Nick van der Meulen, our resident Formula One writer, shares his thoughts on the first of two races taking place in Austria in this piece F1 review Steiermark 2021, covering the eighth round of the current F1 season.
Austria is a lucky nation: they host two Formula 1 rounds and two MotoGP races in 2021. The first round was hosted for Formula One, that of the Steiermark (Styrian) Grand Prix held at Spielberg. It is a circuit rich in motorsport history, initially known as Zeltweg or Osterreichring.
It was an undulating circuit running through a large forest, but the circuit was changed and shortened after Stefan Johansson destroyed his McLaren when hitting a deer crossing the circuit in 1987. The new circuit (A1-Ring) hosted the F1 circus from 1997 to 2003, before it was decided to extend the track. Construction work ground to a halt and the circuit was unusable (parts of it had been demolished), before Red Bull magnate Dietrich Mateschitz purchased it and resurrected it.
Red Bull Racing-Honda dominated the weekend, giving the locals much to cheer about: Max Verstappen took pole position, took the lead when the lights went out and led from start to finish. The Dutchman posted his 14th Grand Prix victory, equaling the tallies of Jack Brabham, Graham Hill and Emerson Fittipaldi, all double world champions. The most number of victories without taking a title is Stirling Moss with 16 wins. Teammate Sergio Perez tried valiantly to tussle with Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) in the closing stages, but had to settle for fourth position at the chequered flag.
Team Mercedes-AMG had no answer to Red Bull Racing this weekend. Bottas qualified second, but was hit with a three-place grid penalty after a bizarre spin in pit lane during Free Practice 2. He pulled away in second gear as part of a team experiment to improve their post pit-stop getaway but, after having the McLaren crew dive for cover, the stewards deemed it dangerous. He had his hands full with Perez in the race, managing to keep him at bay, but trailed teammate Lewis Hamilton who had a lonely drive to second place. The team pitted the Englishman on the penultimate lap for fresh rubber and he was rewarded with a consolation bonus point for setting the quickest lap of the race.
Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) and Pierre Gasly (Alpha Tauri-Honda) had a coming together on lap 1, where the Monegasque damaging his front wing on the left rear tyre of his friend’s mount. The Frenchman retired at the end of the lap, his left rear suspension destroyed. Leclerc pitted at the end of lap 1 for a new front wing and hard compound tyres. He subsequently had an eventful race, carving his way from 18th to seventh place at the chequered flag, earning the Driver of the Day award. Leclerc’s teammate, Carlos Sainz, drove a solid, if anonymous, race to claim points for sixth position.
What’s up with Danny Ricciardo? A seven-time winner is seriously struggling with his machine and his very fast teammate. He was looking strong in both free practice sessions, but was relegated to looking ordinary in qualifying – a trait that continued in the race, finishing out of the points after complaining of power loss on lap 9. The team called the Australian to pit to try to undercut Kimi Raikkonen (Alfa Romeo), but he pitted a number of laps later and lost out to the Finn…was it driver or team error? The “Honey Badger” finished 13th, while teammate Lando Norris finished fifth (from third on the grid)…a stark contrast in fortunes. Norris continued his good start to the season and is the only driver to have scored points in every round this season thus far. The young Brit lies fourth on the points table.
George Russell (Williams-Mercedes) had a brilliant weekend, which ended in heartbreak. Starting tenth on the grid, the Englishman ran as high as eighth, but had a long pit stop to clear debris from his radiator, dropping him to 18th. He retired on lap 39 with engine maladies, after being warned by the team to prepare for a reliability issue.
Other drivers worthy of mention include Lance Stroll (Aston Martin-Mercedes) who finished eighth, ahead of Fernando Alonso (Alpine) and Yuki Tsunoda (Alpha Tauri-Honda). Veteran Kimi Raikkonen show he is still feisty, despite his age, but was not rewarded for his charge to 11th place.
Television cameras spent much of the race showing battles for positions outside the points – a clear indication of how exciting the fight was at the front for the top six positions.
The F1 circus remains at Spielberg for the next round of the world championship billed as the Austrian Grand Prix. Red Bull Racing will have their tails up in preparation for the next race, while their rivals will face it with trepidation…