Max Verstappen emerged victorious in an action-packed Sprint race at the Austrian Grand Prix, surviving some drama during the early stages of a wet to dry outing to claim an ultimately dominant win on Red Bull’s home soil.
Verstappen lost the lead to team mate Sergio Perez at the start but quickly fought back and settled into a rhythm up front, cruising away from the competition to cross the line comfortably clear of the Mexican and Ferrari rival Carlos Sainz.
Verstappen, Perez, Sainz and a handful of other front-runners stayed on intermediate tyres for the full encounter, holding enough of a margin over a host of drivers who moved to slicks late on but could not make up more than the ground they had lost.
With a revised Sprint format in place in 2023, the new ‘Shootout’ qualifying session set the grid for the 24-lap dash, which offered up the incentive of some extra points – from eight for P1 to one for P8 – for the 20 drivers in action.
A change to the starting order saw Charles Leclerc demoted from sixth to ninth – promoting Aston Martin pair Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll and Alpine’s Esteban Ocon – after the Ferrari driver was found guilty of impeding McLaren rookie Oscar Piastri in SQ1.
As the race start approached, drops of rain began to fall and then intensified, taking the circuit away from slicks and towards intermediates, which were the tyre of choice for all bar a brave Valtteri Bottas (on mediums) by the time the grid was cleared of guests, mechanics and the gazebos that had been pulled into action.
Bottas’ gamble swiftly backfired, with Alfa Romeo calling him into the pits for intermediates ahead of the start, where Perez dramatically got the jump on team mate Verstappen and forced his way past on the inside line into Turn 1 – the duo continuing their exchange at the exit and Verstappen dipping two wheels on the grass.
Verstappen instantly retaliated and attacked Perez under braking for Turn 3, taking both of them wide and almost allowing Nico Hulkenberg through for the lead. With Verstappen back in P1, Perez lamented over the radio: “What’s wrong with Max, man?”
Matters got worse for Perez down at Turn 4, where a pumped up Hulkenberg applied the pressure again and slipped past on the exit, meaning the Haas found himself splitting the two Red Bulls, with Sainz holding fourth from Stroll and Alonso.
Lando Norris was a big loser in the Turn 3 bottleneck, getting caught up behind the squabbling Red Bulls and suffering a slow exit – meaning he fell from fourth all the way down to 10th, slotting behind Alex Albon, Ocon and Leclerc.
While Norris had lost the most positions (seven), fellow Briton Lewis Hamilton had made up the most, gaining five from his 18th-place grid slot to run 13th, just behind team mate George Russell and Kevin Magnussen – the Mercedes pair working their way past after scrapping with the Haas for several laps.
Up front, Verstappen had stretched his advantage over Hulkenberg to some five seconds a third of the way into the race, with the Dutchman’s engineer reporting that the front-left tyre was the “limitation” in the damp but drying conditions.
“Do you think the track will dry?” Alonso was asked shortly afterward. “Potentially, yes,” came the response, with all eyes on the skies and whether there would be more rainfall to top up the patches of water or if it would hold off and the surface continue to dry up.
At the halfway mark, Hulkenberg fell into the clutches of Perez and Sainz, losing P2 to the Red Bull driver at Turn 4 on Lap 12 and P3 to the Ferrari man at Turn 3 one tour later – with leader Verstappen now more than 10 seconds clear.
Further back, Ocon, Leclerc and Norris went wheel-to-wheel over the final points-paying positions, the Alpine and Ferrari almost coming to blows between Turns 4 and 5, while Norris watched on and waited to pounce on any drama.
With eight laps to go, Russell reported that conditions were not far off slicks and, moments after making that call, he headed for the pits to bolt on a set of soft tyres, while Race Control also cleared the DRS overtaking aid for use to add to the excitement.
Having also fallen behind Stroll, Hulkenberg was another to pit for soft tyres, along with Piastri, Hamilton, Magnussen, Logan Sargeant, Nyck de Vries and Zhou Guanyu – but they all faced a race against time to make up the 20 or so seconds they had lost in the pit lane.
With Russell lighting up the timing screens, Albon, Leclerc and Yuki Tsunoda were the next group of drivers to change to slicks, while the Red Bulls, Sainz, the Aston Martins, Ocon, Norris, Pierre Gasly and Bottas (running towards the back after his earlier woes) held firm on their intermediate tyres.
Despite their strong pace, the slick-tyre train could not make the inroads they would have hoped for on the intermediate runners, with the top five positions from Verstappen through Alonso retaining their spots to the chequered flag.
Verstappen crossed the line more than 20 seconds clear of Perez with an imperious performance, while Sainz rounded out the podium finishers from a battling Stroll and Alonso, and Hulkenberg worked his way back up to sixth – the best of those to swap to slicks.
Ocon fended off Russell by 0.009s as they took the final points on offer, with Norris and Hamilton just missing out in ninth and 10th, followed by Piastri, Leclerc, Albon and Magnussen, with Gasly losing considerable ground late on after being gobbled up by those on soft and medium rubber.
AlphaTauri pair Tsunoda and De Vries wound up 16th and 17th respectively, with Williams rookie Sargeant and the Alfa Romeos of Zhou and Bottas bringing up the rear at the end of a dramatic encounter.
After Saturday’s standalone Sprint action, the F1 field will now get ready for the main event on Sunday afternoon: the 2023 Austrian Grand Prix.