Heading into Austria we had another divisive sprint race on the horizon, based on the history of the sprints it’s fair to say that no one was expecting much. Whilst we’ve had a couple of exhilarating sprints over the years, this new addition to the sport, for the most part, has fallen short of the traditional Grand Prix that makes the weekend on Sundays. However, the combination of interchangeable conditions, stringent track limits and a significantly shorter track invited an epic spectacle for the 24 laps of the Redbull Ring. So, here’s my short summary of the sprint race at Austria.
First, we’ll need to head back to the Saturday morning which saw Hamilton make a shock exit in SQ1 due to his final flying lap getting deleted, this outcome had already been preluded by the Friday as we saw 47 track limit infringements on the first day of running at Spielberg. This wouldn’t be the only bad fortune to come the way of one of the top drivers as Leclerc was hit with a 3 place grid penalty for impeding Piastri during sprint qualifying, resulting in the Ferrari driver starting P9 for the sprint race. The qualifying results began to allude to an enticing sprint race and once the rain started to fall, this would only make it that bit more intriguing.
As the lights went out we all expected Verstappen to fly off into the distance leaving a string of spray in his wake as the rest tussled and tangled to make up places but instead we were privy to Redbull’s royal rumble. Perez got off to a speedy start and pushed his teammate wide in an Ocon-esque defence but the favour was quickly returned at turn 3 where Verstappen took back control of the race and cemented his win for the remaining 23 laps. Perez’s feisty fight to fend off his teammate was a welcomed surprise as it displayed that he is still determined to slug it out with Verstappen despite everyone unanimously agreeing that the championship battle is a good as over at this point. Once both drivers reached the chequered flag we got a glimpse into their post-race discussion and although it was clear to see that they had differing opinions over the opening lap, it looked as though it was water under the bridge as both were ready to move their full focus onto Sunday.
Speaking of Redbull’s close call on the opening lap, this provided Hulkenberg with the perfect opportunity to capitalise off his P4 qualifying earlier in the day. The Haas driver took full advantage of the inter team squabble and accelerated up into P2 with many of us cheering on his sprint race heroics. Given Hulkenberg’s podium record, or lack thereof, many were hopeful that today might be the day that he secures his first top 3 finish in Formula 1 but the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz had too much pace for Hulkenberg to hold onto a possible podium, with the Haas driver acknowledging that a top 3 finish would be an unlikely outcome considering the faster cars surrounding him.
Another driver that looked on course to replicate his success at the Canadian Grand Prix was Alex Albon, the Williams driver managed to drag his car into the points during the sprint, he was seemingly outpacing those who were in hot pursuit but it was a slight misjudgment on the pitstop that brought Albon’s surge to secure points to and end. The drying track caused many to take a roll of the dice and gamble on whether they should risk giving up track position in favour of switching to slicks that were better suited to the drying track. Albon was called in too late to make this decision work and the cars in front of him chose to stick it out on old intermediates. This gave rise to the a three way battle that saw Ocon, Norris and Leclerc jostle for position in what must be one the best battles of the season so far.
Sprint races such as this one show the potential that this new concept could have, however the entertainment that we saw today was largely due to the changeable weather that forced different tyres and varying strategies up and down the entire grid. Perhaps a mandatory pit stop could be a solution as F1 continue to adjust this sprint concept, it has shown promise in the past but it’s definitely still a work in progress at the moment.