Red Bull Motorsports
Give Max Verstappen a fast car and we've already seen this season what he can do with it. But what happens when you give him a fast car AND an adoring audience to play to? Sunday's Austrian Grand Prix was the first time this season we've seen Verstappen's travelling tribe of Dutch fans, the famed 'Orange Army', out in force. After the Red Bull Racing Honda star delivered another masterclass over 71 laps to extend his championship lead, they went home hoarse, happy and wondering if 2021 really is the year their man stands atop the world at the end of it.
Round nine of the Formula One season was more an exhibition than a race; fastest through all three phases of qualifying and taking his third pole on the bounce, Verstappen was in another league after the lights went out at the Red Bull Ring, taking his fourth win at the circuit and fifth victory for 2021 by nearly 18 seconds. He led off the line, he led after an early-race safety car, he led every lap and set the fastest lap – it was utter domination. Nine races into this year's 23-round season, Verstappen's world championship lead swelled to 32 points after his nearest title rival, reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton, finished fourth for Mercedes.
Joining Verstappen on the podium to spray the celebratory champagne in front of a crowd that topped 132,000 over the race weekend was Hamilton's team-mate Valtteri Bottas in second and the fast-closing McLaren of Lando Norris in third – the young Briton continuing his standout season by taking his third podium of 2021 after snaring his first front-row start in qualifying.
Verstappen's win, plus the eight points earned by team-mate Sergio Pérez for sixth place after a race that was as complicated as Verstappen's was straightforward, saw Red Bull Racing Honda extend its lead in the constructors' championship to 44 points from Mercedes. Hamilton's podium charge was halted by floor damage after clattering over some of the circuit's more ferocious kerbs in the first half of the race.
Here's how Sunday shook out for Verstappen – and the rest – in a race of two extremes at the Red Bull Ring.
Verstappen's full house
A week ago at the Styrian Grand Prix, Verstappen took the win from pole and only missed out on setting the fastest lap when Hamilton pitted for fresh tyres late in the race to steal a world championship point.
Fast-forward a week and the Dutchman had so much time in his pocket relative to the rest that he never relinquished the lead through the first phase of pit stops. He even had time to pit again with 10 laps left for brand-new tyres to cement the fastest lap of the race, achieving it on lap 62 with a time 1.5 seconds faster than anyone else managed all race.
After qualifying, Hamilton predicted his title foe would have "an easy cruise race", and he was spot on. The win was Verstappen's 15th in F1 and secured his 50th podium finish, while in nine races this year he's finished on the podium eight times.
"It's incredible to be honest, the car was on rails," Verstappen said after his fourth victory at the Red Bull Ring.
"On every tyre set we put on it was really enjoyable to drive. It's pretty insane, I'm a bit amazed myself with how today went. I didn't expect it to be like this.
"When you go into the weekend and everyone sees you as the favourite, it's never easy to deliver what we did today. So a great effort by the whole team and also by Honda – the whole package, these two weeks especially here, has been incredible."
The jubilant scenes on the in-lap back to the pits, with orange smoke from flares billowing across the circuit and the crowd's cheers drowning out the cars, were a memory to treasure for the victorious 23-year-old.
"It was insane today to see all the fans here, so much orange is just incredible," he beamed. "It's great motivation as well."
Penalties slow Checo's charge
Verstappen's team-mate Pérez started his 200th Grand Prix from third on the grid after an impressive display in Q3 on Saturday. With both Red Bulls ahead of both Mercedes on the grid for the first time this season, hopes were high that this could be the day where the long drought since the team's last 1-2 finish – Malaysia 2016 – could finally be broken. But for the Mexican, it wasn't to be as his race went from one incident to the next.
Fighting with Norris on Lap 4 for second place, Pérez ended up in the gravel at Turn 4 after being pushed to the edge of the track by the McLaren, an incident for which Norris was given a five-second time penalty. But the shoe was on the other foot later in the race – two incidents with Charles Leclerc seeing the Ferrari off the circuit at Turn 4 and Turn 6 respectively, and Pérez hit with two five-second penalties of his own.
As the laps wound down, Pérez needed to finish more than 10 seconds ahead of Leclerc's team-mate Carlos Sainz to keep fifth place; he missed out by seven-tenths of a second on the final lap, demoting him to sixth after the cars took the chequered flag.
"Lando got away, he didn't have any damage, but I basically got my race ruined afterwards. I got some damage from the gravel, I guess," Pérez explained.
"With Charles, we were running in dirty air, a lot of traffic and very old tyres braking as late as possible, running out of road and ending up with contact. It's not the way I like to race, it's not the way I do my racing.
"I spoke to Charles and explained what happened from my side, and I don't feel comfortable with myself knowing I ruined a race from another driver, but I have to review the incidents and move on."
Despite his action-packed afternoon, Pérez retained third place in the drivers' championship with 104 points, just ahead of Norris on 101.
Gasly's luck turns, Tsunoda pays the price
Sunday's Austrian sequel was decidedly better; again starting on sixth on the softest-compound Pirelli tyre available, Gasly was an early visitor to the pits on Lap 13 and used a two-stop strategy to collect two points for ninth. He also dropped to the same place in the drivers' championship after Daniel Ricciardo finished seventh for McLaren to edge ahead in the standings.
Gasly's team-mate Yuki Tsunoda started one spot behind the Frenchman after a stellar qualifying, but a pair of five-second time penalties for crossing the white line marking the pit-lane entry on both of his pit stops proved his undoing, the Japanese rookie disappointed to drop to 12th and out of the points.
Sainz's hard task, Russell pipped at the post
Ferrari rolled the dice with Sainz after the Spaniard was a lowly 11th in qualifying, starting him on hard tyres and hoping he could use a long opening stint of the race to push his way into the points. He did better than that, moving past Ricciardo late where Leclerc couldn't and then taking advantage of Pérez's penalties to snaffle 10 points for fifth place.
Elsewhere, George Russell finally looked set to score his first world championship points for Williams after an excellent ninth place in qualifying, which became eighth on the grid after Aston Martin's Sebastian Vettel was demoted three positions for impeding the Alpine of Fernando Alonso. But it was a recovering Alonso who ruined the Briton's hopes, passing Russell with three laps left for 10th place and denying the Williams driver at the death.
"So close, yet so far," Russell lamented. "If you could choose any guy to have behind you, you wouldn’t choose Fernando …".
A rest, then a sprint
Next up after three race weekends in a row? A well-earned break for the entire F1 travelling roadshow before the British Grand Prix at Silverstone on July 18, where fans will be allowed to flock in their thousands to where the F1 world championship first began way back in 1950.
This year, the weekend at the old-school circuit comes with a modern twist; the British GP sees the debut of Sprint Qualifying on the Saturday of the event, with the results of a 17-lap sprint race setting the starting grid for Sunday's 52-lap Grand Prix proper. It's the first of three experiments with the new format set for the remainder of 2021, adding another layer of intrigue onto what is already turning into a fascinating season.