Martin Brundle: On Charles Leclerc vs Max Verstappen and the verdict on Austrian GP stewards’ decisions

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The best of the action from an epic Austrian Grand Prix as Charles Leclerc took the win

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The best of the action from an epic Austrian Grand Prix as Charles Leclerc took the win

The best of the action from an epic Austrian Grand Prix as Charles Leclerc took the win

Austria delivered another enjoyable contest in this chunky 22 race F1 season, and we have hit the halfway point already.

The Sprint race on Saturday was far from being a thriller but still more interesting than a free-practice session as far as I’m concerned, and generated an opportunity for somebody like Sergio Perez to repair the damage from qualifying after his brutal retrospective penalty for track limits.

Conversely Fernando Alonso’s non-starting Alpine would consign him to the back of the main race grid albeit with a chance to take a suite of power unit replacements effectively penalty free.

The Sprints put an element of jeopardy and challenge into race day without resorting to success ballast or reverse grids. Now that drivers can more easily follow and overtake, with the exception of Monaco where there will presumably never be a Sprint race, it’s not the burden it used to be.

Whether you like Sprints or not there will be six such events next year meaning a quarter of the expected 24 races will feature them. That’s 30 grid starts plus any safety car and red flag standing-start restarts, and so the cars’ launch systems and the drivers’ abilities to stay out of trouble in the first few corners will be at a premium.

The Stewards were busier than the drivers at the weekend in Austria but we will get onto that.

Leclerc shines again, and should be in title race | Max battling fairly against Ferrari

Charles Leclerc came out on top after another dramatic battle with his title rival Max Verstappen in Austria

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Charles Leclerc came out on top after another dramatic battle with his title rival Max Verstappen in Austria

Charles Leclerc came out on top after another dramatic battle with his title rival Max Verstappen in Austria

Max Verstappen won the Sprint at an apparent canter, at the same time underlining Red Bull’s dominance in recent years at their own circuit. Charles Leclerc followed him home but with a confidence that ‘we’ll have them tomorrow’ which perhaps only he really believed. On race day morning Charles had a positively joyous demeanour and he was subsequently proven to be absolutely right, albeit with a few challenges.

The Ferraris of Leclerc and Carlos Sainz were simply better on their tyres and much faster than Verstappen, and by some margin allowing them to travel twice as far on their opening set of medium compound tyres.

They could regain track position at will against Max who once again was very fair and professional in his driving and defence. Generally he is this year, albeit very much pushing the limits in his defence against Mick Schumacher the week before at Silverstone. I remember commenting in Jeddah last year Michael Schumacher’s, and to an extent Ayrton Senna’s amazing legacies are partly diminished by some dirty driving, and that Max would do well to avoid that career reputation.

It will be interesting to see how that goes if push literally comes to shove in the championship.

Max calmly and skilfully leads the championship by 38 points over Charles but that could have been so different if Ferrari had been more reliable such as in Spain and Azerbaijan, or sharper on strategy such as in Monaco and Britain.

Carlos Sainz's Ferrari burst into flames following an engine failure which ended his race in Austria

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Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari burst into flames following an engine failure which ended his race in Austria

Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari burst into flames following an engine failure which ended his race in Austria

Max of course had two retirements in the first three races but Leclerc’s pace throughout has been deeply impressive, and if you wear a neutral F1 cap we are so far being denied another cliffhanger of a championship.

The Ferrari is fragile and Sainz’s power unit blow-up was bodywork shattering, followed by a very expensive fire in this cost cap era. Fresh from his inaugural victory at Silverstone, Sainz was absolutely gutted, a guaranteed at least second place gone up in smoke.

As we move into the second half of the season the trailing Ferrari team must be close to calling off the battle between their two drivers and he will be aware of this. It was a very painful and sad moment for him championship wise.

But Leclerc then suffered a throttle pedal issue in the closing stages during which he might have been better keeping some of the radio information away from Race Control and Red Bull, but sweet victory was his and he fully deserved it.

Mercedes had the weekend from hell in many respects with both cars heavily in the wall in qualifying, Lewis Hamilton in the wars again at the start of the Sprint race, and George Russell penalised and needing a new front wing after the first lap of the main race. Such is the quality of the team they still finished third and fourth, and are a remarkably solid third in the Constructors’ championship.

Which penalties were correct, and which were harsh

Sergio Perez spins off the track after making contact with the Mercedes of George Russell on the opening lap of the Austrian Grand Prix

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Sergio Perez spins off the track after making contact with the Mercedes of George Russell on the opening lap of the Austrian Grand Prix

Sergio Perez spins off the track after making contact with the Mercedes of George Russell on the opening lap of the Austrian Grand Prix

I thought Russell’s penalty for contact with Sergio Perez on the opening lap in turn 4 was on the harsh side. I did 10 laps in my 1992 Benetton F1 car over the weekend in Austria and it reminded me of just how unsighted, tight, cambered, and demanding the likes of turns 3, 4, 6, and 9 are at this track. At the start of the race laden with fuel and with front tyres not fully up to temperature you’ll always understeer wide in turn 4 , and going around the outside there is a very high-risk strategy especially given the ever tightening exit.

I thought George did his best to climb the inside kerb and give space, and there was further space to the outside for Sergio. Conversely it’s a reasonable argument to say that the driver on the inside can always throttle off or even brake. But they won’t.

Forty-five minutes later in normalised race conditions Seb Vettel was tagged by Pierre Gasly in similar circumstances and I thought the penalty was fair enough. Seb couldn’t have given more space to Pierre on the inside.

Sebastian Vettel expressed his frustration over team radio after contact with Pierre Gasly caused him to spin off the track

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Sebastian Vettel expressed his frustration over team radio after contact with Pierre Gasly caused him to spin off the track

Sebastian Vettel expressed his frustration over team radio after contact with Pierre Gasly caused him to spin off the track

That’s the thing with refereeing, there’s usually an element of opinion and interpretation. While the Stewards in Silverstone were generally forgiving and liberally applying the ‘let them race’ mantra regarding track limits and defensive tactics, a week later the letter of the regulations was being applied.

To a large extent I fully support that and let me explain why. There was much ridicule that 43 separate incidents of track limit violations were reported by the FIA in the race, with several five-second penalties applied. Corners 1, 9 and 10 were being observed (turn 8 where Perez was penalised in qualifying didn’t get a mention) and so a 20-car field in a 71-lap race can pass through those three corners up to 4260 times, meaning 43 infringements is not exactly extreme.

The well-used lines of ‘if it wasn’t faster they wouldn’t be out there’, and ‘if there were barriers instead of lines they wouldn’t be hitting them’ still apply. I totally sympathise with the drivers because peering out of the high cockpit sides of these very large cars, through the Halo and past those weird front wheel fairings at up to 150mph, it’s not at all easy to determine if you are wholly out of view tyre contact patches are on or marginally over the white lines.

But we must have a defined field of play and fairness, skill and accuracy should be rewarded providing we have consistency. If you can’t keep your car fully on the track then leave a margin.

Johnny Herbert analyses how drivers used the track limits during the Austrian Grand Prix

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Johnny Herbert analyses how drivers used the track limits during the Austrian Grand Prix

Johnny Herbert analyses how drivers used the track limits during the Austrian Grand Prix

It’s the same in parc ferme when the top three were reported to the Stewards post-race. It means ‘closed park’ until such time as the cars are checked and the drivers are weighed to ensure legality. Nobody should be in there from a team.

It’s readily accepted by absolutely everyone that if your car is a fraction wider, a fraction lighter, or the engine a fraction bigger than the regulations state then you will be summarily excluded. If the FIA are having a phase of tightening up on all the other regulations then I support that, and saying we should simply ignore track limits because it’s annoying makes no sense at all. So long as it’s consistently applied, and F1 can surely afford the resource to have the tools to clearly define this critical aspect for fans and all.

Mick Schumacher is an interesting case. Until Canada he appeared to be a solid driver, perhaps a little too nice and easy going, who damaged too many cars. Under pressure, and no doubt after some heavy conversations with team boss Gunther Steiner, he’s come alive and looks far more assertive and confident, and his natural talents are starting to flow properly. Like any sport at the highest level, it’s primarily about your own head space.

Apologies if you were hearing our commentary around the world and my croaky voice spoiled your enjoyment of the race. By Monday my voice had gone completely which is not smart for a broadcaster, but luckily there’s not a regulation for that at the moment otherwise I would have rightly taken a race ban or at least a gridwalk penalty for the next Grand Prix.

MB



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