SPIELBERG, Austria -- Max Verstappen claimed a stunning victory Sunday at the Austrian Grand Prix with a wheel-banging pass on Ferrari's Charles Leclerc three laps from the finish
Leclerc had looked to be cruising to a first career victory but the race was blown wide open after the pit stops, when Verstappen came alive and carved through the field -- rising from fourth to first over the second half of the grand prix. It gave Verstappen a second consecutive victory at the circuit owned by his Red Bull team.
The move for the lead was a thrilling one. Verstappen used a better run through Turn 1 to size up a move on the run up the hill to Turn 3. Leclerc left the door open and Verstappen lunged down the inside and appeared to be marginally ahead when they came through the apex, banging wheels in the process.
Leclerc was forced wide, and opened his radio channel to say, "What the hell was that!"
The moment he crossed the line, it was confirmed the stewards were investigating the incident. The two drivers visited the stewards, and a decision was issued some two hours later, with no further action taken in what was deemed to be "a racing incident".
When asked his opinion after the race, Verstappen said, "It's hard racing, otherwise we have to stay home. If those things are not allowed, what is the point of being in F1?"
Verstappen's race looked to have unraveled at the start as he made a slow getaway from second on the grid, which allowed Mercedes pair Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton to pass him into Turn 1, as well as McLaren youngster Lando Norris. After dropping behind Kimi Raikkonen, he found himself running seventh at the end of the opening lap, marginally ahead of under-pressure Red Bull teammate Pierre Gasly.
Verstappen's 31-lap opening stint helped propel him back into contention, as did the fact Hamilton was forced into a long stint to replace a front wing after suffering a loss of downforce, believed to have been caused by a brush with the kerbs on the circuit. That slow stop allowed Verstappen to emerge in fourth place after his pit stop, with tyres 10 laps fresher than those in front of him.
It was soon clear his pace was quick enough to win the race. He closed on Vettel and, after a few sniffs at Turn 3, finally passed the four-time world champion on the run out of that same corner. Bottas was the next man up and despite a brief fear that he was losing engine power, Verstappen was soon in range of the Mercedes driver. Bottas put up no fight and Verstappen was easily able to pass on the inside of Turn 3.
As the chequered flag neared, Verstappen retained his quick pace and soon had Leclerc in his sights. Having practiced the move on Bottas, he attempted to pass the Monaco native on Lap 66, as the pair fought wheel-to-wheel on the long straight down to Turn 4. On that occasion, they avoided contact and Leclerc retained the lead, only for Verstappen to barge his way past in thrilling fashion one lap later.
The fight for the next four positions played out in a much less dramatic fashion. For a while it looked as though Mercedes had bluffed Ferrari into an early stop, with Bottas pitting and forcing Vettel in on Lap 22 -- Ferrari made a mess of the stop, with the front-left tyre not ready for his car when he entered the box.
Leclerc pitted the following lap, but Hamilton stayed out and the team soon confirmed the plan was to go long on the medium tyre. However, the championship leader's plan fell apart when he reported a loss of downforce in his car from what he believed to be front wing damage. The lengthy stop which followed on Lap 30 meant he was a distant fifth after Verstappen's stop.
Hamilton was briefly elevated to fourth in the closing stages -- after Vettel had been passed by the charging Verstappen, Ferrari called the four-time world champion in for soft tyre. With a significant tyre advantage, he was able to reel Hamilton in, passing the Mercedes driver in the closing stages.
The result means Hamilton's championship lead over Bottas has gone from 36 points to 31, while Verstappen has climbed above Vettel for third in the championship, although he is still a long way off either Mercedes driver.
In the fight for the remaining points-paying positions, McLaren's Lando Norris finished ahead of Gasly in a very impressive drive. Gasly finished seventh in a result only likely to increase the pressure on his shoulders, especially given the fact his teammate was stood on the top step of the podium by the end of the day. He had been closing in on Norris in the closing stages but was unable to get close enough to snatch six position.
Carlos Sainz turned in a superb performance from the back of the grid for eighth position, which was helped by a long stint on the medium tyre. Alfa Romeo pair Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi rounded out the top 10.