The second race of Formula 1’s Austria double-header proved more eventful than the first – even if the final result bore heavy resemblance to one week earlier.
Max Verstappen produced another devastating display at the front, taking his third win on the bounce to extend his drivers’ championship lead and continue to turn the screw on Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton.
Mercedes was left unable to answer Verstappen’s pace for the second week in a row, instead finding itself with a surprise challenger for second place in McLaren’s Lando Norris.
Norris may have starred, but his race was not without controversy as he picked up an early penalty – the first of many for the field on a busy day for the stewards.
Here are 10 things we learned from the 2021 Austrian Grand Prix.
1. Verstappen and Red Bull were a class apart from Mercedes
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B
Photo by: Alessio Morgese
Mercedes may have hoped that the week between the two Spielberg races would offer the chance to make inroads on Red Bull, but if anything, the gap grew larger.
Verstappen was again untouchable, repeating his feat of leading every single lap of the race en route to victory, but bagged the fastest lap on top this time around to mark his first career grand slam.
Red Bull produced a copy/paste performance from the week before, again enjoying an edge on Mercedes over both a single lap and on tyre wear. Besides a slight move at the start to cover off Norris’s good getaway, Verstappen did not come under pressure.
The bigger gap at the front even afforded Verstappen a free second pitstop, which he used to good effect by taking 1.6 seconds out of his own fastest lap time, putting him well out of sight.
Now 5-3 up for wins this year relative to Hamilton, and 32 points clear at the top of the drivers’ championship, Verstappen is looking more and more like the champion-elect. It may be early days, but Red Bull have got into a rhythm that looks hard to break.
2. Qualifying was where Mercedes’ weekend unravelled
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12
Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images
After pursuing a “wacky” set-up direction in the first Austria weekend, Mercedes spent the days ahead of the second race trying to refine it. Hamilton even made a rare simulator appearance in a bid to get on top of things and cut the gap to Red Bull.
Things were looking more promising on Friday as the reigning champion led a 1-2 finish for Mercedes in FP2. While he remained confident Red Bull had more time in its pocket – spoiler: it did – he felt happier with where the W12 car was.
But the weekend unravelled for Mercedes in qualifying. The warmer conditions compared to Friday’s practice running worked against the team as it struggled to get the most out of the C5 tyre when it counted, leaving both Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas behind the Red Bulls and Norris.
Just as it did for Bottas one week earlier, being stuck behind a car – a very quick one at that – in the opening stages really hurt Mercedes, ending any chance of challenging Verstappen. While the team felt it lacked the outright pace to do so anyway, it would have at least offered a chance to stick with him more.
3. Silverstone will be an important test for the title race
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, 1st position, in Parc Ferme
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images
As difficult as the past two weeks may have been for Mercedes, Austria has tended not to be one of its best circuits over the years, meaning it could still be considered something of an outlier.
Paul Ricard was a much closer affair, but the next race at Silverstone is probably going to be the truest test yet for the title race. It’s been a Mercedes – and Hamilton – stronghold through the years, largely thanks to the straight-line might of the Brackley-Brixworth package.
The fact Mercedes will bring its final upgrade of the year to Silverstone also makes it all the more important in the context of the title race – but with the weekend format being shaken up by sprint qualifying, there will be a very limited window for the team to work out just what kind of gain is on offer.
If Red Bull can deliver the same kind of dominance it has in Austria at Silverstone, then the championship picture is going to look even bleaker. It’s a big weekend for Mercedes – but Hamilton will at least be able to rely on home support.
4. Norris gave us a taste of Formula 1’s future
Lando Norris, McLaren, 3rd position, celebrates
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
Praise for Norris has been a running theme of the 10 things learned features this year as a result of his consistently strong performances, only once finishing outside the top five.
But at the scene of his maiden F1 podium in 2020, Norris reached another level in Austria. He ran Verstappen extremely close for pole position in qualifying, hooking his McLaren up almost perfectly in Q3 as he fell 0.048 seconds shy of P1. But from second, he was able to hold his own and keep the Mercedes back, lasting 20 laps before Hamilton finally got the better of him.
And Norris didn’t fade away. He kept Bottas honest after losing third while serving his penalty in the pits, meaning he could quickly capitalise when Hamilton hit trouble and began to slow. The two-second margin to Bottas at the end proved just how good the McLaren was in Austria.
It provided a wonderful taste of what F1’s future could be as well. Hamilton spoke highly of his former team McLaren after the race, welcoming another squad factoring at the front. With the new regulations coming in 2022 offering the chance for a more level playing field, it could increasingly become the norm as the years go on – particularly with Norris performing at such a high level.
5. Penalties put ‘let them race’ mantra in the spotlight
Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B , battles with Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21
Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images
Euro 2020 may have been dominating the back pages recently, but penalties proved to be a big talking point in F1 as well in Austria after a number of incidents.
Sergio Perez’s attempt to swing around Norris on the safety car restart – a move Norris pulled on the Red Bull driver one week earlier – led to drama as neither driver backed out. Norris squeezed Perez, leaving the Mexican with no choice but to drive into the gravel and costing him several places.
The stewards took 20 laps to deem that Norris had forced Perez off, prompting a puzzled response from the McLaren driver. He called Perez’s move “stupid” after the race.
The tables turned for Perez later on as he was hit with two five-second penalties for the same offence, both committed against Charles Leclerc while defending fifth place. Given how aggrieved he was by Norris’s move, Perez really didn’t have a leg to stand on and didn’t protest at all post-race.
But it has all brought the subject of penalties and the approach to racing back into the spotlight. Red Bull team boss Christian Horner felt the penalty against Norris was harsh, saying: “It does slightly go against the ‘let them race’ mantra that we’ve been championing in recent years.”
And it’s true. Ultimately, if a driver tries a move on the outside, they know the consequences. And had there been run-off at those corners and not a white line, it’s unlikely the stewards would have looked into it. The rulebook may say that drivers must leave a car’s width, but it’s highly subjective as to what is defined as being alongside another car to bring that rule into play.
Norris would likely have finished second without the penalty, only increasing his sense of injustice. But it’s bound to be something that is discussed at the next drivers’ briefing at Silverstone.
6. The FIA needs to intervene after qualifying chaos
Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images
The ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between F1 drivers again proved to be non-existent as a chaotic qualifying session sparked fury from Fernando Alonso at the end of Q2.
Michael Masi had looked to cover off any shenanigans through Turns 9 and 10 with drivers slowing to begin a flying lap, writing in the event notes that drivers had to carry speed through both corners and complete their preparations at Turn 8. We even heard Mercedes team manager Ron Meadows come on the radio at the start of Q1 to emphasise that the rule would be enforced.
But to quote Sebastian Vettel, “carnage” unfolded as Q2 reached its climax. As drivers slowed to prepare their final laps, others jumped the queue and slowed through the final two corners. The biggest loser was Alonso, who was on a hot lap that had to be abandoned at the very last corner due to the slow-moving Vettel, who landed a three-place grid penalty as a result.
Vettel wasn’t really to blame. Alonso said that if he was penalised, then the rest of the cars in the train also had to be sanctioned to make up for him qualifying down in 14th, believing a top-five grid slot was within reach.
Masi said after the race that the gentleman’s agreement was something for the drivers to discuss, but Alonso called for the FIA to intervene more. He pointed out that in Baku, to avoid a similar situation in the final sector, a delta time is in place to ensure drivers do not go too slowly on their preparation laps.
It may be something worth implementing for Austria, particularly on such a short lap. It’s unlikely this will be such an issue at Silverstone next time out, but again, it’ll surely be discussed – and is something that could really do with some FIA intervention.
7. Russell proved his quality against the very best
George Russell, Williams FW43B, Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21, and Kimi Raikkonen, Alfa Romeo Racing C41
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
It may have been another week of heartbreak for Williams as George Russell came agonisingly close to a breakthrough point with the team, but he again proved himself against some of the best of the grid.
Buoyed by his qualifying efforts from one week earlier, Russell finally made it through to Q3 for Williams after a stellar effort in the second part of qualifying. He went too fast(!) on his first set of softs, but still managed to better his time on the mediums to make it through on the favoured strategy, outpacing both Ferraris on the same compound.
Russell lost ground at the start after avoiding Yuki Tsunoda, but managed to keep in the hunt for points until the closing stages, boiling down to a late tussle with Alonso – one of Russell’s biggest advocates.
The speed advantage of the Alpine meant it was inevitable Alonso would get through, but Russell didn’t make it easy. He defended superbly at Turn 4 on a number of occasions, placing his car perfectly. Alonso had to fight to get ahead, ultimately getting through with five laps to go.
The smile on Alonso’s face when asked by Autosport after the race about the fight said it all. He loved going toe-to-toe with Russell, particularly in a fight like that.
“I’ve been in F1 for three years now, but that was the first time I’ve really battled with anybody,” Russell said after the race. Frankly, you wouldn’t have known, so good was his wheel-to-wheel conduct.
It may not have been a points-scoring drive, but it left little to be improved on, surely impressing the top dogs at Mercedes.
8. Raikkonen’s crash with Vettel was amateur stuff
Kimi Raikkonen, Alfa Romeo Racing C41
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images
After another Q1 elimination in Austria, Kimi Raikkonen again looked to repeat his rise up the order from one week earlier by starting on the hards and going deep for a one-stop strategy.
It had taken him all the way up to 11th in the Styrian Grand Prix, and looked like it would do so again for the Austrian Grand Prix as he bore down on Russell in the closing stages.
But it ended in a clumsy crash with ex-Ferrari team-mate Vettel, who was able to nab 12th at Turn 4 before the two cars came together at the exit of Turn 5. Vettel called it a “misunderstanding” after the race, while Raikkonen described it as “not ideal”.
The stewards rightly handed Raikkonen a 20-second time penalty for the crash, which was something a grand prix veteran of two decades should not really be causing. Vettel was clearly ahead and left plenty of room, only for Raikkonen to try and close the door far, far too late.
It may not have cost Alfa Romeo any points, but it was an amateurish error from the Finn.
9. Progress is being made for F1’s next generation of engines
Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR21, Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12, and Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
An important summit took place on Saturday in Austria as F1’s major players – and a couple interested observers – met to discuss the next generation of power units, set to be introduced in 2025.
Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault and Red Bull – the last-mentioned becoming a power unit supplier next year – were joined at the meeting by Audi and Porsche, both of whom remain curious about the future direction of F1 amid momentum for possible VW Group involvement.
The noises coming out of the meeting were positive. Toto Wolff said there was “good alignment” between the manufacturers, while F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali confirmed that some kind of hybrid system is set to remain in place, along with a fresh focus on biofuels.
Red Bull – the only engine-maker at the table who is not a road car manufacturer – made its position clear before the meeting, calling for a “clean sheet” approach that it felt would also be good for interested parties.
The exit of Honda was a wake-up call for F1, proving that it needed to do what it could to make the series more appealing to interested manufacturers. There’s a long way to go, but the first steps from Saturday’s meeting seem positive.
10. Two more years of Lewis Hamilton is excellent news for F1
Toto Wolff, Team principal Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes
Photo by: Daimler AG
In a far cry from the dragged out story about Hamilton’s future last year, Mercedes announced on Saturday that the seven-time world champion had put pen to paper on a new deal running to the end of 2023.
It came as little surprise given the noises both Hamilton and Mercedes have been making this year. Hamilton revealed just one week earlier that talks were underway and progressing well, with Wolff later saying that it had been a “copy/paste” agreement from this year.
Hamilton spoke on Saturday about how invigorating the fight against Verstappen has been for him, and that when he wakes up each morning, he’s still thinking about racing, proving he still loves what he does and that there’s no reason to stop.
But it also means a lot for F1 as a whole, ensuring its biggest voice and strongest ambassador will remain on the grid for another two years. At a time when the series is becoming increasingly conscious of the world around it, making a commitment to important social topics such as increasing diversity and inclusivity, as well as environment considerations, ensuring Hamilton will keep spearheading that charge is big news.
“I want to be a part of helping the sport evolve, and to be as great as it can be,” Hamilton said. Regardless of his on-track success in the next two seasons – which there’ll surely be plenty of – it’s an important commitment for F1’s future.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Lando Norris, McLaren, and Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren, at the drivers parade
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images