His title charge looking increasingly relentless, Max Verstappen’s victory at the Styrian Grand Prix achieved the extraordinary feat of leaving the mighty Mercedes simply impotent. Lewis Hamilton was beaten into second by Verstappen’s Red Bull in a performance the world champion would recognise only too well, having delivered so many similar, inch-perfect, flawless demolitions himself in the past. Moreover this time it was one that may have set Hamilton on a collision course with his own team.
It was the manner of the defeat at the Red Bull Ring that meant so much. Hamilton was left frustrated and powerless in his cockpit, clutching at the forlorn hope of rain and his Mercedes team flailing, ineffectual at influencing events on track other than an equally vain wish that somehow Verstappen’s tyres would wear more swiftly than those of their man.
There were no damp crumbs of comfort from the clouds ringing the Styrian mountains and Verstappen’s rubber, as had been expected, was easily good enough to last to the finish. He loved the win, as well he might, for all that it had been a pedestrian affair to watch with Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas in third, Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez in fourth and McLaren’s Lando Norris in fifth.
That Mercedes were reduced to mere yearning for success was indicative of where they find themselves now relative to Red Bull. Once Verstappen had opened a gap off the start he held the lead without trouble, quicker on the straights and round the corners. With his fourth win this season and Red Bull’s fourth in a row, the Dutchman now has 18-point advantage over Hamilton with eight of 23 meetings concluded, while Red Bull have a 40-point lead over Mercedes in the constructors’ championship.
The Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff admitted that his team had no plans for major improvements to come for this year’s car, instead focusing all their resources – now limited by a budget cap – on to the brand new design to meet the new regulations for 2022.
Hamilton insisted that if he is to stay in the fight Mercedes had to adjust their priorities. “We need an upgrade of some sort,” he said. “We are not sure if it’s the rear wing or the engine but we need to find some performance from somewhere.”
Verstappen in contrast confirmed Red Bull are still fiercely developing their car, noting they were bringing improvements every race and that they would continue to do so.
Hamilton reacted by issuing a stark warning meant surely as much to his team as to anyone. “We will keep pushing, we are world champions and can definitely improve if we put our minds to it,” he said. “But if we are not going to develop and improve our car this year, this is the result you are going to see.”
He also implied that he is not going to simply accept this state of affairs. “Naturally we would love to have upgrades and improvements, I don’t think that is currently on the cards but we will of course chat about it,” he added.
Hamilton has not been under this sort of pressure for some time. He has not won now for four races, his longest winless run since going six races that spanned the end of 2017 (notably after he had won the title) and the opening of 2018. In 2017 he was 20 points down to Sebastian Vettel at the ninth round of the season, before launching an indomitable run of six wins in eight races as Mercedes comprehensively overtook Ferrari. The world champion’s problem is that then there was no budget cap and no new car to build from scratch. There are no signs the team can repeat such a turnaround this time.
Red Bull have now been on top at the low-speed circuits and proved their car on two high-speed tracks in succession. Their low-drag rear wing is maintaining their top speed on the straight but their car’s aero is ensuring it loses nothing in the corners.
Verstappen declared his ride had been “on fire” and that it was the best he had enjoyed all year. “The car was super nice to drive, I was really enjoying it,” he said. “Clearly the gap yes but the balance of the car was the best so far this season.”
His delight was understandable. Verstappen did not surrender his lead at any point, holding it from pole and through the pit stops. Peter Bonnington, Hamilton’s race engineer, had admitted by lap 55 that they were helpless. “What should I do?” asked Hamilton on closing the eight-second gap. “Options are just battling it out on the tyre degradation,” conceded a resigned Bono of their only hope that Verstappen’s rubber would fade.
More licks await. The Austrian GP takes place on the same circuit next weekend and there are no miracles in store or even in the pipeline for Mercedes. Hamilton has serious questions that need answering while Verstappen is in every position to leave the mountains with some equally serious momentum.
Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc were sixth and seventh for Ferrari. Lance Stroll in eighth for Aston Martin, Fernando Alonso in ninth for Alpine and Yuki Tsunoda in 10th for AlphaTauri.