Charles Leclerc celebrated victory at the Austrian Grand Prix with as much a sense of relief as joy after a race that was gripping until its final moments.
The pleasure will doubtless be felt, not least in the remarkable form Leclerc showed in seeing off the challenge of his title rival, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. The Dutchman was second here after a definitive display of authority from Leclerc and Ferrari, who showed fearsome pace in Spielberg.
Indeed Ferrari could have made it a one-two only for their hopes to be dashed when Leclerc’s teammate Carlos Sainz was forced to retire, his engine in flames near the end. It was a dramatic and frightening moment for the Spaniard as he pulled up at the top of the hill at turn three. He could not climb out of the car because in taking his foot off the brake it rolled backwards. He was forced to remain in the cockpit as the flames licked closer until marshals could place chocks beneath the wheels and allow him to escape unhurt.
Sainz’s impressions were vivid when asked about the incident. “Fire. A lot of fire,” he said, adding later: “The whole process was a bit slow and at some point there was so much fire that I had to get a move on and jump out. It is definitely something we need to look at how we could have done it a bit faster, because it was not an easy situation to be in.” The events and the procedure around extrication will be investigated.
For Lewis Hamilton there was reason for optimism as he took third for Mercedes. His teammate George Russell was fourth, a great recovery given that he had dropped to 18th at one point. Esteban Ocon was fifth for Alpine.
This was a tense but exhilarating affair played out in the grand, picturesque amphitheatre of the Styrian mountains where 60,000 of the 105,000-strong crowd were Dutch fans who had come to see Verstappen march one step further to his second title. Leclerc was in no mood to follow their script.
The win was significant for the 24-year-old in being his first return to the top step since the third round in Australia. After a run of mechanical failures and poor strategy decisions that have seen Verstappen pile up an enormous lead, it reignited his title fight. The championship lead has already yawed between them, with Leclerc’s 46-point lead after Australia turned to a Verstappen advantage of 44 going into this race. Leclerc has reduced that to 38 points and now at the halfway point of the season and, with 11 races to go, a swing back in his favour is not out of the question.
Of import also is the style in which he did it. With a genuinely competitive car Leclerc was indomitable in Austria, passing Verstappen on the track three times during the race to secure the win. This is as good as the Ferrari has looked since Melbourne and while the Red Bull struggled with tyre degradation, the Scuderia were at ease with their rubber.
“I kept being optimistic, but hard race after hard race it felt like everything was against me,” Leclerc said. “Finally we have had a breakthrough and we had a good race today,it feels good to have a win again.”
Ferrari brought their first upgrades of the season to Barcelona and a further swathe to Silverstone, where Sainz won, and they have clearly hit the spot. Their package looks ominously strong once more.
Verstappen conceded that Red Bull had no answers. “I expected them to be strong,” he said. “I just didn’t expect them to be this good. We need to analyse and understand why this happened.”
He had been soundly beaten in a classic three-act sequence, Verstappen leading from pole only to be caught by Leclerc as they fought a gripping toe-to-toe scrap until the Monégasque struck. On lap 11, late on the brakes up the inside at turn four, he pulled off a mighty pass.
Red Bull went aggressive, pitting Verstappen early with the fresh rubber paying off such that when Leclerc stopped he emerged once more behind him. Leclerc chased Verstappen down again and with new rubber he positively breezed past at turn three. He now held all the cards, able to cover off any second stop by the Red Bull driver.
Verstappen duly stopped again and Ferrari once more stayed out, pitting Leclerc again 13 laps later. He came out three seconds back, with one more pass required.
He duly caught the Dutchman and swept past him up the inside on the exit of turn three on lap 52. A virtual safety car was deployed when Sainz went off and a tense final 10 laps ensued as Verstappen pushed and Leclerc reported issues with his throttle but he held his nerve to take the flag.
Red Bull had tried every alternative but Ferrari’s pace advantage was simply too much and this time they managed Leclerc to perfection. Sainz’s fiery engine failure will be of concern but the Scuderia will feel they are well and truly back in the fight.
Mick Schumacher and Kevin Magnussen were sixth and eighth for Haas. Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo seventh and ninth for McLaren and Fernando Alonso 10th for Alpine.