While the debate rages on surrounding the outcome of the 2021 Formula One world championship, won by Max Verstappen over Lewis Hamilton amid a controversial conclusion to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, it is easy to forget the rest of drivers and teams.
It was hard to find anyone saying anything positive at all about Formula One in the days between the French and Austrian grands prix, but that self-sustaining veil of negativity was sensationally lifted thanks to a cracking race in Spielberg at the weekend.
Max Verstappen stole the show with his lightning drive from seventh after a butchered getaway at lights-out to victory in a wheel-to-wheel duel with poleman Charles Leclerc. That it came at Red Bull Racing’s home event and delivered engine partner Honda their first Formula One win since 2006 added an extra positive arc to the already uplifting narrative.
Wheel-to-wheel racing, fascinating strategy and a straight on-track battle for the lead on a classic circuit in a picturesque setting — the Austrian Grand Prix really did have it all.
More importantly, it reminded us that Formula One is far from the terminal mess so proclaimed in recent weeks.
It’s funny what expectations can do to a person. Anticipating Ferrari and Mercedes to be locked in a close season-long duel only to find the German marque has stolen a sizeable march on the field threw fans into a spiral of negativity that bottomed out with the extraordinarily dull French Grand Prix.
While the soporific race in Le Castellet identified some very real shortcomings in the sport’s current configuration — in particular the unequal resources powering the teams — it should always have been clear that the dreary result was not representative.
“You guys have been begging for racing for ages and you got it today,” Lewis Hamilton said after finishing fifth, his lowest classification of the season. “I think ultimately what today shows is that you can’t just look at one weekend and complain, because that is what seems to happen.
“One weekend doesn’t go well and it’s like, ‘Oh, the racing is boring’. Then you have a race like this and it’s like, ‘Oh, the racing is exciting’. Then the next race: ‘It’s boring’. Just make up your minds and chill.”
The reality is that Formula One is fundamentally no different to any other sport. Any organised contest is liable to serve up a poor spectacle, and while Formula One is predisposed to dynasties or eras of dominance, no season is without its own distinct narrative.
And with that in mind, the Austrian Grand Prix was noteworthy for more than just its superb on-track spectacle — it will be remembered as the first significant chapter in the sport’s next generation.
Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc’s race-defining duel was the centrepiece of this race and a sign of things to come, because at just 21 years old and already in top-line machinery, they’re the drivers whose actions and rivalries will define our sport into the next decade and beyond.
It was a superb weekend for both. Both were in complete control of their teammates — albeit a more impressive achievement for Leclerc, whose partner is four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, than it is for Verstappen, for whom Pierre Gasly is yet to show any sign of being a threat — both started on the front row of the grid and both were almost perfect in their race execution.
Theirs wasn’t a race-long duel but rather a collision of diverse strategies culminating in brief but sublime four-lap spar. Verstappen tested Leclerc’s wearying defences. The Ferrari driver parried the Red Bull Racing car’s advances. The Dutchman eventually muscled his way past on lap 69, but it was the choreography of lap 68 that should really pique your attention.
Verstappen rocketed up Leclerc’s inside at the top of turn three and took control of the apex. Leclerc, however, rather than attempting to cut back and use the RB15’s slipstream down to turn four, clung onto his outside through the radius of the corner to keep the battle wheel to wheel on exit and with the benefit of the grippier racing line pull ahead.
The Monegasque covered the inside line, forcing Verstappen to switch back to the outside, and a perfectly judged dab of the brakes into turn four ensured the Ferrari driver held the lead for the rest of the lap.
Verstappen allowed Leclerc less space on the following lap, and their bump on the boundary of the circuit — the subject of a three-hour stewards investigation that correctly concluded thee was no wrong to answer for — added a little bit of extra needle in this burgeoning rivalry. Leclerc is sure to be less generous with space next time the pair meets.
Of course their duel will be a side story in the grander scheme of the championship, which is still sure to fall to Mercedes despite the minor setback of the German team’s heat-affected Spielberg performance, but it was a timely reminder that Formula One is far from being the write off so cynically proclaimed mere days earlier.
It mightn’t be perfect, but the Austrian Grand Prix demonstrated that Formula can yet be saved.