FIA Finally Adjusting To Max Verstappen?

Max Verstappen avoided penalty to retain win in the Formula 1 race in Austria
Max Verstappen has been the poster boy of hard racing that often stretched the rule book. The FIA ruling in favour of Max Verstappen in Austria is a welcome change for the sport and the maverick driver. 

In recent times, FIA’s involvement in influencing race results via the ‘5 second time penalty’ has been excessive. For the second in three races, the penalty was applied to the race-winning driver. In Canada, it was Sebastian Vettel, whereas in Austria, it was Max Verstappen. However, the situation for both drivers was completely different, and hence the eventual outcome. In Vettel’s case, he went off track and was penalised for how he re-joined the race. In Verstappen’s case, it was about leaving space for Leclerc at the exit of Turn 4. After nearly three hours of deliberations, the FIA ruled ‘no action’ towards the incident, the right thing to do.

However, there are some fundamental issues in how the FIA arrived at their decision. For starters, the incident wasn’t worthy of investigation whatsoever. It was a classic racing incident for the lead of the race between two of the best young drivers in the sport. It is only obvious if there’s a bit of wheel banging, unless, the expectation from the rule-book is that drivers yield position when being attacked. Second, the time taken to arrive at a decision, three hours, basically, an unacceptable delay. The stewards took longer to announce the official winner of the race than the actual race duration. But this may offer a hint as to how difficult it may have been for the FIA to arrive at the correct decision. Funnily, an overzealous fan stumped most Paddock insiders by releasing a ‘fake document’ announcing a penalty for Verstappen.

The fan forums went abuzz about how the FIA set a precedent with Vettel’s penalty in Canada and Daniel Ricciardo’s penalty in France and how this would’ve meant that a penalty for Verstappen was only to be expected. However, it is a good sign if the FIA have broken from their own precedent, at least it could mean that they won’t be pressured to follow a false and much-criticised precedent for the rest of the season. While Ferrari would be right in feeling that a second race win of their season was taken away by the FIA, Verstappen would feel vindicated after being a target of FIA’s penalties for the last few seasons.

Formula 1’s Outlier For The 2019 Formula 1 Season?

Just a week after delivering one of the sport’s worst races in recent times, Formula 1 enjoyed a brilliant motor-race at the Red Bull Ring in Austria, a welcome change from the processional races Formula 1 is being accused of delivering repeatedly.

The 2019 Austrian Grand Prix was celebrated as a success for various reasons. First, the circuit characteristics and layout. The Red Bull Ring, despite having just 10 corners and a shorter layout, offered some of the best racing car drivers in the world a challenge throughout the weekend. A classic example of quality over quantity, given that some of the longer circuits have consistently delivered damp squib of races.

Second, the weather – extreme heat and wind, added to the drivers’ challenges, not to mention bringing into play different race-winning tyre strategies for everyone. Third, and not the most important, Mercedes’ inability to find their ‘sweet spot’. Given the overdose of Mercedes wins this season, that they weren’t even in the fight for the win was surprising. But is one race enough to fans to believe that all is well again in the world of Formula 1? Well, in our view, certainly not. It would be wise to consider the result from this weekend’s race an outlier.

Ferrari and Charles Leclerc – The Wait Gets Longer

The post-race controversy took shine away from Leclerc’s brilliant qualifying and race performance. The Monegasque driver complimented a change in approach to car setup to his upturn in form, one that saw him consistently outpace Vettel through the weekend. In his debut year with Sauber last year, it was at the Spanish Grand Prix that Leclerc told us of a similar change of approach that helped him emerge as the rookie to watch out for. After clinching his second career pole, Leclerc executed a good race to remain the overall leader till the 69th lap of the race.

In the laps building up to the actual overtake, Leclerc defended finely from an on-the-charge Verstappen. At Turn 4, Leclerc preferred the outside line, one that helped him straighten the car earlier (and keep away from the incline on the inside of the corner) and use the straight-line speed advantage of his Ferrari power unit to keep Verstappen at bay. In fact, in the lap prior to the actual overtake, Verstappen-Leclerc acted in a similar fashion; the Red Bull Racing driver choosing the inside line to attack. Although on that occasion, Verstappen left a car’s width for Leclerc at the exit, one that the former used to drag away from his challenger. In the feeder series, several drivers, including Indian racer Jehan Daruvala, chose a similar approach while attacking/defending from this corner.

After questionable decisions and strategies in the opening races of the year, Ferrari need to be complimented for their bold approach in Austria. Given the heat (track temperatures were almost 60 degrees centigrade), the general belief was that the medium/hard would be the preferred tyre choices and that Ferrari had erred by opting for the softs for both their drivers. The fact that Mercedes and Red Bull Racing chose mediums for their drivers only cemented this belief. However, Leclerc and Vettel made good use of the soft tyres in their opening stints – Leclerc to keep the Mercedes drivers at bay, while Vettel used the advantage to overtake rivals as he fought back from 9th place.

The only possible (but substantial) negative for Ferrari from the 2019 Austrian Grand Prix was the repeated issues with Vettel. As luck would have it, Vettel hit car trouble in Q3, forcing him to sit out and settle for 10th place (he was promoted to 9th after grid penalties to drivers around him). Later in the race, the Ferrari mechanics weren’t ready for Vettel when he emerged for his first pit-stop. The team later revealed that a radio issue with the mechanics led to this delay and cost the German driver four extra seconds of stationary time. However, did Ferrari pit Vettel to delay and distract Mercedes from Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas? Bottas was running second at that time and was Leclerc’s only challenger for the win.

Max Verstappen – The Local Favourite

Although in Austria, live images broadcast from the race would have one believe that the race was held in the Netherlands. The grand stands were filled in a sea of orange t-shirts and caps, all cheering Verstappen throughout the entire weekend. The ‘Verstappen fever’ will break all records as Formula 1 returns to Zandvoort in 2020. But for now, expect the Dutch fans to cheer their young and fierce driver at most of the European races.

At the start, Verstappen dropped from second to ninth place on the opening lap, his racing car engaged anti-stall. By the 10th lap, Verstappen’s gap to the leaders was nearly 15 seconds, leading everyone to believe that he would be nowhere in contention for the race win. However, a brilliant tyre strategy from Red Bull Racing saw Verstappen go longer on the medium tyres and bring himself back into contention for at least a podium finish. In his first stint, Verstappen went 10 laps longer than Bottas (both on mediums) and nine laps more than Leclerc, who was on softs. Did Ferrari and Mercedes not bother to cover Verstappen in the race?

In the second stint, Verstappen benefitted from tyres that were 10 laps fresher than his rivals. Here, tyre life helped him overcome the power deficit of his Honda engine, given that the Red Bull Ring has three long straights. Verstappen’s first victim was Vettel, who offered a few laps of good wheel-to-wheel action. On the other hand and surprisingly, Bottas let Verstappen pass without any resistance.

There appears to be something amiss with Pierre Gasly. After watching Verstappen’s drives, it is tough to digest Gasly’s consistent struggles and lowly performances in the Red Bull Racing car. The story of the 2019 Austrian Grand Prix could have been very different if Red Bull Racing had two cars competing at the front. The team’s promote-and-demote strategy would be playing in Gasly’s head, as he fears losing his seat to either of the Toro Rosso drivers. But one hopes that Helmut Marko shows more patience towards the young Frenchman and that the team works together to identify a way out of his current slump. Expectedly, fans on social media have been calling for Gasly to be replaced since a few races, many citing the impatience Red Bull Racing showed with Daniil Kvyat a few years ago as an example. Just because a mistake was made by the team then doesn’t mean they should repeat it this season.

Mercedes missed out on Mclaren’s 31-year-old record

Is the Austrian Grand Prix the new Achilles’ heel for Mercedes? A few seasons ago, it was the Monaco Grand Prix. The team scored a double retirement in the race last year and this weekend, both drivers complained of the heat impacting the performance of the power unit. Bottas, while finishing third, was hardly a bother to Leclerc in the first part of the race. While Hamilton, registered his first non-podium finish since 11 races (last one dating to the 2018 Mexican Grand Prix) by finishing fifth. The reigning world champion was given a 3-place grid penalty for impeding Kimi Raikkonen in qualifying, but there’s little to prove that this hampered his final race result. However, Hamilton’s eventual result was impacted by the damage inflicted to his front nose thanks to the aggressive kerbs used in this race. The Mercedes driver had to pit for a nose replacement, one that cost him more time and position to Vettel.

Given Mercedes’ form and dominance, the performance from the weekend will come as a surprise to the team. It seemed as though Mercedes had no answer to Ferrari and Red Bull’s pace. However, one would expect normalcy to resume come the next race at Silverstone. At Austria, Mercedes were gunning to equal Mclaren’s 11 successive wins record from 1988. However, the team will have to wait a little bit longer to equal or claim this record. And of course, there are 12 races remaining this season, just in case.

Mclaren – Best Of The Rest

First things first, Mclaren must have felt bitter watching Honda claim their first win since their return to the sport in 2015. After enduring the worst for three painful seasons, it seems that Red Bull Racing are already enjoying the spoils of their 9-race old relationship with Honda. However, the team from Woking pulled off yet another fantastic performance, becoming the first mid-field team to claim two back-to-back double points finishes. Lando Norris finished a career-best sixth place, while Carlos Sainz Jr recovered from a grid-penalty inflicted starting position of 19th to finish in 8th place. Also scoring double points for the first time this season were Alfa Romeo, Raikkonen, who looked very racy at the start and was running in the top-5, finishing ninth while Antonio Giovinazzi claiming his first-ever Formula 1 point in 10th.

The top-10 positions were scored by drivers from 5 teams, meaning that the other five teams – Renault, Racing Point, Haas, Toro Rosso and Williams failed to score. The biggest disappointment of the weekend would be Kevin Magnussen in the Haas, who qualified a surprise 5th place. The Danish driver was given a drive-through penalty for being out of place in his start box and he failed to recover from this early race penalty. The surprise win from the weekend was Robert Kubica, who was voted as the ‘Driver of the Day’ despite experiencing one of the most embarrassing races of his career. One would have imagined that Formula 1 would have sorted such a bogus scoring system by now.

Finally, Formula 1 was the biggest winner at the 2019 Austrian Grand Prix. This race was one of those rare ones where the three podium finishers all opted for different tyre strategies, thereby adding to our excitement. As we look forward to the 2019 British Grand Prix in a fortnight from now, fans wouldn’t be off-the-mark in hoping that the remaining 12 races of the 2019 Formula 1 Season be contested at the Red Bull Ring!

Indian Motorsport

Jehan Daruvala is now only eigh points away from his championship rival Robert Shwartzman in Formula 3. The Mumbai-born driver finished fourth and second in the two races contested this weekend. On the other hand, Arjun Maini’s return to Formula 2 didn’t go as hoped. The Bengaluru-born racer failed to get into the points in both his races. Let’s hope the duo are able to give dual reasons to cheer to their legion of Motorsport fans back home.

This post was first published on Firstpost.

Kunal Shah is an FIA-accredited Formula 1 journalist who has been reporting on Formula 1 for nearly two decades. He worked with the Force India Formula 1 Team for 6 seasons in Marketing, Sponsorship and Commercial roles. As a former single-seater racer, he was responsible for Force India's grassroots talent program, One from a Billion Hunt. Presently, he co-writes a regular Formula 1 column for Firstpost, speaks on Inside Line F1 Podcast & Pits to Podium and produces broadcast/OTT content for NENT Group (Viasport & Viaplay).

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