Conclusions from the Austrian Grand Prix


Max Verstappen wins the race of the year so far, Vettel recovers to pile the misery on Lewis Hamilton, and Haas score big points…

Austria heats up title race

After his first-lap incident with Valtteri Bottas in France, Sebastian Vettel made another error in Q2 by impeding another driver and finding himself demoted to sixth on the grid from third. His was a poor start, while Lewis Hamilton streaked off into the distance at the front of the pack. But then Mercedes were struck by a series of unfortunate events – all of their own making.

First Bottas was forced to retire due to a hydraulics problem. Mercedes had delayed the introduction of a new spec power unit over reliability fears, which proved well founded because later Hamilton, too, had to park the car. The race was lost earlier, however, as Bottas’s retirement prompted the deployment of the virtual safety car. Mercedes inexplicably decided against pitting Hamilton as both Red Bulls and Ferraris came in for fresh rubber.

It was a monumental strategic error, which meant Max Verstappen was the net leader, a lead who would not relinquish, and meant Hamilton was a net fifth. But by the end of the race it was Vettel who had claimed third place to move one point ahead of Hamilton in the standings.

More importantly, Vettel made an on-track overtake for position on Hamilton on lap 39. It was a decisive move from the German who, prior to going into the tight turn 3, was brave enough to put his right front tyre on the grass before claiming the apex. It sent a serious message to a deflated Hamilton, who spent much of the race on team radio complaining about the admittedly poor strategy.

Summer temperatures pose questions

In addition to the Mercedes failures, Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg also retired with a spectacular smoke-and-fire show from his upgraded power unit. In parallel, the hot track temperatures led to blistering on rear tyres throughout the pack.

Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo were particularly affected and had to stop a second time for new tyres. Heading into the European summer season, high temperatures look like another variable for the teams to consider – and for fans look like something that will create another layer of excitement.

Max makes amends

Verstappen faced a barrage of criticism from the media and drivers alike for a number of errors in the early phase of the season. But his assured drive on Sunday amid chaos and unpredictability – which gave us the race of the season so far based on pure intensity – answered many questions and suggest that the young Dutchman is back to his best.

Cool under pressure despite the two-pronged attack from Ferrari, Verstappen managed the gap well and also nursed his blistering rear tyres to the end. His message on team radio in the heat of battle on lap 50, in which he said to his team “I’m feeling good”, is indicative of a young man who has conquered the issues that had hitherto blighted his campaign.

Haas: Best of the rest

Both Haas drivers, but Romain Grosjean in particular, showed in practice sessions that the car had pace on both long and short runs. Much like Verstappen, Grosjean too has endured a rotten 2018 up until Austria and drove a brilliant race to claim a much-deserved fourth place to score his first points of the season. Kevin Magnussen was fifth, which helped Haas secure its best ever race result.

Other observations

Hamilton’s 33-race streak of scoring points came to an end in Austria. It’s the end of a remarkable run from both the British driver and his team, which has made reliability a key part of recent success (notwithstanding Malaysia 2016, of course, the race in which Hamilton retired with a power-unit failure to effectively hand Nico Rosberg the title that year).

Both Force India and Sauber did what Haas did and got both cars into the points. Esteban Ocon pipped his team-mate to the line to finish an excellent (but largely anonymous) sixth. The Frenchman moves to within four points of Sergio Perez in the standings. Charles Leclerc, meanwhile, finished ninth to claim his fifth points-scoring finish in the last six grands prix. Marcus Ericsson was tenth–his first points since Bahrain.

Fernando Alonso’s early transmission over team radio were marked by anger and frustration, as he ran second last after starting from the pits. Yet the two-time champion persisted and showed trademark racecraft to elevate himself to eighth by the chequered flag to score both his and McLaren’s first points since the Spanish Grand Prix in May.

Richard F Rose