Were any further evidence required that this season’s Formula One world championship may come down to the last man standing, the Austrian Grand Prix was surely enough to silence any doubters.
Max Verstappen may have won Red Bull’s home race but with Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas both failing to finish for Mercedes it dealt the team a body blow. Hamilton’s title lead has disappeared and the British driver now faces the herculean task of refocusing and bringing his best to the British Grand Prix next weekend.
Nobody could deny Verstappen deserved the victory, the first time Red Bull have won at the Red Bull Ring; he ran the race to perfection. As he showed exemplary control, pace and skill while managing his tyres, others suffered from blistering that severely hampered their races.
But he did so while Mercedes fell to pieces in more ways than one on a day described by the team as cruel and brutal. Bottas, who had started from pole, retired on lap 14 with a hydraulic problem linked to the steering while Hamilton ground to a halt on lap 63 with a drop in pressure in the fuel system. Hamilton saw his lead of 14 points swing to a single-point deficit to Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, who finished in third, behind his teammate Kimi Räikkönen.
Yet Hamilton’s retirement was the culmination of a race that his team had already given away. After taking the lead into turn one, the British driver looked to have it in his pocket. But Mercedes once again made the wrong call when the virtual safety car was used on Bottas’s retirement.
Ferrari and Red Bull took advantage and pitted but Mercedes kept Hamilton out. He had to stop under normal racing conditions and lost track position, emerging in fourth, behind Verstappen, now in the lead, Daniel Ricciardo and Räikkönen. Hamilton was frustrated and worse was to come as he pushed hard to try and make up places, overworked his tyres and was forced to take a second stop. He was at best looking at damage limitation but even that became moot when his car stopped.
He was confused as to how the team had lost the lead, then frustrated he could nothing about it, and finally disconsolate. After the decision not to pit under the VSC, the team even took the unusual approach of having James Vowles, the chief strategist, take responsibility in an attempt to refocus their driver. “It is my mistake, just give us what you can,” said Vowles. “I have thrown away the win today.”
The team principal, Toto Wolff, admitted it was not the usual procedure. “It was about extracting what was left in the performance in him,” he said. “Helping him out of the mind-loop of: ‘How can this possibly have happened?’”
The real problem for Mercedes is that it is not an isolated incident. The team, so dominant in recent years, have shown signs of cracking now pushed by a resurgent Ferrari. It compounds a software miscalculation that cost Hamilton a win in Australia and the very similar decision not to pit him under the safety car in China that led to a Red Bull victory for Ricciardo.
Hamilton had not had a DNF since Malaysia in 2016 and Austria was a harsh reminder of the challenge they are now facing. “That was a major wake-up call,” said Wolff. “This is exactly how motor racing can go it can be very, very cruel and we had all the cruelty go against us today and it just got us brutally.”
Wolff admitted the VSC decision had been the moment they had lost the race but that the team has simply spent too long considering the options, raised by other teams being able to split their strategies and leave one driver on track.
However Wolff was insistent the team would not be overreacting. “No, we don’t need to make changes,” he said. “The most important thing is to understand why an error happens. I don’t think we’d make an error twice.”
There may still be worse to come. Mercedes do not think the failures will mean power unit component changes at this stage but have yet to fully assess the cars. If changes are required it will raise the spectre of grid penalties later in the season.
Hamilton was understandably concerned that the team ensure it does not happen again. “It is the hardest weekend we have had for a long, long time, we will discuss reliability and the strategy call,” he said. “We have a lot of strategists and I don’t know how we can make those errors but James put his hand up. We have lost a lot of points either through bad calls or reliability.”
In front of them Verstappen showed great poise and technique to take the win, his fourth but the first this year. It could not have come at a better time given that the young Dutchman has been forced to face questions about his driving style after a series of incidents this season.
Typically, he was not reading too much into it. “It’s just racing,” he said. “Sometimes you have difficult moments and then you try to work hard and you keep working hard and you overcome the situation. It’s as simple as that.”
But he could not hide his pleasure. “My fourth victory,” he added. “I think it’s a good one, very unexpected. I think they are always good.”
Vettel came away with much more than he might have thought possible. Having started from sixth after a grid penalty, taking the championship lead will have been beyond his expectations. It has now changed hands between these two drivers five times this season and will doubtless do so again.
For Mercedes and Hamilton the first step in claiming it back will be to pull themselves off the ropes and making sure they are up for the fight at Silverstone.