Max Verstappen hunted Hamilton down at the French Grand Prix to take the chequered flag and extend his championship lead over the Briton to 12 points. The seven-time world champion is certainly still in contention, and both he and Mercedes will be eyeing a top performance at the Red Bull Ring to bounce back.
While Verstappen is a two-time winner at the circuit, claiming victory in both 2018 and 2019, Mercedes dominated the two races in Austria last season with Valtteri Bottas winning the first and Hamilton taking maximum points in the second.
The result at the Circuit Paul Ricard was disappointing, but there was some good news for the Silver Arrows: the pace of the car was encouraging compared to the street circuits of Monaco and Baku.
It may be a minor improvement, but every point matters in Formula 1. In Austria, the minuscule difference between winning and losing is magnified further still as it is an insanely quick lap and a short circuit – the lap record is just less than one minute seven seconds (1:06.957)!
Hamilton said himself that the Red Bull Ring is a power-hungry circuit with long straights. It’s why Felipe Massa was able to claim a shock pole position in 2014 for Williams and Charles Leclerc stormed to pole in 2019.
Other than those two, pole in Austria is Mercedes’ thing. Hamilton and Bottas have three each, with Bottas claiming three of the last five. If Hamilton is going to hit back at Verstappen, he’s going to have to beat out the Dutchman and his teammate in qualifying.
In fact, Bottas is leading Hamilton by two wins to one since the Finn joined the Silver Arrows, so the Brit must keep an eye on his teammate. Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
With that in mind, Hamilton should and is more fearful of Verstappen. Red Bull appear to be at least on level terms with Mercedes when it comes to straight-line speed and power thanks to the Honda engine unit. They have won each of the last three races, with Verstappen claiming two wins either side of Sergio Perez’s victory in Baku.
With the momentum built and the scintillating form that Red Bull find themselves in, Hamilton could be on the backfoot in Austria. However, as seen in France and Azerbaijan to an extent, the margins between Mercedes and Red Bull are agonisingly fine.
If Hamilton can take pole or establish an early need, it will be down to Mercedes to execute the correct strategy. With the two leading teams so close in terms of power, victory could be decided by teammate performance and strategy more than anything else.
The 36-year-old reigning world champion may need Bottas more than he knows, and Bottas will need to deliver one of his better performances of an underwhelming season to help guide the Brit closer to Verstappen in the championship.
Hamilton has consistently stated that the road to the championship in 2021 is a marathon, but Austria is a sprint – and it’s an opportunity that both he and Mercedes can ill afford to pass up.
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