Max Verstappen and Red Bull are fast becoming the favourites for this year’s Formula 1 championships.
Lewis Hamilton won three of the first four keenly contested races this season, and Verstappen has now won four of the eight races to date. Indeed, had he not suffered a blow-out in Azerbaijan he would have comfortably won the last four consecutive grands prix,
To cap all that there’s another race in Austria this coming weekend on a step softer tyres, which unless Mercedes have packed their carbon fibre magic wand, you’d expect Verstappen to win again unless contact, weather or unreliability becomes a factor. Even then, Max is every bit as brilliant in the rain as Lewis.
The Red Bull can carry less apparent rear wing and therefore less drag and higher top speeds, and at the same time is kinder to its tyres on longer runs. That’s a potent combination especially in Verstappen’s hands.
Toto Wolff at Mercedes insists that they are planning only minor upgrades for the rest of the season in order to maximise resources on the dramatically new 2022 cars, of which F1 will present full size models at the British Grand Prix next month.
Conversely Red Bull seem pretty productive, even running metal aero upgrade details in Paul Ricard which became carbon fibre on Max’s car a week later. They continue to maximise the potential of their car and very strong Honda engine.
Adding to that the young Dutchman seems in absolutely serene and supreme form. He is so calm, entirely confident of his own ability, and now the speed of his car too.
He’s great in qualifying, delivering two laps good enough for pole position on Saturday. He starts well, manages tyres and strategy as required, and gets his elbows out in wheel to wheel combat when necessary.
He only takes risks now when the rewards are time critical and well worth it.
Mercedes have been so dominant throughout the seven-year hybrid power unit era that they haven’t needed to absolutely stress the details in order to catch up and have a chance to win races. They were mostly racing themselves and so they could leave a margin on pit stops, strategy, tyre choice, and suchlike.
I’m not saying they were cruising, far from it, and they have had Ferrari and Red Bull on their tails and even ahead of them periodically. But suddenly they are the team playing catch up and they look a touch ragged here and there in terms of leaving nothing on the table through an entire F1 event.
I’ve often said that when two great drivers square up for a championship campaign they usually raise their game to a higher plane, and we are certainly seeing that.
On a circuit with just 10 corners, only six of which demand much from the driver, and only four real braking zones, it was extraordinary how quickly Verstappen and Hamilton turned it into a two-horse race. Admittedly assisted by Lando Norris impressively running in third place for a while in his McLaren.
Hamilton stopped with two laps to go to successfully fit fresh tyres and claim fastest lap and championship point, and so the final classification results are a little skewed, but effectively Max won by around 17 seconds and was 47 seconds ahead of Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez in the sister Red Bull.
That’s nothing other than domination in F1 terms.
I thought Bottas was a little unlucky to attract a three-place grid drop for looping his car in the pit lane after launching it in second gear trying to find a faster exit after their tardy total pit stop times a week earlier in Paul Ricard.
It wasn’t irresponsible driving, and it’s surprising we don’t see more of that especially in wet conditions on variable surfaces and painted zones, but it was dangerous to other teams.
If a driver thumps into his front jack operator that doesn’t appear to be penalised, but the Stewards had to demonstrate that losing control of your car in the pit lane cannot be condoned and must be acted upon with the standard three-place drop.
Bottas would start fifth and finish a distant third after Perez had a slower pit stop and lost track position. With one more lap the fast charging Mexican would likely have claimed back third place but that’s irrelevant.
Starting seventh and finishing seventh sounds like a tedious afternoon for Charles Leclerc in his Ferrari but it was far from that. A clumsy bump with Pierre Gasly on the straight following turn one at the start meant he needed a new nose, and Gasly’s day was sadly over but not before connecting with three others in turn three trying to control his punctured left-rear tyre.
Leclerc set about a great recovery drive which earned him the fans’ driver of the day vote, although not before escaping a puncture having clipped Kimi Raikkonen’s front wing. There were some great overtakes from the feisty Monegasque.
Also having a very strong day in sixth place was Carlos Sainz in the sister Ferrari having shown great pace before pitting late for his only stop on lap 41. Nice job.
If Norris was very impressive for McLaren in fifth place then Daniel Ricciardo is having a horror story, and this particular chapter finished in 13th position. He made up four places at the start only to lose them with a temporary overheating issue but made no progress thereafter.
Worryingly neither driver nor team seems to understand why he’s struggling so much, and they need him on top form if they are going to beat Ferrari to third in the Constructors’ Championship.
Esteban Ocon has had two poor races since he was announced with a new three-year deal at Alpine, but his team-mate Fernando Alonso claimed another two points in ninth place.
Verstappen has a championship lead equivalent to a second-place finish and so, with potentially a further 15 races to run, that’s hardly comfortable. This particular triple header concludes next Sunday in those glorious Styrian hills.
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