Austrian Grand Prix: Mercedes implode, Max wins in F1’s Tales of the Unexpected

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Orange squash: 20,000 fans, clad in orange, travelled from the Netherlands to cheer Max Verstappen to victory at the 2018 Austrian Grand Prix
Orange squash: 20,000 fans, clad in orange, travelled from the Netherlands to cheer Max Verstappen to victory at the 2018 Austrian Grand Prix

It might be the second-shortest F1 circuit of the year but Austria’s Red Bull Ring certainly packs plenty of action into its 2.86 miles.

Mechanical dramas, strategic dramas, tyre dramas, this race had them all – and it’s champions Mercedes who suffered most. Lordy, did they suffer…

What did we learn?

F1’s Silver Arrows are badly blunted

Top to Bott: Valtteri Bottas retires from the Austrian Grand Prix, having qualified on pole
Top to Bott: Valtteri Bottas retires from the Austrian Grand Prix, having qualified on pole

Mercedes are rattled and, crucially, it’s the engine department that’s really concerning, for so long an area in which they have been dominant.

Introduction of the new version of their 2018 engine – known as Spec 2.1 (how very 21st century) was delayed because of concerns thrown up by testing.

READ MORE: Bottas misfortune ‘a bit of a joke’

READ MORE: ‘There was more up for grabs’ – Vettel frustrated despite recovery

Its arrival at last week’s French Grand Prix suggested it was a step forward – but one of the Mercedes customer engines, in Sergio Perez’s Force India, failed with water pressure problems.

Fast-forward to this week and the Austrian Grand Prix, and the Mercedes mechanical package failed twice.

First, Valtteri Bottas retired with a loss of hydraulic pressure on lap 14, having started on pole at a circuit that has been kind to him in the past.

On lap 63, it was Lewis Hamilton’s turn to conk out, with a loss of fuel pressure. That retiral brought to an end his record-breaking run of 33 points-scoring races, the longest in F1 history.

You’d think 33 races in the points would mean he had nothing to moan about, but that wasn’t the case, because it wasn’t just mechanical failure that blighted Mercedes’ race.

Having started in first and second place, they proceeded to wreck their own chances with a triple whammy of cock-ups – those mechanical failures, their particular inability to manage Pirelli’s standard gauge tyres, and a whopper of a tactical blunder to add to the tactical blunders that have afflicted them already this season.

When Bottas retired, it triggered a Virtual Safety Car and all the main contenders pitted immediately for fresh tyres – in the knowledge that pitting under a VSC costs less time than under normal race conditions.

All, that is, except Mercedes. Apparently fearful that pitting Hamilton would leave them vulnerable to Ferrari and Red Bull split strategies, Merc left Hamilton out.

Word is they had the thick end of 50 seconds to ponder the wisdom of this, even as Red Bull and Ferrari were double-stacking their drivers to take advantage of the situation.

The result was that Hamilton retained the lead, but only until he pitted, under normal race conditions, and rejoined down in fourth, between the Ferraris.

A sorry performance from Mercedes

In happier times etc etc… Mercedes Chief Strategist James Vowles on the Suzuka podium after he helped Lewis Hamilton win there in 2017
In happier times etc etc… Mercedes Chief Strategist James Vowles on the Suzuka podium after he helped Lewis Hamilton win there in 2017

Hamilton wasn’t slow to start complaining over the radio, prompting a mea culpa from Merc’s Chief Strategist, James Vowles, who took full responsibility for the gaffe, broadcasting a ‘Sorry’ to Hamilton that was relayed to the world.

What was that about winning together and losing together?

Merc were desperate to claw back some places and proceeded to leave Hamilton out on these new tyres too long until, on lap 52, he radioed in anger: ‘I don’t know what to say to you guys, these rears are not going to ****ing last.’

He pitted, came out behind Ricciardo (whose car broke almost immediately) and then, on lap 63, came that terminal failure.

READ MORE: ‘Incredible’ Dutch fans roar Verstappen home

So the mechanicals didn’t work, the tyres didn’t work, the strategy didn’t work and, instead of the expected maximum points, Merc scored exactly zero, and ceded the lead of both Drivers’ and Constructors’ championships to Ferrari.

Now, next Sunday at Silverstone, Pirelli are bringing the ‘smaller’ tyres, with 4mm less rubber, that Mercedes seem to like.

And there’s little doubt that, when they don’t break, the Spec 2.1 power units are the class of the field – Hamilton was untouchable at Paul Ricard.

And, of course, Hamilton will have a home advantage, if Mercedes haven’t messed with his mind too much this weekend.

But this was quite possibly the worst Mercedes F1 performance in the modern F1 era.

It’s true that, for Merc, the only way is up. It’s also true that the other teams are finally catching them, and they’re having to push harder to stay ahead.

Which is bad news for team boss Toto Wolff, and great news for excitement levels in F1.

Three, two, one … lift-off for Max

Smile if you’re winning: Max Verstappen after picking up his fourth F1 F1 winner’s trophy, at Red Bull’s home circuit in Austria
Smile if you’re winning: Max Verstappen after picking up his fourth F1 F1 winner’s trophy, at Red Bull’s home circuit in Austria

As Mercedes fell apart, those F1 poachers at Red Bull were ready to take advantage.

Max Verstappen’s race was magnificent – and not just because he stayed out of trouble. In fact, he didn’t stay out of trouble.

At turn seven on the opening lap, Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari was recovering from a slight wobble and Verstappen leapt at the chance to make a pass, tapping the Finn’s rear left in the process. It was a racing incident but, had things been slightly different, we might have been discussing another Verstappen blunder.

That pass proved crucial, as Max went on to victory, with Raikkonen a frustrated second.

What really set Verstappen apart was his ability to manage the tyres, keeping a calm head at the front as, behind him, all manner of problems were sidelining his peers.

Throughout the field, tyres were blistering, particularly the rear lefts, which were put under huge loadings in the last two corners.

Verstappen was able to control his speed in these corners to such an extent that his rear left was actually cooler than the rear right, while making up time in other parts of the circuit.

On lap 50, his pit told him everyone was nursing their tyres to the end, to which Verstappen replied: ‘Well I’m feeling good, so don’t worry…’

Verstappen’s mental strength is impressive: he’s taken a kicking in the first part of the season for some very scruffy, over-ambitious driving, but in the last three races has finished third, second and now first.

And that on a weekend when team-mate Daniel Ricciardo put the Red Bull cat among the pigeons by demanding preferential treatment during qualifying… which he didn’t get.

For his part, birthday boy Ricciardo showed all the signs of a man whose head was stuck in contract negotiations rather than on the race track. He was out-qualified, out-psyched and out-raced by Verstappen and, when his car gave up the ghost on lap 54, it spared some of his blushes.

He was uncharacteristically downbeat over the whole weekend and is now only three points ahead of Verstappen in the Drivers’ Championship.

The Red Bull in-team battle is shaping up to be a highlight of this season.

Two out of three ain’t good enough for Ferrari

Glasses on, smile off: Second-placed Kimi Raikkonen is by far the glummest person on the Austria podium, with good reason
Glasses on, smile off: Second-placed Kimi Raikkonen is by far the glummest person on the Austria podium, with good reason

Raikkonen second, Vettel third, you’d think that was a job well done for the Maranello mob.

But, if truth be told, Ferrari should have nailed the win.

Vettel couldn’t touch the Mercs in qualifying which, coupled with a grid penalty for impeding Carlos Sainz in Q2, left him starting down in sixth.

He’ll be happy to have finished third, regaining the championship lead. But, yet again, those questions about Kimi are asked.

If you can’t win in a Ferrari when both Mercs and one Red Bull retire, and your team-mate has a grid penalty, eyebrows will be raised.

Of course part of the reason he didn’t win is the need for tyre management, but that wasn’t his problem alone.

And, to be quite clear, his driving looked as good this weekend as it has in a long time.

But then, a couple of seconds up the road, there’s a kid he can’t quite catch, who muscled past him on lap one, in a less-powerful car, and never looked back.

Yes, Ferrari took the lead in both F1 championships but, well, it didn’t really feel like a glorious result for them, did it?

F1’s Grosjean enigma

Four wheels on my wagon: Romain Grosjean celebrates fourth place (or celebrates having all four wheels still attached at race end)
Four wheels on my wagon: Romain Grosjean celebrates fourth place (or celebrates having all four wheels still attached at race end)

Well, he did it. As the top teams fell apart, Grosjean qualified well and finished his Haas in a wonderfully impressive fourth place.

This is Grosjean, mercurial to a fault – after a season in which he has grumbled, bumped and often underperformed his way around circuit after circuit, he nails a result like this … and kept team-mate Kevin Magnussen behind him in fifth.

It was a great weekend for Haas, whose cars were two of the six Ferrari-powered finishers in the top ten.

Behind them, the Force Indias of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez in sixth and seventh were the only Merc-powered operators in the top ten.

Fernando Alonso also capitalised, yet again, on others’ failures, dragging his McLaren to an extremely unlikely eighth, just ahead of the Saubers of Charles Leclerc and Marcus Ericsson … that’s right, two Saubers in the top ten, and yet more reason to suspect that Leclerc will be driving with a much bigger team in 2019.

In summary, what a fascinating race – Silverstone, in just a few days, has a lot to live up to.

See you there.

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