Winners and losers from the 2023 Austrian Grand Prix qualifying

Oliver Harden
Red Bull driver and reigning F1 World Champion Max Verstappen looks on from the garage during qualifying for the Austrian Grand Prix. Styria, June 2023.

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen looks on from the garage during qualifying for the 2023 Austrian Grand Prix.

Max Verstappen claimed his sixth pole position of the F1 2023 season at the Austrian Grand Prix on Friday afternoon.

The Red Bull driver will be joined on the front row for Sunday’s race by Charles Leclerc, with Ferrari team-mate Carlos Sainz close behind in third.

With Saturday’s action at the Red Bull Ring set to be a standalone sprint affair, here we present the main winners and losers from the serious stuff in Styria…

Winners

Max Verstappen

In these Red Bull-dominant times in which we currently live, there comes a moment every weekend when it becomes plainly obvious that Verstappen’s rivals would be better off packing up and going home.

In Austria, that moment came right at the end of the first – only – practice session, when the reigning World Champion soared to the top of the timesheets, his lap on old medium tyres quicker by some margin than those on brand-new softs.

See you at Silverstone, everybody. Try again next week.

Now of course, everybody still had to sit through the procession of qualifying for the results to be ratified, but from the moment he finished that lap late in FP1 it was clear that for all the talk of a serious Ferrari threat here Verstappen would not be moved.

And, sure enough, he would top each of the three qualifying segments en route to claiming his sixth pole in nine rounds.

True, he was only marginally in front at all times – 0.061s to Sergio Perez in Q1 was his biggest gap on this exceptionally short circuit – yet Verstappen himself admitted that he was driving relatively cautiously after being stung by track limits, so much so that it slightly sucked the fun out of the place.

Even with one of his classic last-lap detonations Leclerc was still half-a-tenth short of Verstappen in Q3, who could surely have gone even quicker if necessary.

Ferrari

This weekend marks a full year since Ferrari’s last victory, and even if a win continues to elude them on Sunday afternoon, it is clear that they haven’t looked this good in the last 12 months.

After finally pulling the plug on the bemusing bathtub sidepod concept in Spain – a fundamentally low-drag design that somehow mustered enough downforce to shine at high-downforce tracks in early 2022 – the rate of improvement in recent weeks has been highly encouraging.

Verstappen may have stormed to victory in Canada two weeks ago but Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko was quick to point out that Ferrari had the fastest car, warning that Austria would not be “a big Oktoberfest for Max” if Leclerc – just 0.15s slower than Verstappen in the practice long runs in Montreal – could qualify strongly.

Well, his driver has not one but two Ferraris for company on Sunday, with Sainz supporting his team-mate from third on the grid.

More noise may emanate from Mercedes when it comes to closing the gap to Red Bull, but Ferrari are now actually walking the walk in this regard.

The Scuderia currently feel like the more potent force, the ones best placed to bring Red Bull’s winning run to an end.

Lando Norris

Few sights in F1 bring more joy than a competitive and confident Lando Norris.

It was at this circuit three years ago, of course, that he memorably secured his first podium, before rudely intruding on what was assumed to be a straight fight for pole between Red Bull and Mercedes to cement his superstar status in 2021.

McLaren’s struggles since the 2022 rule changes came into effect have placed a limit on his ambitions, but here in the heavily revised MCL60 – upgraded to the point of being a full-blown B-spec – came a sign that those golden times may soon return.

Friday in Austria had the feel of those early days, Norris a constant fixture around the top five – never lower than sixth across Q1/Q2/Q3 – and assuming what was once regarded as his position as best of the rest behind Verstappen and the Ferraris.

Now to avoid the mistake of the first corner in Spain and convert his fine grid position into solid points.

Lance Stroll

It is said that differences between team-mates are harder to come by at the Red Bull Ring.

With quite long corners dotted around the lap and the cars linelocked in the high-speed sweeps in the second and third sectors, gaps between team-mates are generally smaller than at most conventional circuits.

That would explain why Valtteri Bottas was so good here compared to Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes, for instance (and when you think about it, it doesn’t reflect very well at all on the drivers in this week’s losers section…).

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Yet if that theory is true, the Austrian GP has come at a good time for Lance Stroll as he fights to keep his head above the water line alongside Fernando Alonso at Aston Martin.

Any hope that Stroll had turned a corner after outqualifying and outracing Alonso for the first time in 2023 in Barcelona soon faded when he struggled badly in the wet on Saturday in Montreal, failing to reach Q3 once again as his team-mate took his usual place on the podium.

Ahead of Alonso in practice and marginally quicker in Q2, Stroll finished Q3 with a flourish to slip into sixth place ahead of the two-time World Champion.

He must build on this if he is to silence the critics, who normally need no invitation to pounce.

Alex Albon

The Red Bull Ring may not be suited to the car in the way Canada so clearly was, but the long straights of the first sector looked like clear Williams territory.

As for the rest of the lap? Just drive like a man possessed, don’t forget to hold on and see where it takes you.

That seemed to be Alex Albon’s approach in qualifying as he sought to build on his seventh-placed finish in Montreal, the car’s fundamental limitations potentially forcing him to take more risks than drivers in more capable machinery would be comfortable with.

Did that perhaps play a part in his track limits breach on his last Q3 attempt?

That minor misjudgement may have cost him a place or two on Sunday’s grid, but do not lose sight of the achievement of making the Williams – still lacking the raw downforce of its rivals despite recent upgrades – a semi-regular Q3 contender.

Losers

Sergio Perez

“It’s just annoying because we know he could have been there,” was Red Bull team principal Christian Horner’s verdict at the end of qualifying in Austria.

Perez is driving the very same RB19 car with which his team-mate is making magic happen, yet has reached Q3 at less than half of the nine rounds of 2023 and hasn’t started inside the top 10 since setting pole position in Miami on May 6.

If there truly are no concerns about Perez’s pace against Verstappen there must be mounting worries over his discipline and composure, for when things start to go wrong for Checo they now invariably snowball.

That became clear back in Melbourne when he drove an otherwise healthy car straight into the gravel in Q1, his mind frazzled by a trivial issue in final practice, and there was a hint of it alsoin Monaco in the way he carried far too much speed into Ste Devote at the very start of qualifying, pushing way too hard way too soon.

Yet neither incident underlined the lack of discipline in Perez’s current performances as much as qualifying at the Red Bull Ring, where it was almost as though he could not stop himself from doing the wrong thing at the wrong time – against the advice of everyone around him.

Having already breached track limits on two previous occasions, Perez was informed on his final outlap in Q2 by his race engineer that he didn’t need to push quite so hard. Just let the car do the work, Checo, just let the lap come to you.

Slotting into second seemed to confirm the effortless pace lurking within the RB19 but – wait, no – he did so once again by landing on the wrong side of the line, becoming the first Red Bull driver since back when Red Bull were a midfield team in 2008 to miss out on Q3 for four races running.

One day a book will be written about the way such elite drivers as Verstappen and Alonso psychologically shatter their team-mates, rubbing their faces in the mud and tearing them apart limb by limb. On current evidence, Perez will be in prime position to pen the foreword.

He has been reduced to a shell of the driver who just weeks ago was talking up his 2023 title chances.

George Russell

According to those who notice this kind of thing, precision is a pillar of George Russell’s driving style.

If Lewis Hamilton will leave three centimetres between his right-front tyre and the barrier, trust George to leave 1.5 and rely on his reflexes to keep him out of harm’s way.

His precision betrayed him during the last race in Canada, where in his eagerness to stay attached to the Hamilton/Alonso battle he slammed the Mercedes into a concrete wall and was fortunate to continue.

It also let him down here as he joined Perez in falling flat on his face in Q2, his ambitions for the weekend also broken by an untimely track-limits breach.

His latest Q2 elimination in 2023, following others in Baku and Spain, comes at a troubling time for Russell, just as Hamilton – with two consecutive podiums – is starting to establish a decisive pace advantage in the upgraded Mercedes in a performance pattern similar to last season.

Even the best were not immune to track limits issues in qualifying with Verstappen having a couple of laps deleted and later complaining that the drivers are being asked unfairly to judge such small margins at such high speeds.

In that context, perhaps a driver who places such a premium on precision was always likely to be vulnerable here.

Kevin Magnussen

Nico Hulkenberg’s latest qualifying heroics were not quite enough to claim a place in the winners’ section this week (argue about it amongst yourselves), but have contributed to increasing the scrutiny on last year’s comeback kid.

Kevin Magnussen was only two-tenths slower than his team-mate in Q1, but not for the first time in 2023 landed on the wrong side of the line as Hulkenberg went on to bigger and better things.

Speaking from the pit wall during the session, Haas team principal Guenther Steiner indicated that Magnussen was simply too tentative in the crucial corners and at the decisive moments.

He has now been outqualified seven times out of nine in 2023, has just one Q3 appearance compared to Hulkenberg’s five and has been eliminated in Q1 at four of the last six races.

Haas have been fiercely loyal to their drivers, at least those of a certain age, over the years, but Magnussen’s lack of performance alongside Hulkenberg – even if he does have two points finishes to Hulk’s one – is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

Unless he can arrest the slide soon, might the team be forced to consider making another change for 2024?

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