Dominant Verstappen wins Styrian Grand Prix from title rival Hamilton

Max Verstappen completed a deserved fourth victory of the season by leading the Styrian Grand Prix from pole to flag and extend his championship lead over rival Lewis Hamilton, who finished second from Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas and a charging Sergio Perez.

Having out dragged his rival into the opening corner, victory was rarely in doubt for the Red Bull driver, who maintained a comfortable gap throughout the race on the same medium-hard Pirelli strategy. Lando Norris maintained his fine form for McLaren by finishing fifth from the Ferraris of Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc as Lance Stroll, Fernando Alonso and Yuki Tsunoda rounded out the top ten.

“You never know how it’s going to end up, but straight away I felt good balance in the car, and it was good to manage the tyres basically from the start,” Verstappen told Sky Sports’ Mark Webber following victory. “Of course they pitted a lap earlier than us, we reacted to that, kept on going, trying to hit our lap times and that worked really well today.

“It’s very positive but of course we have to show it again next week so we will definitely have a look at what we can do better, and I am looking forward to next week. It’s looking really good so we just have to keep on going, keep pushing really hard and I’m confident we can do a really good job again.”

The start was not without incident, Leclerc’s Ferrari tangling with Pierre Gasly’s Alpha Tauri, meaning a new front wing for the Monegasque and terminal damage to the Frenchman’s suspension.

It meant the fast-starting Russell was up to 7th and with a great chance of at last grabbing those deserved first points for Williams. Sadly, that chance was to evaporate just after half distance as a Power Unit issue meant the Englishman would have to wait for another day.

As always, the race would be down to tyre strategy and the slick operations of the respective pit crews. And with both Verstappen and Hamilton both starting on the medium compound Pirelli tyres, the race for the win would certainly be between the lead duo, Bottas and Russell the only others of the top ten runners to do the same.

Then a switch of strategy for Russell, being told to switch to ‘Plan B’ for reliability reasons, confirmed as a Power Unit issue. In he came on lap 27 and a long stop as mechanics worked to fix the problem with the right sidepod. 12 laps later it was game over, the problem terminal and Russell pulling into the pits and cruelly out of the race.

With 19 laps of the 71-lap race run, a first indicator of how the tyres were behaving, data showing Hamilton’s Pirelli’s still in optimum condition but with Verstappen’s showing more signs of wear. Suddenly, it looked like it could be a close battle after all…

Perez was the first of the front runners to roll the dice on lap 28, swooping into the pits for a set of hards. But a long stop meant Bottas was able to leapfrog his rival. A lap later it was Hamilton’s turn, a clean stop meaning he maintained the pressure on his title rival.

Verstappen needn’t have worried, an even faster stop putting him out with an even better net gain as the race to the chequered flag now depended on tyre wear of that particular compound. Yet the race certainly was still 100% in the bag, with the Dutchman reporting brake problems on the kerb into Turn 10.

Hamilton’s only chance appeared to be a technical error to the dominant Red Bull Racing machine and when Perez dived in for a second set of mediums on lap 55 to take another point for fastest lap, the grandstand finish now wasn’t for the race win but for the final podium spot.

It would be Bottas who would win that particular battle, but more importantly for the championship, Verstappen already has his biggest points margin over seven-time champion Hamilton to date as he goes in search of a first title of his own.

With a lap remaining, Hamilton dived in for a set of soft compound tyres to take that fastest lap from Perez. It limited the damage to 18 points but Mercedes certainly has work to do in this already exciting season if they are to take yet another constructors’ crown and Hamilton a record-breaking eighth title.

“It was a bit of a lonely race really,” reflected Hamilton. “I was trying to keep up with those guys but the speed they have, they have obviously made some big improvements over the last couple of races and impossible to keep up. I don’t know where we’re losing all the time, but the long runs seem to be a bit better, we seem to be able to continue to put out those laps, but it feels like we lose a lot down the straights.

“Nonetheless we got good points as a team today and we’ve got to keep pushing. I try not to concern myself with it but naturally they are just faster and there’s not a lot I can do in that respect but keep trying to do the best job I can each weekend. We need to find some performance. We need an upgrade of some sort, I don’t know where. Whether it’s just the rear wing or whether it’s the upgrade on the engine but we’ve got to find some performance from somewhere.”

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.