Why the Austrian Grand Prix provided F1’s salvation

“Crisis? What crisis?,” as the former UK prime minister James Callaghan actually didn’t say. On the basis of the Austrian Grand Prix last Sunday, it appears indeed that reports of Formula 1’s death were greatly exaggerated.

F1’s problems of course remain, and remain real. And familiar. Skewed financial distribution creating a conspicuous (and predictable) Class A and B on track. Excessive costs and complexity. Governance structures and passive F1 chiefs creating debilitation and deadlock in attempts to solve the problems. Over-zealous policing of on-track battles. Dirty air ensuring on-track battles barely happen in the first place.

But in Austria last weekend F1 took these and, for one day anyway, raised it with a track that allows racing cars to race each other as well as punishes errors. Then it added a bit of strategy variation plus some peculiar challenge from extreme temperatures. And some Max Verstappen.

More to the point, it added Max Verstappen recovering determinedly from a stinking start, cheered to the echo by vast hordes of orange-bedecked followers. He ended up chasing down another stellar young talent in Charles Leclerc, who was after his first, and overdue, F1 race win. Their victory battle was late, extended and frenzied.

And, in F1, a fine race isn’t half effective at making us forget other woes. It likely demonstrates too that on some level at least many of the recent complaints, while remaining valid, were being leant additional focus by the tepid on-track fare and Mercedes’ monopoly of victory. As I heard one recently-ex F1 driver say in an Austria weekend preview, if Ferrari hadn’t messed the year up we likely wouldn’t be declaring F1 broken with anything like the regularity that we have been.

And were you looking on the current calendar for a fine race to save your life, the one at the Red Bull Ring in Austria is likely the one you’d choose.

It’s not a matter of magic either. The track’s layout, with plenty of straights followed by big braking zones, lends itself to providing more overtaking than several other rounds combined. As noted too it’s better than most at punishing errors. A few drivers found this out the hard way last weekend with its ‘sausage kerbs’ at the exit of corners. Would that other circuits go some way to follow its lead on these.

In F1, a fine race isn’t half effective at making us forget other woes. It likely demonstrates too that on some level at least many of the recent complaints, while remaining valid, were being leant additional focus by the tepid on-track fare and Mercedes’ monopoly of victory

Plus, given it has not much in the way of long corners, the Red Bull Ring tends to close the pack up and with it give us unusual orders.

That’s helped by it being relatively short as well. This by definition will congest the lap times. It also means qualifying sessions, and races to an extent, are claustrophobic and pressurised affairs; clear laps are hard to come by and mistakes likely mean a tumble down the order. As Lewis Hamilton was the latest to discover too, avoiding penalties for blocking in qualifying is also more of a challenge than usual.

As demonstration of it all, we may recall that in F1’s first Red Bull Ring visit back after a spell away, in a 2014 year of close to unremitting Mercedes imperiousness, there was for the only time that season not a Merc on pole. Indeed there wasn’t even a silver car on the front row. Instead, there were two Williams, and one of them, Valtteri Bottas’s was just eight seconds behind winner Nico Rosberg at the race's end, without the aid of a safety car or anything else. Similarly, last Sunday’s fare did not rely on that sort of outside intervention.

It may not be coincidence that the other short lap on the calendar, Interlagos, also has an incredible knack of providing diverting fare. It also, like the Red Bull Ring, presents tangible overtaking possibilities, punishes errors more than most venues and has a distinct air of a previous generation. Both also contain plenty of sharp gradient – adding to the challenge to drivers and engineers. Both too, as a bonus, attract large and passionate crowds.

The Red Bull Ring has come a long way too. Curmudgeons of a certain age (such as your author) found it hard to forgive the place initially, built as it was upon the magisterial and flowing Osterreichring. It’s funny how perspectives change over time. The official F1 website’s preview of the meeting last weekend even called the Red Bull Ring “old school”. While one thing the new place does share with the old is stunning scenery.

Were you looking on the current calendar for a fine race to save your life, the one at the Red Bull Ring in Austria is likely the one you’d choose. It’s not a matter of magic either

The Red Bull Ring’s shortness may before long become a problem though. F1 has a presumption against laps which take under a minute, and this circuit is now pushing the envelope, with Leclerc’s pole time last weekend a 1m03.003s.

Only once ever has an F1 meeting dipped below one-minute lap times, which was in the French Grand Prix in 1974 at Dijon. Dijon was short at the best of times but in this one, F1’s first visit, its ‘La Bretelle’ loop had yet to be added, so the circuit was scarcely over two miles in length. Twelve cars set qualifying times of under a minute. No one managed the same in the race, though Jody Scheckter’s fastest lap managed to be one minute bang on.

Yet IndyCar for one regularly goes to road courses with sub-one minute lap times, such as Portland and Toronto, and nothing bad comes of it. One hopes that F1 reaches a similar conclusion.

Even the talk of Mercedes having this year to itself was, on sober analysis, excessive. Winning every round prior to Austria inevitably got comparisons with the ultimate season of single-car domination, 1988, yet that comparison was bogus. As not only did McLaren that year (nearly) win every race it also almost never looked under threat of not winning one – really that amounted to Ferrari chasing down a very consumption-minded Ayrton Senna in Monza’s late laps, and a couple of short periods each of Ivan Capelli’s March and Nigel Mansell's Williams nipping at McLaren heels.

Even a few months ago the prospect of Honda mounting the F1 podium’s top step would have got you laughed at. Yet in F1 jokes are only jokes until they start to go fast

Mercedes, by contrast, nine rounds into this 2019 season, could have won less than half of them and without too many cards falling another way. It lost in Austria of course, and, in addition, Bahrain should have been won by Leclerc and Ferrari, but for technical woes striking. Pole in Azerbaijan looked well on the way to Leclerc had he not crashed, and that would have taken him a long way to victory. In Monaco Verstappen harassed an ailing Hamilton for most of the way. In Canada Ferrari was first home on the road.

And in Austria Mercedes at last met its match. Not so much in an opponent but in the ambient temperatures. The car was limited by the cooling requirements of its power unit. Both drivers were asked to lift and coast for a full 400m per race lap.

So much was going on in the Austrian race too that it was easy to miss that in Verstappen and Red Bull’s victory Honda took its first triumph since returning to F1 in 2015. More to the point, for much of the time since 2015 the Japanese concern has been a round target for extreme mirth; even a few months ago the prospect of Honda mounting the F1 podium’s top step would have got you laughed at. Yet in F1 jokes are only jokes until they start to go fast. And it’s not the first time that Honda has travelled the joke-to-winner journey. No wonder there was barely a dry eye on that one.

This being F1, in spite of all of this it did its best to prick the euphoria, with an extended post-hoc stewards’ investigation into Verstappen’s late race-winning pass of Leclerc, with the possibility that Verstappen would be penalised for crowding Leclerc off the track. And by extension for the second time in three the first to the line would not be the winner. But no, this time the stewards, eventually, decided that there would be no further action.

Hopefully this is a signal of more of a ‘let them race’ philosophy from the stewards. Which we’ve spent most of the last three weeks saying we want

It was the right call for a few reasons. Onboard footage showed that Verstappen had a fair amount of steering wheel lock on so there wasn’t much evidence of him deliberately running Leclerc off, rather it was a consequence of the radius of the corner. Plus, as previously argued, in times of doubt the stewards’ default should be to butt out.

This still being F1, there was grumbling about that decision nevertheless, even though at the broad level it was exactly the sort we lamented the lack of in Canada two rounds ago. Or rather it was because of that, as the grumbles centred on a lack of consistency. Yet, even if we park that the two incidents were barely comparable, compounding a bad decision with further bad decisions for the sake of consistency makes no sense.

And hopefully this is a signal of more of a ‘let them race’ philosophy from the stewards. Which we’ve spent most of the last three weeks saying we want.

Austria’s race didn’t of course solve many of the F1 problems outlined at the start of the article. But it may, indirectly, have solved one of them.