Calm Verstappen wins Austrian GP on bleak day for Mercedes
SPIELBERG, Austria -- Often criticized for taking his aggressive race style too far, Max Verstappen kept himself and his Red Bull perfectly in check to win the Austrian Grand Prix on Sunday, taking full advantage of a bleak day for pre-race favorite Mercedes.
Leading the race on visibly deteriorating tires, the Dutchman mastered his pace to stay ahead of Ferrari pair Kimi Raikkonen and third-place Sebastian Vettel, after both Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas retired from the race with mechanical issues for their Mercedes.
It cost defending champion Hamilton the lead in the Formula One championship, as he fell one point behind Vettel again after the ninth of 21 races.
Cheered by tens of thousands of orange-clad Dutch fans, Verstappen held on to claim his first win of the season, and fourth overall.
"At the end the tire management was the most important," said Verstappen, adding that "it was very special" to win in front of so many supporters. "The whole weekend, it was amazing to see so much orange. This is Austria, it is still 10, 11 hours away from Holland."
The win saw Verstappen climb to fifth in the standings with 93 points. Going into the British GP at Silverstone next week, Vettel now leads with 146, followed by Hamilton. Raikkonen is 45 points behind Vettel in third.
"I needed to catch up with the points so today was a very good day for me," Verstappen said.
It was the first time that no Mercedes car had reached the finish since the Spanish GP two years ago, when Hamilton and Nico Rosberg crashed into each other.
Hamilton was in front from the start but lost his lead following a tactical mistake by his team, which did not pit him under a virtual safety car while most other teams took the opportunity to switch to soft tires.
Having dropped to fourth, Hamilton then had to park his car on the 64th lap, seven short of the finish.
"We have got to understand how we went wrong," Hamilton said. "Ultimately, we have to take positives where we can. We were the quickest."
Red Bull even seemed to be heading for a one-two finish on their "home" circuit with Daniel Ricciardo in second, but the Australian had to make a second pit stop after losing grip from his tires, before quitting the race on lap 55 with a gear box issue.
Hamilton was quickest from the start to take an immediate lead as Bottas, who started from pole position, struggled to hold off a challenge from Raikkonen. The Ferrari driver was briefly in second but was soon overtaken by Bottas again and Verstappen.
"I had to back off at Turn 1 because the cars were squeezed together. After that, the car came good," Raikkonen said. "We had the right car, today, some points were a little bit difficult, but it was a good day for the team."
Bottas was the first Mercedes driver to quit with a hydraulic defect to his gear box in lap 14.
His exit brought out the virtual safety car, slowing down the pace and disallowing overtaking.
While both Red Bulls and Ferraris went to their boxes to have their tires changed, Mercedes surprisingly let Hamilton driving on. When the defending champion made his stop 10 laps later, he dropped to fourth.
Mercedes' chief strategist, James Vowles, immediately apologized to Hamilton over the radio for the mistake.
With track temperatures significantly higher than during practice and qualifying in previous days, tire management became tricky.
Mercedes had won all four previous races since the Austrian GP was reinstated to the F1 calendar following a 10-year absence in 2014, with Hamilton and Bottas the only drivers in Sunday's field to have won the race before.
Having started the season with back-to-back wins and adding another victory in Montreal, Vettel recovered well after a second serious setback in as many weeks on Saturday. After bumping into Bottas after the start of the French GP last week -- and restarting his race from the back of the pack -- the mishap this time happened in qualifying, with Vettel picking up a three-place grid penalty for impeding Renault's Carlos Sainz.
"Obviously it would have been nice to start further up. I was left with no place to go at Turn 1 and lost the momentum," Vettel said. "It was damage limitation but the pace was very good and the tire management was very good. A positive day but it could have been better."
Profiting from the mishap to Mercedes and Red Bull's Ricciardo, Romain Grosjean steered his Haas into fourth place, giving the U.S. team its best finish in a F1 race.
At just over 4.3 kilometers (2.7 miles), the track in Austria is the shortest on the F1 calendar. It features just nine turns and four long straights, with inclines of up to 12 percent.
Copyright 2018 by The Associated Press
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