A familiar face drives clear of feisty race: 2021 Austrian Grand Prix report

F1

Max Verstappen extended his championship lead further by winning the 2021 Austrian Grand Prix — well clear of the battle behind, as Lando Norris entered the podium fight

Max Verstappen celebrates victory at the 2021 Austrian Grand Prix

Joao Filipe / DPPI

Not much was the same about the back-to-back races in Austria, but Max Verstappen’s dominance was certainly one of them.

Softer tyre compounds and an extra weekend’s worth of data had raised hopes of a slightly closer battle than was seen a week ago, when Verstappen took pole position and disappeared into the distance.

But it was a copy and paste display on that front, only this time in front of a massive Dutch contingent in the first full crowd since the pandemic.

Behind him was very different, and at times it was controversial as a new contender joined the mix.

Lando Norris produced a stunning qualifying performance to line up second on the grid, giving McLaren its first front-row start since Brazil in 2012. But a week ago he was third and faded to fifth, opting against a fruitless fight with Sergio Perez and Valtteri Bottas in order to protect his final position ahead of the Ferraris.

This time, Norris was very much up for a fight.

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After a clean first lap at the front had ended under safety car due to Esteban Ocon’s stricken Alpine – the Frenchman unlucky to see his front right suspension damaged after being sandwiched between an Alfa Romeo and Haas – the race restarted at the end of lap three and Norris was under attack instantly.

From third, Perez was close to the McLaren and went to the outside into Turn Four, getting ahead before the braking zone but with Norris able to stay alongside to the apex. With the high ground, the McLaren took the racing line and as Perez tried to hang on around the outside he was forced into the gravel and dropped to tenth place.

The stewards handed Norris a five-second time penalty, much to his annoyance.

“It’s a restart, I expect Sergio knows there’s gravel on the exit of that corner, it’s downhill, easy to run wide and that’s just what happens,” Norris said. “If you watch Formula 2 or Formula 3 or any category, people who try and go round the outside there and don’t commit to it end up in the gravel. That’s just the way that corner runs.

“So he took the risk and not me. He didn’t commit to his overtake the way he should have done and he put himself in the gravel. So I don’t feel like it was my mistake, but I don’t make the penalties.”

Sergio Perez, Lando Norris 2021 Austrian GP

Norris was handed a five-second time penalty for forcing Perez off the track at Turn Four

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For what it’s worth, Christian Horner also felt it was a racing incident before the penalty was handed out, leaving Perez with a recovery drive to take on. Verstappen, meanwhile, was serenely pulling away as Norris held off Hamilton.

“I just had to be awake at the start, that I had a little bit of a gap,” Verstappen said. “I knew that if I could go past lap one, or the restart, I could do my own race, but you always have to do that first.”

Unlike a week ago, Norris fought hard and kept Hamilton at bay for 20 laps, only dropping to third when his penalty was announced. The battle prompted Hamilton to say on team radio after his overtake: “Such a great driver, Lando.”

But Hamilton’s luck was soon to change. While Norris and Bottas stopped on the same lap and the Finn emerged ahead due to Norris taking his penalty, Hamilton quickly picked up damage after his own stop and his hopes of limiting the damage to Verstappen took a hit.

“I lost a lot of downforce on the rear,” Hamilton said. “I just felt like I’d gone down a couple of steps on the rear wing … I wasn’t going over the kerbs anymore than anyone else so I have no idea where it happened. There was a lot of damage.

“I would have been second. I was in second when all of a sudden it obviously broke. It would have been an easy second generally but obviously not able to catch those guys ahead.”

Lewis Hamilton battles with Lando Norris at the 2021 Austrian Grand Prix

Hamilton was complimentary of Norris after passing him; he’d soon be back behind the McLaren

Florent Gooden / DPPI

Norris kept Bottas honest and the pair both reeled Hamilton in, so after a brief call from Mercedes to hold station, the decision was made to switch the cars. Hamilton was powerless to hold off Norris who then swept by into Turn Six, so he took a second stop for fresh tyres as he wasn’t under threat from behind.

That was because Perez had struggled to make progress and was held up trying to pass Daniel Ricciardo, who was enjoying a strong race. The fight allowed Charles Leclerc to close in, and Leclerc attempted to pass Perez around the outside of Turn Four in a carbon copy of the move Perez had tried on Norris. The outcome was the same too, as Leclerc ended up in the gravel and the Mexican got a five-second time penalty.

“I’m very sorry, because that’s not the way I like to race,” Perez said. “I’m not the kind of driver that races that way, but I was on very dirty air, on very hot tyres, very hot brakes. We were just trying to brake as late as possible – I haven’t seen the incidents, but I’m very sorry if I affected his race, because Charles is a driver that fights hard, but always on the limit, so I am the same and I’m not happy with myself for that.”

Perez references two incidents because a few laps later Leclerc tried the outside line at Turn Six, and a snap of oversteer from the Red Bull saw the Ferrari forced wide again. The result? You’ve guess it, another five-second penalty for Perez.

Charles Leclerc, 2021 Austrian GP

Leclerc went off the track battling Perez and the Red Bull driver was handed his own five-second penalty

Clive Mason/F1 via Getty Images

That opened the midfield battle up, because even though Perez did clear Ricciardo he needed to pull out a ten-second advantage to those behind who were all still fighting each other.

Leclerc attacked Ricciardo for a number of laps but couldn’t find a way through, so Carlos Sainz – running the alternate strategy of a mammoth 48-lap opening stint on hard tyres before a late stop for mediums – was allowed through and duly cleared the McLaren. Sainz also managed to hold the gap Perez to secure fifth at the flag by just 0.7sec.

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“It was a bit of a bold choice you know to start on the hard especially feeling the grip in the formation lap and lap one,” Sainz said. “I was like ‘Woah I’m really going to struggle versus the medium and the soft runners here’. But somehow I managed to keep it together, stay patient and did a very long stint on the hards, I think it was 50 laps and attack at the end which was super fun and we managed to put together a very strong P5 finish so very happy.”

Most drivers one-stopped, with Pierre Gasly catching the back of the Sainz/Ricciardo/Leclerc battle after a two-stop mandated by his need to start on softs. That was a solid recovery given the fact George Russell predicted the AlphaTauri would really struggle in the opening part of the race, but sadly for the Williams driver it was he who struggled late on.

Fernando Alonso closed him down in a much quicker Alpine and the pair fought hard for the final point, with the double world champion coming out on top four laps from the end to deny Russell a first point for Williams.

“It was very intense,” Alonso said. “Unfortunately only for one point but it felt like it was the last lap of the championship for us, because one point is gold for him and for ourselves as well after starting 14th. It was nice.”

George Russell and Fernando Alonso battle at the 2021 Austrian Grand Prix

Not here to make up the numbers but Russell and Alonso found themselves dicing for 10th

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For a spell it looked like that might not have been for the final point, as Sainz, Perez, Ricciardo, Leclerc and Gasly were all investigated for failing to respect double-waved yellow flags. The flags were out for a strange collision between Kimi Räikkönen and Sebastian Vettel on the final lap, the Finn allowing his right front to tangle with Vettel’s left rear as the Aston Martin overtook him out of Turn Four, but in the end all of the point-scorers were cleared, and Russell’s wait goes on.

“In a way when I saw that it was George I felt a little bit sad that the battle had to be with him,” Alonso added. “But I think he will have the opportunity to step on podiums and fight for race wins in the future if he goes to Mercedes, so it’s going to be different times for him.”

These are different times for Verstappen, too. He started from pole, led every lap, and even had the luxury of a second stop 11 laps from the end to set the fastest lap. It was the complete display of dominance and with Hamilton limited to fourth his championship lead is extended to 32 points.

That’s not an insurmountable total, but the run of five straight Red Bull wins – and three in 15 days for Verstappen – suggests it could well get bigger.