Max Verstappen overcame a poor start to storm to the sixth victory of his career and end Mercedes’ record unbeaten start to the season when he triumphed in Sunday’s thrilling Austrian Grand Prix.
The 21-year-old Dutchman, who won last year’s race at the Spielberg circuit, recovered after dropping to seventh and charged through to battle past Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc in stirring fashion with two laps remaining.
His dramatic overtaking move was immediately announced as under investigation by the stewards, Leclerc feeling that he was given insufficient space as Verstappen forced him wide off the circuit.
Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas came home third ahead of Sebastian Vettel in the second Ferrari and defending five-time champion Lewis Hamilton in the second Mercedes, the series leader having suffered front wing and heating problems.
British rookie Lando Norris was an excellent sixth for McLaren ahead of Pierre Gasly in the second Red Bull, Carlos Sainz who finished eighth in the second McLaren after starting from the back of the grid, Kimi Raikkonen and his Alfa Romeo team-mate Antionio Giovinazzi.
“After that start, I thought my race was over,” said Verstappen. “But after the pit-stops we were flying. It was hard racing – and if that’s not allowed, what’s the point in racing in F1. We may as well go home.”
His victory brought Red Bull’s engine supplier Honda their first win since the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix after returning to Formula One.
Leclerc said: “I had more degradation than I thought at the end – we touched and I had to go wide and I didn’t have a chance to fight back.”
The race, which was a perfect antidote for the sport after the previous week’s dreary procession in France, began in sweltering conditions with an air temperature of 35 degrees and the track at 58, Leclerc making a smooth start from his second pole position to lead into the newly-named Lauda Curve.
– ‘Game on’ –
Behind him, Verstappen – the other 21-year-old in the youngest front row in F1 history – was bogged down by his anti-stall and dropped to seventh as Bottas and the rest took advantage.
By lap 15, Leclerc led by 3.6sec ahead of Bottas, Hamilton, Vettel and Verstappen with Norris taking sixth ahead of Raikkonen.
Both Ferraris traded fastest laps while the Mercedes men fought to preserve their tyres before Bottas and Vettel dived into the pits on lap 22, followed immediately by Leclerc.
All switched to ‘hards’ in the pits, suggesting they hoped to drive to the flag while Hamilton continued on his original mediums. “Tyres are still good,” he told the team after clocking a fastest lap.
Soon after this, he reported front wing problems were costing him down-force and time. After 30 laps, he pitted for tyres and a new wing, in 11 seconds, re-joining fifth behind Vettel.
Verstappen led briefly, but also pitted, gifting Leclerc with the initiative again ahead of Bottas and Vettel. The Dutchman rejoined fourth with Hamilton fifth.
The champion, 13 seconds adrift in fifth, appeared unimpressed, especially by further instructions to lift and coast 400 metres before major curves to aid cooling.
With Hamilton out of serious contention, it was Verstappen who supplied the thrills as he surged past Vettel, and then, on lap 56 and to the delight of the ‘orange army’ baking in open grandstands, dived past Bottas at Turn Three.
For the Dutchman, it was ‘game on’ with 12 laps to go as he set after Leclerc with a fastest lap to trim the gap to 4.8 seconds. Within three laps, it was 3.7. “Blistering pace, Max, keep it up,” said Red Bull.
With five laps to go, it was down to less than a second. “Leave me alone,” said Leclerc as he saw Verstappen in his mirrors, knowing what lay ahead.
The Red Bull man made his first attack on lap 68, at Turn Three, but Leclerc resisted. One lap later, Verstappen made it stick as he swept inside him and pushed the Ferrari wide before racing to the flag.
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