5 on the streets of Baku – and his error-ridden performance in Austria was arguably his most worrying yet.
For the second time this season Gasly was involved in a first-lap incident in a sprint race, making the same mistake George Russell made against him at the start at Silverstone by clumsily edging across the track and sandwiching another car.
Gasly and Vettel come together rounding Turn 4 and Vettel goes spinning into the gravel.
— Formula 1 (@F1) July 10, 2022
Gasly was the first driver to be punished by the stewards for exceeding track limits during the grand prix itself before incurring a second five-second penalty for understeering into Sebastian Vettel at Turn 4 to conclude another miserable weekend.
Faced with being stuck at AlphaTauri for another year, might 2020 and ’21 be as good as it ever gets for Gasly in F1?
Highlights from the Austrian Grand Prix
Charles Leclerc took his first win in eight races, and Ferrari definitely needed it.