The first race of Formula 1’s Austria double-header may not have quite hit the heights of last year’s thriller, but it offered up a very different result.
It was a weekend that saw Mercedes soundly beaten – perhaps in the most comprehensive fashion since the start of the V6 hybrid era – by Max Verstappen and face serious questions about its ability to stop the current Red Bull juggernaut.
Here are 10 things we learned from the 2021 Styrian Grand Prix.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 1st position, with his trophy
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
1. Verstappen and Red Bull look very hard to beat now
Four wins on the bounce has proven Red Bull’s street circuit performances in Monaco and Baku were not outliers, outclassing Mercedes on all fronts in Styria.
Verstappen looked strong throughout practice and delivered two laps good enough for pole on Saturday. Once he broke out of DRS range in the opening stages, he could simply manage things from the front, taking a fuss-free victory with a huge gap over the field.
“The car was super nice to drive, which is not always the case like that,” Verstappen said. “But today I was really enjoying it. Just the balance of the car, I think it was the best so far this season.”
It’s a worrying sign for Mercedes. Red Bull had it soundly beaten on both outright pace and, for the first time, tyre management. Unlike Spain, where Red Bull seemed to have the faster car but couldn’t keep its tyres alive to the end of each stint, it was Mercedes who struggled this time around.
With no further development work set to be completed on the W12 car, Mercedes is dealing with an ever-growing gap to Red Bull, who edged away in Austria. Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin revealed after the race it had pursued a “wacky” set-up direction that it needs to investigate. But if that does not yield a breakthrough, Mercedes may not have much more it can answer back with.
We heard as much on the radio when Lewis Hamilton asked engineer Pete Bonnington what he could do to try and beat Verstappen, only to be told just to go to the end. Mercedes had no tricks up its sleeve: no alternate strategy, no two-on-one fight, no superior tyre management, nor superior straightline speed.
There may be two-thirds of the season still to run, but if Mercedes can’t find a way to strike back soon, the momentum Verstappen and Red Bull are building may become unstoppable.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2nd position, in Parc Ferme
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
2. Mercedes is playing the long game with halt on development
Lewis Hamilton said in the immediate aftermath of his defeat to Verstappen that Mercedes “need an upgrade of some sort” after finding it “impossible” to keep up at the front.
But team boss Toto Wolff had bad news for Lewis, revealing Mercedes has “stopped developing for this year, because we believe the next years are so important to get it right”.
With Red Bull seemingly going longer than Mercedes in focusing on its 2021 car and the performance gap growing at the front, it doesn’t breed much confidence of a fightback by the reigning champion team.
Mercedes is playing the long game, though. Wolff explained that even if it were to pull resources back onto this year’s car, “the upgrades you bring wouldn’t close the aerodynamic deficit of the magnitude that these new aero regulations cost us”.
“They will stop aero development at a certain stage because it would be dangerous for next year’s championship, to lose out in next year’s championship. So the fight is still full on.”
It is a typical show of big picture thinking from Mercedes. It may find itself in a hole right now, but it is not hitting the panic button or tearing up its blueprints just to try and fight back. If it loses this year’s title but creates the same kind of dynasty it has in the past seven years under the 2022 regulations, it will be entirely the right decision – as tough as that may be to stomach right now.
McLaren pit crew members attempt to assist Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12, in the pit lane
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
3. Bottas did well to beat Perez – but his penalty was fair
Valtteri Bottas continued to further his reputation as something of a Red Bull Ring specialist on Sunday, fighting back from a grid penalty to score his first podium finish in four races.
Bottas qualified second on Saturday before dropping to fifth as punishment for his pitlane spin in FP2, and by the time both he and Sergio Perez were able to clear Lando Norris for third, the leading duo of Verstappen and Hamilton were already 11 seconds up the road.
Bottas did well to reel Perez back in towards the end of the first stint, considering the tyre advantage Red Bull held, and was able to get the jump after Mercedes brought his first stop forward to capitalise on a slow service for Perez one lap earlier.
It left Bottas to stretch his hard tyres out to the finish and soak up late pressure from Perez, who had come in for a second time, but he held his nerve to score a well-earned podium. Had it not been for the penalty, there’s a good case that Bottas may actually have been the leading Mercedes in Austria, and he will want to factor in the fight at the front this coming Sunday.
But the complaints about the three-place grid drop being “harsh” from both Bottas and Wolff are wide of the mark. It was a dangerous situation that thankfully didn’t end with anyone hurt, and it would have been a concerning precedent to let it slide without any action being taken.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B
Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images
4. Intrigue over Red Bull’s straightline speed is not going away
For the second weekend in a row, Red Bull faced questions about its straightline speed after Lewis Hamilton made note of Mercedes’ inability to keep up.
The story had emerged at Paul Ricard after Honda introduced its second power unit of the season, with Red Bull appearing to take a big step forward in its straightline speed. Performance upgrades are not allowed, but Red Bull made clear that its gains were down to its smaller rear wing.
Red Bull again looked strong on the straights in qualifying on Saturday, leading to another question being asked to Max Verstappen about the gains. He hit back saying he wanted to “print out” proof the rear wing had led to the gains, citing his boredom over the questions about the engine.
Toto Wolff said that he found Red Bull’s reaction to the questions curious. “I wonder why that is such a topic, when we all know that the power units need to be homologated,” Wolff said. “I’m really surprised that the Red Bull guys keep protesting so loudly on the power unit story. So that is a bit weird.”
But Christian Horner again highlighted the difference in the rear wing specifications being run by Red Bull and Mercedes. “They’ve got a barn door on the back of their car for this race, and we had a pretty skinny rear wing,” Horner said. “So you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to work out why we tend to be a bit quicker on the straights.”
An edge on straightline speed is another big part of Mercedes’ armoury that has served it so well through the V6 hybrid era that has been removed in this title fight. Red Bull has worked well to optimise the package so they can run a lower downforce set-up without compromising the car in the corners, giving it a key edge. If the reliability improvements on the engine have helped unlock a bit more performance, then it only puts Mercedes even further on the back foot.
Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images
5. “Lonely” Lando produced one of the moves of the year
Lando Norris again starred at the front of the midfield in Styria, taking fourth place in qualifying with a brilliant lap that was just half a tenth off a front row spot after Bottas’s penalty.
He always faced an uphill struggle to keep Bottas and Perez back, and it literally was on the run up to Turn 3 as Perez passed on the outside to grab third away. It seemed certain that Bottas would follow suit soon after.
But Norris then produced one of the moves of the season so far. Heading into Turn 4, he kept his McLaren MCL35M out wide, and swung around the outside of Perez before getting a better exit to wrestle back the position.
It was a move that had big implications on the fight at the front. Norris then kept Perez and Bottas back for 11 laps, and by the time both made passes on consecutive laps into Turn 3, Verstappen and Hamilton were already 11 seconds up the road.
It also helped Norris create enough of a gap to get him a comfortable P5 at the finish, marking his seventh top-five finish in the eight races this year. He may have called the race “lonely”, and there may not have been any late drama unlike his two performances in Austria last year, but it was still a superb drive.
Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari, and Charles Leclerc, Ferrari
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
6. Ferrari can take positives from how it turned the weekend around
Following a miserable race at Paul Ricard, Ferrari was staring down the barrel of its second straight race without points as neither of its drivers ran inside the top 10 after the opening lap.
Charles Leclerc had been forced to pit with front wing damage after a clash with Pierre Gasly from seventh on the grid, while Carlos Sainz Jr sat 11th after only gaining one place in the opening stages following his tricky qualifying.
But Ferrari turned things around well. The SF21 has seemed happier on the harder compounds this year, and we saw that in full effect in Austria. Leclerc managed to battle his way up the order on what was effectively a two-stop strategy, making some nice passes en route to seventh.
Sainz’s fightback was less action-packed but equally as impressive. A long first stint on mediums allowed him to overcut Yuki Tsunoda and Fernando Alonso before going on a late charge on fresh hards. He picked off Lance Stroll with ease, and reckons he could have caught Norris for fifth had he not been so hesitant in taking a lap back from the struggling Lewis Hamilton.
Ferrari’s midfield rivals weren’t surprised by the fightback given the pace of the car, but it does produce another question mark for the team. Typically it has been stronger on Saturdays than Sundays, but Styria saw that flip around. “It’s weird that we’re stronger in the race than in qualy,” Sainz said. “It’s normally not that way.”
It may leave Ferrari with more homework to do, but after its difficult Saturday, to have taken four points out of McLaren’s advantage in the constructors’ championship is a good return.
George Russell, Williams
Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images
7. Russell will get more chances at points after his Styria heartbreak
Poor George Russell. What can the man do to get a break and a result befitting his outstanding performances?
Williams focused heavily on race pace through practice on Friday, making Russell’s run to 11th in qualifying – just 0.008s off a Q3 berth – all the more impressive. He moved up to P10 on the grid thanks to Tsunoda’s penalty, and then ran eighth thanks to the Gasly/Leclerc clash on the opening lap.
Russell quickly showed he had the pace to keep up with the other midfield runners, even gaining on Fernando Alonso for seventh as his advantage on the mediums began to pay off. But the race then unravelled as he lost pneumatic pressure, forcing two long pitstops before the car was ultimately retired.
It would have been a monumental result for Williams. Russell reckons he could have finished seventh, but given the Ferraris would likely have overhauled him, eighth or ninth is perhaps more realistic. Even so, P9 would have been enough to lift Williams not only above Haas in the constructors’ championship, but also above Alfa Romeo in eighth.
We know how good George Russell is. These points would mean a lot to him, of course, but they would arguably mean even more to Williams.
But the good news is that this is unlikely to be a one-off. Russell has been on the fringes of the top 10 a lot this year. If the team can hone the approach that paid off so well in Austria – perhaps as early as this week with the second Red Bull Ring race – then more chances will come by. With a little more luck, Russell will finally break his duck for the British team.
Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri AT02
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images
8. Tsunoda’s change in approach is already paying off
Yuki Tsunoda was feeling the heat a little bit heading into the Styria race weekend.
Having been moved from England to Italy so he could stick to a more rigorous training programme and be more focused with his AlphaTauri team, back-to-back qualifying crashes led to a phone call with Helmut Marko that made clear he needed to up his game.
And Tsunoda delivered. A change in approach to qualifying paid off handsomely as he matched his best Saturday result of the reason, taking eighth in Q3 before a three-place grid drop sent him back to 11th.
The gaggle of midfield cars were hard to clear, and the Ferraris were always going to jump Tsunoda. But he spent the closing stages tailing Fernando Alonso en route to a point for 10th place, which was a good return for AlphaTauri after Pierre Gasly’s first-lap retirement.
Bar the Q3 mix-up with Bottas that led to the grid drop, Tsunoda didn’t put a foot wrong in Styria – which is exactly what AlphaTauri wanted.
“Franz gave me definitely pressure before this week,” Tsunoda revealed. “He said: ‘Try to have no mistakes this week.’ I achieved this one. So, I think he’s happy. But I think there was another way to make him even more happy [by scoring more points]. So I’ll just try to make him happy even more next week.”
Baby steps, but good progress all the same for young Yuki.
Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B , in the pits
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
9. Teams are getting tired of F1’s governance by technical directive
After flexi-wings and tyre pressures came into the spotlight at recent races, Styria saw pitstops become the latest area the FIA was looking to clampdown on through a technical directive.
The FIA informed teams that they would be looking to slow the stops down on safety grounds, removing some of the automated systems that teams are using to speed up their processes.
It was a move that split opinion. Red Bull F1 chief Christian Horner called it “disappointing” and questioned whether it would actually make things safer – bear in mind his team is routinely quickest in the pits – but McLaren welcomed the decision, believing it to be a good step.
But the greater frustration from teams was not over the decision itself, but the fact that yet another rule change had been enacted mid-season via a technical directive.
Ferrari sporting director Laurent Mekies asked why the FIA could not sit down with teams to discuss the rule changes, while Alfa Romeo boss Frederic Vasseur was more forthright in his annoyance.
“To manage the F1 by TD-ing the course of the season, I think it’s not the right way to do it,” Vasseur said. “Pitstops didn’t change compared to last year, and if they have to change something, it could have been done last winter.
“It’s not the right way to do it, that now we have more TDs than press releases on the Monday morning. The next topic will be the front wing deflection. We have to speak about this.”
Michael Masi said the more frequent use of technical directives this year was due to “what’s going on with the competitive order on track”, and denied it was a governance mechanism. “Everyone always wants more clarity in certain areas, so hence the number of them with everything that’s going on,” he said.
It is certainly keeping teams on their toes at the moment. All eyes will now be on the possible front wing clampdown in the upcoming races.
Nikita Mazepin, Haas VF-21, in the gravel
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
10. Haas is embracing the ‘Mazespin’ meme
Nikita Mazepin’s arrival in Formula 1 was met with an unprecedented fan backlash on social media following his actions last December in a video that surfaced online.
Mazepin apologised and vowed to prove himself with his on-track performances this year, only for a number of spins to lead to the nickname ‘Mazespin’ in some corners of the internet.
The jokes returned after qualifying on Saturday in Styria, when he spun at Turn 4 during Q1 – but this time Haas took the initiative and decided to make light of the whole situation.
In a video posted online ahead of the race, Haas team principal Gunther Steiner was shown presenting Mazepin with a special present: a personalised spinning top.
“Here’s a little present for you, so you can keep on ‘Mazespinning’,” said Steiner as he handed Mazepin a box. “It’s a Mazespin.”
“That’s here!” Mazepin said, pointing at himself and laughing.
“There are two of them now,” replied Steiner. “It’s the Mazespin game. You spin this one: it is better than spinning the car!”
Steiner has spoken before about Mazepin’s rookie season errors, often making light of them. It’s nice to see Haas embracing the meme, showing that sometimes, it’s good to make fun of yourself and not take things too seriously.