2022 Austrian Grand Prix - The Battle of Red Bull Ring
SUNDAY'S AUSTRIAN GRAND PRIX AT THE RED BULL RING DELIVERED THE SORT OF NIP-AND-TUCK RACING TO WHICH FANS HAVE GROWN ACCUSTOMED FROM THE CIRCUIT SITUATED IN THE STYRIAN ALPS. EACH OF THE SHORT, SHARP STACCATO-TYPE 1:05-MINUTE LAPS MADE FRIDAY QUALIFYING, THE NEXT DAY's 23-LAP SPRINT RACE - WHICH DECIDED SUNDAY'S GRID - AND THE MAIN EVENT APPEARED EVEN MORE FRENETIC THAN THE STOPWATCH SUGGESTED
Unusually, though, the victor of the 71-lap grand prix was not Red Bull’s Max Verstappen - who holds the remarkable record of four wins on his team’s home turf in three years after the Ring twice hosted back-to-back races under Covid - but Charles Leclerc winning from the world champion despite experiencing recurring throttle issues which made downshifts difficult during the final stages.
True, Max claimed pole and won the sprint, then led early on, but after tyre degradation entered the equation, the Dutchman was effectively left a sitting duck as it became apparent both Ferrari drivers could (and would) run longer stints. Indeed, Carlos Sainz was fast closing in on Max during the closing stages when his power unit detonated, in turn igniting the entire rear end of the Ferrari.
After a similar occurrence for the Spaniard in Baku and mysterious maladies with Leclerc’s car here and previously, Ferrari clearly have issues and need to get a grip on them before the season slips away totally and the focus again becomes ‘next year’s title’.
After Sergio Pérez in the second Red Bull was punted off early on by George Russell’s Mercedes - the driver was docked five seconds for his indiscretion - Lewis Hamilton rose to third place ahead of his team-mate. It was, though, no easy podium for the seven-time champion as he fought through the field having crashed in qualifying: Mick Schumacher was particularly obstinate, as was Haas team-mate Kevin Magnussen.
The two white US-entered cars had clearly not flattered to deceive during Friday evening qualifying nor during the sprint - the second of three this season – with both drivers finishing the preliminaries well inside the top ten. Come the main race, young MSC, assigned his father’s F1 abbreviation, fought tooth and nail for position until inevitably passed by Hamilton.
#23 Alexander Albon (THA, Williams Racing), F1 Grand Prix of Austria at Red Bull Ring on July 10, 2022 in Spielberg, Austria. Image courtesy HOCH ZWEI
Impressively, Mick was more than the equal of Magnussen all weekend, the first time he has convincingly matched the Dane since the latter joined for this season. Having scored his first-ever F1 championship point in Silverstone a week ago, Mick drove with a new-found confidence after incurring rather serious and costly crashes in previous races, which bodes well for his future just as the 2023 driver market opens up.
Sandwiching Russell and Schumacher was Esteban Ocon, who traditionally revels in the nature of this ultra-fast circuit and made the most of his Alpine’s top speed advantage to start the grand prix in sixth, moving up a slot with Sainz’s retirement. The tightness of the midfield battle and resultant cut-and-thrust jostling - with up to five cars squabbling for position - proved categorically that 2022’s aerodynamic regulations work.
Porpoising? Bouncing? Both phenomena were conspicuous by their absence in Austria, and with a run of relatively smooth circuits coming up before the summer break, teams can set their cars up for speed not comfort. True, full cures could take slightly longer for some car concepts such as the ‘zero’ sidepod Mercedes, but most teams now understand their cars properly. That was not the case during early races.
#1 Max Verstappen (NLD, Oracle Red Bull Racing), #16 Charles Leclerc (MCO, Scuderia Ferrari), F1 Grand Prix of Austria at Red Bull Ring on July 10, 2022 in Spielberg, Austria. Image courtesy HOCH ZWEI.
As the championship passes the halfway point the swings-and-roundabouts nature of this season - four winners in 11 races and poised to deliver more victors - the title fight remains wide open: Verstappen (208 points) leads Leclerc (170), yet a single retirement for Verstappen would bring his Monégasque challenger straight back into strong contention given there is only a race-and-a-bit between them in terms of points.
Equally, (another) retirement for Leclerc would bring Sainz and Perez snapping at his heels. As power units and transmissions approach the end of their duty cycles and drivers burn through their reserves of penalty-free parts, reliability increasingly comes to the fore. Add in that Mercedes is gradually fighting back, with Hamilton and Russell increasingly spoken of as race winners this season, so further unpredictability will build.
Then there is the question of team orders: With various drivers in with a shout on victory, these are sure to be imposed: Already Pérez has been ‘instructed’ to move aside, while in Silverstone Sainz questioned his team’s strategies. Hamilton, too, has queried team decisions and in Austria Schumacher was adamant he was the faster and that Magnussen should move aside. The Alpine duo, too, have queried perceived favouritism. These are all signs of internal pressures.
#24 Guanyu Zhou (CHN, Alfa Romeo F1 Team ORLEN), F1 Grand Prix of Austria at Red Bull Ring on July 10, 2022 in Spielberg, Austria. Image courtesy HOCH ZWEI.
Another factor looms: No standalone events remaining on the calendar; thus, every event is twinned (if not tripled) with another, leaving little respite between races, and, crucially, from September these are all flyaway grands prix. Thus, the first half will have seemed a mere waltz in a park by comparison.
The French Grand Prix on 24 July opens the second half.