Had it not been for a Pirelli tyre failure at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix earlier this month, Max Verstappen would have won four races in a row and would be leading the championship by at least 25 points.
His performances since a stinging defeat at the Spanish Grand Prix in early May have been sublime — to the point that seven-time Lewis Hamilton appears to be running out of answers.
Sunday’s victory at the Styrian Grand Prix was no different.
It’s easy to underestimate the quality of a drive like Verstappen’s at the Red Bull Ring, but compare his performance to teammate Sergio Perez’s, 47 seconds behind in fourth place, and you start to build a picture.
Every time Hamilton pushed him, Verstappen had an answer, and even when his brake pedal went to the floor on two occasions between Turns 9 and 10, he kept his cool and kept the car on track.
The 2021 season is increasingly looking like Verstappen’s to lose, and he is already the clear favourite to win next weekend when F1 returns for a second race at the Red Bull Ring. Yet the Dutchman is taking nothing for granted.
“We do have a very good package but I want to see it every single weekend, because every track is different,” he said. “It’s still about finding the perfect setup on the car because it can be quite sensitive in some areas to make it work.
“It’s never good enough, so I always want to try and improve every single weekend. Even a weekend like this, it looks amazing, we won by a big margin, but it’s never good enough.
“So we just look into the details, what we can do better and when we go to other tracks again, I don’t expect it to be like today.
“We have to just keep being very focused in what we have to do. So far I’m very happy with how it’s been going, but like I said, it’s never good enough.”
Hamilton calls on Mercedes to deliver upgrades that won’t come
It’s rare Lewis Hamilton is told over team radio that there is no way for him to win a race from second on the road, but that’s the message he received from his race engineer Peter Bonnington on lap 57 of the Styrian Grand Prix.
By that point of the afternoon, he was eight seconds adrift of race leader Max Verstappen, who was extending the gap at the front lap after lap with relative ease.
At the Red Bull-owned circuit, the Red Bull car was at least 0.2s per lap faster than Hamilton’s Mercedes, and Verstappen is a driver with more than enough talent to convert that sort of advantage into a comfortable victory.
After stepping out of his car under the podium, Hamilton could only draw one conclusion.
“Naturally they are just faster than us,” he said. “There’s not a lot I can do in that respect.
“I’ve just got to keep trying to do the best job I can each weekend.”
The last time Mercedes was clearly quicker than Red Bull at a race this season was at the Spanish Grand Prix in early May. Since then, Hamilton has struggled in Monaco, missed out on a potential victory in Baku and finished second in a close fought battle with Verstappen in France.
But in many ways, Austria was a more difficult defeat to accept than the others. Excuses could be made due to the unusual layout of the street circuits of Monaco and Baku, while France genuinely could have gone either way, but in Austria, on a high-speed circuit that Mercedes won twice at in 2020, Verstappen was just quicker.
“We really need to find some performance,” Hamilton added. “We need an upgrade of some sort, we need to push. I don’t whether it’s just the rear wing, or it’s the upgrade in the engine, or whatever it may be.
“But we’ve got to find some performance from somewhere.”
Hamilton’s observations are not news to Mercedes. The team has been tracking the progress of its main rival at recent rounds as well as the number of vans arriving with new parts for the Red Bull (five this weekend by the count of one Mercedes engineer) and, as a result, Verstappen’s performance in Austria was not a huge surprise for the world champions.
Yet Hamilton’s calls for the team to dig deeper and bring upgrades to the car are likely to go unanswered. Mercedes has already decided to switch its development focus to next year’s regulation overhaul at the cost of further developments on this year’s car.
Wolff made that clear on Saturday evening after qualifying, and despite the Red Bull rubbing salt in Mercedes’ wounds on Sunday, he did not change his tune in the aftermath of the race.
“It is a very tricky decision because we are not only having new regulations for next year but also the years to come with a completely different car concept,” Wolff said. “You’ve got to choose the right balance and pretty much everybody is going to be working on next year’s car.
“I mean, Red Bull has brought vans on Thursday and Friday with new parts, and fair enough it’s a strategy and one that appears to be successful as it stands because today they were simply in a league of their own, car pace wise.
“But the championship is not only won by adding aerodynamic parts, because at a certain stage even the ones like Red Bull, who still keep adding parts, need to switch all the development into next year. That means all the exploitation of the car is around setup work and the tyres, and the optimisation of how we are running will become a very important part.
“It would make no sense to put a week or two of development back on the current car, because the gains wouldn’t be anywhere near what they are for the 2022 car.
“Having said that, this is far from over. We had a very difficult weekend here in Austria, with no weapons in our armoury to win this race fair and straight, but will be winning races in this season and we will be taking pole positions and we will be fighting as much as we can for every single result.”
Even if Mercedes did switch its development back to its 2021 car, there is no way it would be able to reverse the gap Hamilton experienced to Verstappen in time for next week’s Austrian Grand Prix at the same circuit. Instead, Mercedes must minimise the damage to its championship chances during these two weeks in Austria and look to fight back at its home circuit at Silverstone in three weeks’ time.
Norris superb, Ricciardo unlucky
It was once again a tale of two McLarens in the race.
As has become a weekly occurrence, Lando Norris was superb once again and it speaks volumes that he did not look out of place running third early in the race ahead of the much faster cars of Sergio Perez and Valtteri Bottas. Norris’ 2021 form has readjusted what we expect of him every week.
He eventually dropped behind Perez and Bottas but said he had been pleased to mix it with the grid’s two benchmark cars early in the race.
Asked if it had been fun running among the podium positions, he said: “Yes it is. A bit of the fun comes from knowing that I’m in a worse car and I’m ahead of them.
Daniel Ricciardo appeared to have turned a corner at the French Grand Prix, running strongly and finishing sixth. The Australian driver said he wanted to continue that positive momentum through the final two parts of the triple header.
That has not been the case this weekend, as he qualified and finished outside the top ten. With Ferrari, McLaren’s closest rivals in the fight for best of the rest, finishing sixth and seventh through Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc, Norris’ fifth-placed finish seemed even more important.
While Ricciardo did legitimately struggle for pace on Friday and Sunday, the start of the grand prix suggested he had come ready for the fight. He moved from 13th to 9th in the early stages, on the medium tyre, and looked on course to be one of the drivers who made good gains later in the race.
That was undone by a sudden, relatively brief, loss of power in his McLaren. Ricciardo and the team were able to troubleshoot the issue and fix it fairly quickly, but by this point Ricciardo had dropped to 15th.
“Such an unlucky race,” was Ricciardo’s assessment. “Awesome start, awesome first lap. Put ourselves in such a strong position compared to a lot of our quicker rivals.
“We were sitting pretty and all of a sudden we lost power. So every position and more that I gained… I basically just waved them on through.
“We were able to fix it on track, it was a control issue, we were able to get it but it was too late and then I was back in the mess that I did well to get out of on the first lap. Then you’re in traffic, you’re in a train, and honestly the race is over after that.”
Ricciardo also pointed out that he had been running ahead of Sainz, who finished seventh on the same strategy, before the power issue happened.
It will be a frustrating case of what might have been for Ricciardo but, crucially, it suggests the seven-time race winner is finally getting a handle on some of the issues he’s been struggling with. Expect him to come back with the bit between his teeth next week at the same venue.
Ferrari back on form
The French Grand Prix was awful for Ferrari, but the team fought back brilliantly this weekend. Sainz claimed an impressive sixth position ahead of Leclerc, whose race appeared to be all but over after he lost his front wing in a first-lap collision with Pierre Gasly.
Leclerc emerged from his pit-stop in 17th but showed great pace in climbing back through the order.
Leclerc, a man with nine pole positions and two race wins to his name, rated this seventh position as one of the best of his career so far.
“If we look at the first lap, it’s been an incredible race for us,” he told Sky F1. “We’ve been incredibly quick, but obviously this first lap basically stopped us from doing something much, much, much better today. “It was a big opportunity. The pace was incredible. It’s probably one of my best performances in Formula 1 today, apart from the lap one.”
Ferrari is trailing McLaren 120 points to 108 at this stage but the Styrian Grand Prix will have likely breathed new life into the Italian team as we approach F1’s August break.
Russell can’t catch a break
How unlucky is George Russell?
He thoroughly deserved his first points finish for Williams on Sunday – it’s unbelievable he’s still searching for that milestone – but it all fell apart for him for reasons outside of his control. Russell had started well, moving from 10th to 8th when Leclerc and Gasly collided.
In the first stint he was cutting time to Fernando Alonso ahead, but Williams soon detected an engine issue. One 18-second pit-stop later and Russell’s race was effectively over, and it was officially over one lap later, when he came into the pits to retire the car.
It was a gutting end to his race and a bitter blow to Williams – it might seem like small potatoes in the grand scheme of F1, but a points finish would have had huge championship – and, as a result, potentially financial — implications on the British team.
“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 tyre, 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. We go again next week.”