Feature: Talking points from the Austrian Grand Prix
The hills were alive with the sound of a fantastic grand prix weekend. Motorsport Week presents its talking points from Formula 1’s Austrian Grand Prix.
Verstappen takes it up another level
Max Verstappen has been outstanding for the past 12 months and his minor off during second practice was his first real blip of the 2019 campaign. In qualifying he extracted the maximum from the RB15 and a front-row grid spot was his reward as others encountered setbacks. The anti-stall kicking in off the line seemingly wrecked his hopes but that inspired a surge of epic proportions. Verstappen picked off team-mate Pierre Gasly with a breath-taking move around the outside of Turn 9 and swiftly overhauled Lando Norris and Kimi Raikkonen. Mercedes’ issues left them easy meat – one on-track, one via the pit lane – while his moves on the Ferrari drivers were audacious and thrilling. Verstappen has built a legion of supporters during his time in Formula 1 and it is simple to see why: he provides the spectacle and pulls it off with such bravado that it’s impossible not to be impressed.
Leclerc’s time will come
Sport can be cruel and it is simply the nature of racing that Charles Leclerc has two pole positions and has led the second-most laps this year without climbing atop the podium. Leclerc was brilliant for much of the weekend, setting a pair of laps both quick enough for pole position, while he controlled much of the race. Having to respond to Valtteri Bottas’ stop meant Leclerc was more tyre-limited than Verstappen, and in the circumstances his defending for the most part was masterful. But in the end Leclerc was not quite an immovable force as Verstappen was an unstoppable object and the Ferrari man’s defending came up short on lap 69. Nonetheless, Leclerc has shown enough this season to mark him out as a champion-in-waiting, with a few rough edges needing to be smoothed. He has already made gains through the campaign and, at this stage, it is realistic that he could yet finish 2019 as Ferrari’s top driver in the standings.
Honda’s hard work rewarded
Since its return to Formula 1 in 2015 Honda has often been the butt of jokes and memes surrounding its failure to get on top of the sport’s hybrid era. There were some miserable and chastening lows to the extent where its long-term participation was questioned. But, after its relationship with McLaren ended, it effectively spent 2018 in a much-needed rebuilding phase out of the spotlight, allowed to flourish within the quieter surroundings of Toro Rosso. That gave it the platform for 2019 to align itself with Red Bull and the gains were immediately noticeable. Honda has joined Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault in taking a race win in the hybrid era and it is validation of the painstakingly long hours that have gone into the development of its engine, while also maintaining focus and commitment when it would have been easy to throw in the towel. For Red Bull, at its home event, to send up Toyoharu Tanabe-san as its representative on the podium was a touching decision.
Mercedes had marked out the Austrian Grand Prix as a challenging venue and the high temperatures expected at the Red Bull Ring accentuated its cooling concerns. Its pre-event predictions were proved correct for while the outcome was not as disastrous as its 2018 double retirement, a third and a fifth was an underwhelming result for a team that had swept all before it through 2019. “I think when you look at the positives we had the car pace,” said team boss Toto Wolff. “We were running the engine way turned down, lifting and coasting for up to 400 metres — it’s almost having no throttle rolling downwards — and still able to pull in some decent lap times. So I think we would have a god, we would have a chance to fight for the win. But we were limited by the cooling problems.” Cooler conditions and a more suitable track layout should help Mercedes in Britain, but it can get quite hot in Germany and Hungary…
Haas all at sea
Haas has endured a miserable season, with half of its points coming in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, and just a positive run in Spain to count since then. In Austria it displayed pace in qualifying – Kevin Magnussen’s lap was borderline unbelievable – but in the race that speed just disappeared. Magnussen, skewered by a penalty, was only 19th, with Romain Grosjean just three spots up the road. “I was saying to Kevin it felt like it was raining in the car in the first few laps,” said Grosjean. “Literally no grip. No front. No rear. Very very difficult. The balance was not good either. We need to make some steps, try to understand, we’ve got some ideas, it may take some time, we need to be patient, give the team as much feedback as we can, it’s quite a big issue at the minute.” Haas’ season is gradually slipping into a tyre-limited oblivion and it has yet to understand exactly why – which itself is the concerning element.
There was confusion on Saturday evening over the composition of the grid, before the FIA finally confirmed the extent of Lewis Hamilton’s grid penalty. In effect, a three-place drop became a two-place demotion owing to the manner in which a virtual grid is spread when multiple penalties are applied. This was demonstrated to journalists in Belgium in 2016, in the days when getting a 50-place penalty was possible. Kevin Magnussen was in effect demoted, with no-one replaced, hence when Hamilton went to ‘P5’ it was actually P4. It’s the law of unintended consequences, particularly at a grand prix where six of the 20 participants had a grid demotion of some sorts.
The passing of Niki Lauda in May shocked and saddened the Formula 1 community, and the three-time Formula 1 World Champion was remembered at his home event in Austria. In the walkway underneath the circuit, dubbed the Walk of Legends, one side of the wall – typically given over to race posters – featured pictures of Lauda throughout several phases of his life, including as a driver, airline owner, and team manager. The ultra-successful Ferrari 312T that Lauda raced for three years – which included two titles and his near fatal-accident – was also put on display centrally in the paddock, winning a plethora of admirers throughout the weekend. McLaren, as they did in Monaco shortly after his death, placed his 1984 Austrian GP winner’s trophy and helmet on a plinth outside of the Brand Centre. Organisers at the Red Bull Ring also announced that Turn 1 has now been renamed Niki Lauda Kurve, marking a permanent tribute to one of Austria’s greatest sportsmen.
How to lose friends and alienate people
In the future those drivers equipped with talent and a questionable attitude may be pointed in the direction of Dan Ticktum, whose tenure as a Red Bull junior has closed after a two-and-a-half-year spell. Red Bull took a punt on Ticktum at the back end of 2016, when the British youngster was undoubtedly damaged goods in the wake of his deliberate collision with a rival under Safety Car conditions in MSA Formula. Ticktum was banned for two years, one of which was suspended, but he vowed he was a reformed character. Behind the wheel his words were proved (usually) accurate, and he impressed with two straight Macau victories and a runner-up spot in the Formula 3 standings. But that position was blighted by ill-advised social media comments that highlighted his naivety; many had suspicions over the Mick Schumacher late 2018 surge but the wisest kept them private. A stint in Asian F3 proved disastrous, and a horror show of a post-race interview brought him to attention for all the wrong reasons, and his brief stay in Super Formula was also beset by issues and setbacks. Ticktum has only just turned 20 and can still enjoy a lengthy career in motorsport, but the demand in 2019 is to be ready and mature (on- and off-track) at a frighteningly young age. Red Bull has been wrong before (see the current Toro Rosso line-up as proof), but it has clearly tired of Ticktum. And that should be a warning to other young drivers with talent.
Tired of tyres
Reports surfaced during the build-up to the weekend that some teams wanted a return to 2018-spec tyres in a bid to help the racing. A meeting was held early on Friday morning at the Red Bull Ring, where, unsurprisingly, the proposal did not reach the required threshold. But there were a few elements that arose from the gathering. “The meeting was quite productive; there were new ideas, new proposals for maybe the end of the season,” said Pirelli boss Mario Isola. “Obviously we have to analyse that. At the moment they are just ideas. Let’s see. We will continue the discussion in the next days and maybe we come with a proposal for Silverstone or something like that.” Ferrari chief Mattia Binotto said he was “ashamed” that Formula 1 had not reverted to its 2018 approach, but McLaren boss Andrea Seidl, perhaps because he has not spent too much time immersed in the Formula 1 bubble, was the voice of logic. “I think in the end the reason why we have this discussion at the moment is that we have three top teams with the same resources and one team is doing a significantly better job than the other two. So that’s that situation we are facing.” Quite.
The name’s Bond…
Liberty Media has been keen to introduce new initiatives at grands prix for fans and the Austrian Grand Prix was the first of six events at which the Bond in Motion exhibition will be present this year. 12 cars are set up in a covered arena which spans six decades of films from the 007 franchise, including an Aston Martin DB5 that has been featured in seven films. There was also the Hinx Jaguar C-X75 that was used for the Rome car chase in Spectre, complete with original fire damage, the 1937 Rolls Royce Phantom originally seen in Goldfinger, the gun-laden Aston Martin V12 Vanquish used in Die Another Day and, famously, the ‘Wet Nellie’ Lotus Espirit used for the Sardinian scene in the Spy Who Loved Me.
Zandvoort will be 'oranje party'
As it has been for the last few years the Austrian Grand Prix was more akin to a Dutch Grand Prix, given the sea of orange present courtesy of the plethora of Max Verstappen fans that passed through the gate (no, McLaren, they're not for you). The fanatical spectators were given their desired outcome in the wake of Verstappen's victory and it only served to highlight just how crazy the Dutch Grand Prix will be next May.
Let’s get quizzical
Ferrari has been significantly more open with the media in the wake of Mattia Binotto’s appointment as Team Principal, with the Italian recruiting wisely and adopting a savvy approach after years of unnecessary discord. On Friday evening Ferrari organised a quiz for the British media, with seven teams of three, featuring questions ranging from the history of Ferrari, Austrian cuisine and other assorted facts and statistics, some related to motorsport. It’s a small gesture but forges relationships in a sport where barriers can easily be raised. The winning team received a leather Ferrari bag, the runners-up a Passport case holder, and third were given mugs (prompting the expected quips). As for last spot? That trio were in receipt of rubber rings signed by both Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc. “You should have seen the look I got when I tried to explain to Charles why he needed to sign this,” commented Leclerc’s press officer.