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View from the Pit Lane: Austrian GP

Austria winner Max Verstappen has three consecutive podiums for the first time in his career.

By Karun Chandhok, C4F1 technical analyst

On Saturday after qualifying at the Austrian Grand Prix, there was a lot of concern that the race was going to be a bit predictable, and that’s something that we really didn’t want after the snoozefest at Paul Ricard.

What we got was an enthralling, entertaining, fascinating contest on the track and in the pits, with so much to talk about afterwards! We had all six drivers from the top teams passing and battling each other hard at different points in the race, which was brilliant to watch.

It was a great reminder that F1 still has the ability to surprise us more than we think.

The Dutch fans made the atmosphere so special and their boy delivered a faultless drive. Publicly Max Verstappen has been quite punchy and talked about how “he’s the same driver as earlier this year” and now is very quick to say “see, I still remember how to drive” – so clearly all the criticism from earlier this year did get to him.

That’s just the tone of a young man fighting his corner, and frankly he’s missing the point a bit – nobody ever thought that he had forgotten how to drive and, more importantly, I think the whole world talked about how he’s a very special, once-in-a-generation talent who just needed to stop making errors.

Whether he acknowledges it publicly or not, the Max Verstappen post-Monaco is a different sort of driver. I pointed to this in my column after the Canadian Grand Prix where I said that watching trackside it was clear that Max was driving at 95% and still delivering great speed, but without the desperation to dominate that we saw in Monaco.

I do feel that both in Paul Ricard and in Austria, we’ve seen more of the same from Max and, clearly, without overdriving the car he’s still able to out-qualify Daniel  Ricciardo –  who’s no slouch himself.

Max is now 6-3 ahead in qualifying this season, but importantly the post-Monaco score is 3-0 in his favour.

What we’re seeing isn’t a driver who has completely changed his approach or mentality, nor has he changed his driving style. All we’re seeing is someone who’s basically taken a small step back from the edge in order to give himself a bit of a run-up and leap forward in his career.

In Max’s case, we’re seeing a driver working with a team of people around him who absolutely trust and believe in his speed and ability but who were frustrated in him for not fulfilling his potential.

The opening lap in Austria showed that he’s learnt he doesn’t need to go ‘all in’ from the moment the lights go out. At Turns 1,3 and 4 on the opening lap, he didn’t attack on the entry, but instead sat back and let it all unfold around him.

While Kimi Raikkonen ran off the track twice and Valtteri Bottas made the ballsy move around the outside, Max had a more cautious approach but he still showed that he’s a crafty and hard racer by taking advantage of Kimi’s error to slip down the inside of Turn 7, with a gentle kiss on the rear of the Ferrari to make sure he got through.

In the end, that proved to be a critical error from Kimi and the move from Max secured the win.

One thing Max has been excellent at over the years is tyre management. On the grid, both Christian Horner and Helmut Marko were a bit warm in their leather Lederhosen but they also knew that the warmer temperatures on race day were going to help their cause.

Traditionally the Mercedes drivers have suffered a bit more in the heat when compared to Ferrari and that was evident again on Sunday.

However in Red Bull’s case, while Daniel suffered with bad blistering in the high track temperatures, Max was able to manage his pace and tyres beautifully. Yes, Max had free air and Daniel didn’t but it’s still an impressive feat.

I briefly spoke with him after the race and he said he was just looking at the gap to Kimi and pacing himself to ensure he stayed out of DRS range – very reminiscent of his first race win in Barcelona in 2016.

The psychology of a driver is certainly a very interesting subject and one that we could spend days discussing. This is where F1 is special because it truly is the combination of human and machine that delivers success.

Unlike in tennis, where the rackets are all very similar, or football where they all kick the same ball, there is a huge emphasis on that combination working harmoniously together. Engineers hate having a variable in their equations, and the driver is a variable that throws up all sorts of curveballs.

However, most engineers who work in F1 are also racers and they love seeing that driver battling hard in their machine.

I’ve talked already about Max’s shift in mentality, but up and down the grid there are lots of interesting cases to talk about.

Lewis Hamilton did a brilliant job to get into the lead on the opening lap and was looking comfortable up front, managing his three-second gap. The virtual safety car came out when Bottas’ car broke down and Mercedes made that crucial error of not bringing Lewis in to pit.

There was no question that it was a strategic error – simply put for anyone not familiar with why, a pit stop under VSC costs half as much time on track as one under full racing conditions.

Lewis came out of the pits and was absolutely livid with how the situation had unfolded.

Toto Wolff has talked about how the team made the unusual decision to have their strategist James Vowles get on the team radio and talk to their star driver. They recognised that Lewis was frustrated and need to keep his chin up, and James made the extraordinary call more than once to Lewis mid-race to apologise for his error and take full responsibility for the situation the reigning world champion found himself in.

That was very good management by the team to try to motivate their man. Out on track, it can feel a bit lonely and you need to feel that the team are with you especially when things aren’t going well or strategies are unfolding around you.

It’s so difficult in the car to be able to read the race and be aware of just what the big picture is as you’re looking at the cars 300 meters ahead or behind you and can’t get the full story.

Fans are often confused by radio messages from drivers saying “am I racing him?” and I do appreciate that it sounds a bit confusing but trust me, it’s a question that gets asked a lot! 

The mental ability of someone like Charles Leclerc to dig himself out of a hole on Sunday when he was in the gravel on the opening lap tells me that he’s the real deal and ready for the step up into the red car in 2019.

At that stage it would be easy to sit back and just be resigned to an afternoon of driving around to finish in 14th but he dug deep, managed his strategy well with the engineers on the pit wall and found a good rhythm to climb back up the order and into the points.

That mental strength to stay calm and not panic further emphasises that he’s a star of the future, and I think that Ferrari should bite the bullet to stick him in that car for 2019.

He’ll take a couple of years to get the level of a Vettel or a Hamilton, especially when it comes to setting the car up, and there will be errors, but when Seb decides to call it quits in a few years’ time, they will have a top-notch replacement that they would have prepared to take over as the number one.

We’re off to Silverstone for the British Grand Prix this week, live again on Channel 4.

Mercedes brought an aero upgrade to Austria which gave them more front-end performance in the middle part of long radius corners, especially medium and high-speed corners.

This explained why they were very strong in Sector 3 in Austria, which is ominous for Ferrari at Silverstone, especially when you throw in the thinner treaded tyres to the equation.

Having said that, Austria has taught us to expect the unexpected!

Read more: Stat Wrap - Verstappen overcomes the odds

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