Charles Leclerc ended his run of recent misfortune by overtaking Max Verstappen three times to win the Austrian Grand Prix – and revive his World Championship hopes.
But a likely one-two for Ferrari was thwarted when Carlos Sainz’ race came to a fiery end with an engine failure, leaving Verstappen a clear runner-up ahead of a third consecutive P3 position for Lewis Hamilton.
Surviving a late throttle issue, Leclerc, who had suffered a mixture of car breakdowns and bad strategy calls that meant he had not won since round three in Australia, cut his deficit to Verstappen in the title race to 38 points.
Verstappen had started as a hot favourite to increase his number of grand prix victories at the Red Bull Ring to five – four already being a record – having comfortably won the sprint to secure pole position ahead of the two Ferraris.
The field lined up with three cars well out of position relative to performance – Valtteri Bottas with his Alfa Romeo in the pit lane due to an engine penalty, Fernando Alonso as he had been unable to start the sprint with an electrical issue that required major changes overnight, and Sebastian Vettel who had spun into the gravel on Saturday and been retired because of the damage to the Aston Martin.
There was a slight scare for Hamilton as his car was still being worked on 10 minutes before lights out due to fears about a ‘long’ brake pedal, but the Mercedes was given the all-clear well in time and the Briton was able to take his place in P8.
At the start, with the track shrouded in orange smoke from flares released by the legions of Dutch fans, Verstappen got away ahead of Leclerc – but his Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez was the victim of the first incident, sent spinning into the gravel through contact with George Russell. The Mexican entered the pits with a sizeable hole in his sidepod and re-emerged a long way behind in last place, hard tyres having been fitted.
Hamilton dropped behind Mick Schumacher, his nemesis from the sprint, while at the sharp end Verstappen found himself being harried by Leclerc – with Perez just ahead of them, then lapped at little more than one-tenth race distance. Leclerc, with DRS, was all over his rival in a battle reminiscent of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia at the start of this season and got the move done on lap 12.
Russell, at the head of a DRS train, received a five-second penalty for the Perez collision and served it at an early pit-stop where he also had the front wing of his Mercedes changed. He and Perez were now 19th and 20th respectively.
Verstappen made a stop for hard tyres on lap 13 – seemingly his first of two – re-emerging in eighth as Hamilton moved back past Schumacher into fifth and then his Haas team-mate Kevin Magnussen to go fourth. The Haas duo made pit-stops and suddenly it was Verstappen right behind Hamilton as memories of 2021 came flooding back. This time it was a clean fight, but only for a couple of corners until the Dutchman breezed past.
Ferrari, meanwhile, had resorted to strategy Plan E – for ‘echo’, it was clarified over team radio – which was starting to look like a one-stop. Leclerc duly came in on lap 26, just as Red Bull were left with just a single car due to Perez, who had still been running a long way last and slowly, being retired as a result of the damage to the RB18.
Both Ferraris stopped in quick succession, Verstappen six seconds ahead of Leclerc but likely to need an additional pit-stop. Leclerc was much quicker on his fresher hard tyres and passed the World Champion – who was complaining of unpredictable grip – for the second time on lap 33, as Pierre Gasly and Lando Norris incurred five-second penalties for repeatedly breaching track limits.
Verstappen’s second stop came on lap 37, hard tyres again, after which he was told to simply match Hamilton’s lap times – which sounded like an admission Red Bull were racing for third. Trying to lull Ferrari into a false sense of security though, perhaps.
Vettel, trying to pass Gasly for P14, found himself in the gravel for the second consecutive day as the duo made contact, the Frenchman earning his second penalty of the race – while on lap 49 it transpired Ferrari’s Plan E was not a one-stopper after all.
Leclerc came in first, followed by Sainz, which meant they had to hunt down Verstappen, whose lead was two-and-a-half seconds. On this short circuit, the leaders then had one fewer backmarker to negotiate under blue flags as Nicholas Latifi retired his Williams in the pits.
Verstappen was despatched by Leclerc for the third time on lap 53 and Sainz looked set to follow suit until his engine blew on lap 58, the car bursting into flames and rolling backwards before the driver had even climbed out. Sainz was fine, but last week’s British Grand Prix winner sat disconsolately by the side of the track at Turn 4, the incident bringing out the Virtual Safety Car.
Both Leclerc and Verstappen took the opportunity for a cheap pit-stop, both switching to medium tyres, with the Monegasque holding a four-second lead but reporting the “throttle pedal feels a bit strange”, that alarm initially silenced by he and the team but remaining an issue to the end.
Verstappen ate into the lead but not quickly enough to deny Leclerc a fifth F1 win – and his first from anything but pole position.
Russell worked his way up to fourth ahead of Ocon, Schumacher – his highest Formula 1 finish and second consecutive race in the points – Norris, Magnussen, Daniel Ricciardo and Alonso.
1 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 71 Laps
2 Max Verstappen Red Bull +1.532
3 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes +41.217
4 George Russell Mercedes +58.972
5 Esteban Ocon Alpine +68.436
6 Mick Schumacher Haas +1 Lap
7 Lando Norris McLaren +1 Lap
8 Kevin Magnussen Haas +1 Lap
9 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren +1 Lap
10 Fernando Alonso Alpine +1 Lap
11 Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo +1 Lap
12 Alex Albon Williams +1 Lap
13 Lance Stroll Aston Martin +1 Lap
14 Zhou Guanyu Alfa Romeo +1 Lap
15 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri +1 Lap
16 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin +1 Lap
17 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri +1 Lap
18 Carlos Sainz Ferrari DNF
19 Nicholas Latifi Williams DNF
20 Sergio Perez Red Bull DNF