They can’t all be classics, but that doesn’t mean they can’t also be particularly significant, and Sunday’s first race in Austria might just prove to be one of the most significant of the 2021 season.
It’s not that it will be worth more points or that anyone will look back and rue a missed opportunity – well, not among the frontrunners anyway – but the Styrian Grand Prix was a textbook Mercedes race where the leader pulled away with ease, the second car scrapped for the final podium position and the main rival ended up too far adrift so rescued an extra point for fastest lap having not really been in the race for victory.
So often we have seen Red Bull threaten in recent years but not be quite close enough to push Hamilton hard. Verstappen has been able to secure second or third on a grid, get himself into second but Hamilton has had everything under control and Verstappen has settled for a solid P2. But this year is different, and the pendulum is swinging ever further in Red Bull’s direction.
Verstappen looked the quickest driver throughout the weekend, and duly delivered pole position with a pretty stunning lap on Saturday, as both of his Q3 runs proved good enough to beat the rest of the field. Hamilton was satisfied to start from second after a qualifying session in which he wasn’t fully comfortable, but lining up alongside Verstappen on the grid was as close to the Dutchman as he would get.
“Of course, important to have a good start, but then I think that first stint was all about managing the tyres a bit,” Verstappen said. “I could see that the pace was quite strong while looking after the tyres. It has sometimes been a bit different in previous races, we worked quite hard to make that better. Today that was very good.”
Very good is perhaps an understatement. Verstappen instantly got clear of DRS range from Hamilton, then edged further away from him as the stint went on to ensure he wasn’t at threat from the undercut either.
Hamilton slotted into second place while it appeared Sergio Perez had secured third from Lando Norris through the opening few corners, but Norris hit back to stay ahead out of Turn Four. Valtteri Bottas had a watching brief in fifth, but there was no threat from behind him after first lap drama for the leading midfield runners.
After going three-wide through Turn One, Fernando Alonso, Pierre Gasly and Charles Leclerc remained in a row on the run to Turn Three. With Alonso on his right, Gasly moved left thinking he was clear of the Ferrari but clipped Leclerc’s front wing, breaking it and giving himself a puncture that would prove terminal.
“There was contact and it completely punctured my rear tyre,” Gasly said. “So I ended up on three wheels, even on two wheels at some point, so definitively not what we wanted and a big shame. We had an amazing weekend until now, so I’m really disappointed not to be able to fight for points and especially to score points, because we had a great package this weekend.”
Leclerc also had to pit for a new front wing, and suddenly Lance Stroll found himself in sixth ahead of Alonso and a certain George Russell, who had started on medium tyres and was now brilliantly placed to score his first points for Williams.
But just as those tyres started to come into their own and Russell put pressure on Alonso, his team told him: “We need to convert to Plan B for reliability, so let’s pick up the pace.”
When Russell came in for his first pit stop, he was stationary for 18 seconds while the air was topped up, but a power unit problem couldn’t be overcome and he retired after another, further service.
“I’m just gutted for the team to be honest, they’ve worked so hard to be in this position over the last three years, chasing these points,” Russell said. “We never really knew when they would come and we knew we would have to have a perfect weekend. We were such a great position, P8 on the medium tire, we would have been able to pounce at the end.
“I think P7 was probably possible, ahead of Alonso. Four or six points is massive, probably the difference between P8 and P10 in the championship.
“I was obviously on the mediums compared to the guys ahead on the softs. I was driving my heart out, driving as fast as I could to keep behind a Ferrari, AlphaTauri, McLaren. We’re not normally in this position, we need to be proud of the job we did. Racing is just brutal.”
As Russell’s race was over, so too was the main fight at the front. Verstappen kept edging away so that when Hamilton made his first stop, the Dutchman could pit a lap later and still emerge with a healthy lead.
There was slight jeopardy with the Verstappen stop given the fact Perez – who cleared Norris on lap 10 but was well adrift of the top two by that stage – had a slow left rear and spent nearly five seconds in his pit box. That dropped Perez behind Bottas, and provided a closer fight than Verstappen and Hamilton were having.
With almost the whole field switching to hard tyres on a one-stop strategy, Perez got back within two seconds but struggled to attack, so opted for a second stop for mediums and chased down Bottas, getting within half a second on the final lap but ultimately falling short.
“It was actually quite a short time [of pressure], because I was pretty clear from him until the last lap,” Bottas said. “I could see him in the mirrors, starting the last lap he was 1.5sec behind, but at the end of the lap he was just half a second behind. But you cannot overtake here in Sectors 2 and 3, so once I got clear of Sector 1 without any mistakes, with the poor tyres I had, then I kind of knew that I should get it.”
The race for the win had long since been decided, with Verstappen opening up a ten-second advantage as Hamilton complained he couldn’t keep up on the straights. A late stop for soft tyres at least allowed the defending champion to secure an extra point for the fastest lap, but he slipped 18 points adrift of Verstappen after a fourth straight Red Bull win.
“They were way too fast today for us,” Hamilton said. “I knew that we were going to be somewhat behind in single-lap pace and as I said there was around a quarter of a second difference per lap for the long runs. We gave everything we could today but they’ve obviously made some really good steps forward over these past few races, straight-line speed has picked up a lot so we don’t know whether it’s wing or whether it’s engine, but either way they were too fast today and Max did a great job.”
Norris finished fifth after judging his race to perfection, not defending too hard when Perez and Bottas closed in during the first stint in order to be able to delay his own pit stop. He needed it, as Carlos Sainz – starting on mediums from 12th – ran long and then emerged in seventh, clearing Stroll with ease and threatening to hunt down his former team-mate.
It was a strong drive from Sainz, but not as strong as Leclerc’s who managed to recover from his first-lap damage and early stop to climb through the field to seventh and ensure Ferrari outscored McLaren as Stroll, Alonso and Tsunoda rounded out the points.
Everyone will do it all again at the same time next week in Austria, and on today’s showing it’s hard to see Mercedes hitting back. Verstappen might just have become the firm favourite, and we haven’t been able to say that about a non-Mercedes driver in the hybrid era.