Charles Leclerc scored a crucial victory over Max Verstappen at the Austrian Grand Prix to spark new life in his title campaign.
Ferrari enjoyed a dominant afternoon and was on track for a decisive one-two finish, but Carlos Sainz retired with a spectacularly exploding power unit 11 laps from the finish.
Sainz’s fiery retirement came as he attempted to pass Verstappen for second place and secure the team a much-needed reprieve from a run of bumbling performances. Instead his burnt-out wreckage in the run-off zone at Turn 4 triggered a virtual safety car that enlivened what had looked like a commanding Leclerc victory.
Both the Monegasque and the Dutchman switched to medium tires during the caution period, but the Ferrari exhibited none of its race-winning pace on the more delicate rubber, and the pursuing Red Bull Racing machine began reeling him in when the race resumed with 11 laps to go.
Leclerc ratcheted up the tension significantly when he radioed that his throttle was remaining fractionally open when he came off the pedal, which turn triggered the car to reject some of his downshifts. But the longer he lived with the problem, the better he became at managing it, and he ground out a fraught 1.5s victory when the checkered flag finally flew.
It was Leclerc’s first win since the Australian Grand Prix three months ago and reduces Verstappen’s title lead to 38 points.
“I definitely needed that one,” he said. “The last five races have been incredibly difficult for myself and also for my team. To finally show we’ve got the pace in the car and we can do it is incredible.”
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Verstappen minimized the damage done to his title lead with a point for fastest lap to go with his extra point over Leclerc from Saturday’s sprint, but he was mystified by his mid-race lack of pace despite committing early to a two-stop strategy.
The Dutchman had been more aggressive with his pit stops while Leclerc and Sainz hedged their bets with a long opening stint intimating a one-stop approach. Verstappen, however, struggled for pace on the hard compound in particular, so much so that both Ferrari drivers switched to a two-stop strategy late and still had no trouble overhauling the pole-getter.
“It was a tricky day,” he said. “It seemed like we were struggling quite a bit with the tires, and that continued on every single compound. I had too much degradation to attack Charles especially.
“Nevertheless, second place is a good result for us on a difficult day.”
Lewis Hamilton came home third, up from eighth on the grid after crashing out of qualifying and enduring a difficult slog in the sprint. The Briton noted that he was racing a hastily rebuilt car and was optimistic there was more to come from the W13.
“I definitely wasn’t expecting that, but of course yesterday was a difficult day and it’s been a really tough weekend,” he said. “Great points, and we move forwards from here.”
He was backed up by teammate George Russell at the end of an impressive recovery drive. The Briton was running fourth early but copped a five-second penalty for punting Sergio Perez into the gravel on the first lap. The punishment dropped him to the back at his first pit stop, while Perez retired from the race with damage. He made methodical progress afterwards despite lamenting a lack of straight-line speed to finish 17.7s behind Hamilton.
Esteban Ocon was a solid fifth, holding his place on the grid, and comfortably ahead of the battling Haas and McLaren drivers.
Mick Schumacher headed that pack in sixth for his second consecutive points haul and his career best finish in Formula 1.
Lando Norris snatched seventh from Kevin Magnussen in the final 10 laps, while Daniel Ricciardo scored his first points since Azerbaijan with ninth.
Fernando Alonso took a hard-earned point for 10th with three stops after starting 19th on the grid with a power unit penalty.
Valtteri Bottas missed out on points by just 1.5s from 11th, finishing ahead of Alex Albon, Lance Stroll and Zhou Guanyu.
Pierre Gasly was 15th and penalized for crashing into Sebastian Vettel, which put the German 17th and last behind Yuki Tsunoda.