The teams arrived in the mountainous region of Styria, Austria on Wednesday with one ambition: close the gap to Charles Leclerc. The Monegasque rider left Baku after an almost perfect weekend had rebuilt his lead in the drivers’ championship after a tough one in Monaco, and his rivals knew that the tight, twisty Red Bull Ring was an opportunity to redress the balance once again.
Thick, dark clouds swirled around the circuit as the teams lined up in the pitlane for free practice, with all drivers straight out to ensure as much track time as possible on a circuit that requires a perfect lap to find a good qualifying position given the historically close times there.
The times tumbled on the first set until Leclerc grabbed P1 15 minutes in, before everyone concentrated on long runs until the final 5 minutes: a number of drivers pushed again, setting fastest sector times until Sergio Sette Camara pulled up on track ahead of the pits, prompting a VSC period and leaving Leclerc on top at the flag, ahead of teammate Antonio Fuoco and Nyck De Vries.
Anyone hoping to bring Leclerc’s run of pole positions to an end was in for disappointment: the Ferrari Academy driver made it five from five, setting the two quickest laps of the session just to be sure. With rain between the sessions and clouds overhead the drivers were immediately out to secure a time, and Leclerc soon held the top spot again, by a tenth over Sette Camara as they returned to the pits. On the second set ART teammates Alexander Albon and Nobuharu Matsushita briefly peeled P1 from Leclerc’s hands, but Leclerc was not to be denied: he grabbed pole by three tenths from Sette Camara (who finished in the gravel on his last lap) and Fuoco.
Leclerc still felt it was the toughest qualifying session so far, though: “Yeah, definitely! We expected the gap to be a bit smaller because it is a short track, and we pushed like crazy! I think that Sergio was on a very good lap before he stopped, so it would have been very close there. But I am very happy: fifth pole in a row, fifth qualifying and we grabbed all poles. I think our strong point is definitely qualy.
"But it doesn’t define the results tomorrow: we need to push and make a good start and a good race tomorrow.”
Unfortunately for his rivals, that’s exactly what he did. Leclerc led Fuoco into turn 1 and didn’t look back, building a solid lead and controlling the pace while managing his tyres ahead of his rivals on the prime strategy while the option drivers, led by DAMS teammates Nicholas Latifi and Oliver Rowland, struggled early on the supersofts before stopping for fresh rubber. After the stops, the pair went in different ways: Rowland pushed hard to overtake and try to hold the gap up to Leclerc, while Latifi bided his time, managing his tyres for the final few laps.
“After the first 3 laps I knew my supersofts were gone,” Latifi noted later, “and when I heard these guys were pitting I knew there were a lot of laps to the end, and based on my experience from the beginning of the race I knew they would start dropping.” And so it proved. The PREMA pair pitted earlier than expected – Fuoco with 9 laps remaining, Leclerc next time around – and although they both set fastest laps on the fresh rubber it was clear that they fell off their peak far too soon.
And then Latifi struck: with 5 laps to go Latifi battled past his teammate before closing in on the top two, running inside and through Fuoco at turn 1 with a gap of 6 seconds up to Leclerc with 3 laps remaining, before closing that gap to just 1.3s at the flag. The Monegasque was happy, but relieved, to be on the top spot for the fourth time this year: “It wasn’t easy, definitely! At the end Nicholas was coming very, very quickly!
“We had a good start and I managed the tyres as much as I could, because I knew I had to do a lot of laps to the pitstop, so I was managing the gap to the end. At around the middle of the stint I could push a bit harder to open out the gap and that helped us to win the race, because at the end the gap was not huge! The last part of the race was really hard to manage, because the soft tyres degrade a lot quicker than we thought, and Nicholas was just very quick.
“I don’t think we could have done any better with the strategy we had: we pitted when we had to because the tyres were done, and we finished on the limit with the option tyres, so I’m happy about the race.”
But tomorrow’s another day, and the sprint race gave his rivals a chance to grab something back, a chance that became bigger still when Leclerc retired early in the race. Artem Markelov took all the advantage after a long hold at the start by blasting off unopposed to turn 1, with P2 man Ralph Boschung bogging down off the line and being swamped: Raffaele Marciello ran blind into the back of the Swiss man, retiring on the spot and prompting a visit by the safety car.
The Russian easily controlled the restart, and indeed the race as he could dictate the pace and was unchallenged throughout, but behind him Rowland had made a tremendous start and was looking to usurp Alexander Albon, now returned from injury, for P2. The Thai driver was not prepared to gift his position: Rowland stuttered and Fuoco pounced, looking for a way past at turn 4 but being squeezed onto the kerbs and back into the path of teammate Leclerc, who had nowhere to go and was tapped into a spin and retirement.
Following a brief VSC period Markelov and Albon headed off into the distance, while Rowland used his experience from the feature race to protect his tyres until late in the race, when he tried in vain once again to demote Albon until they finished line astern behind Markelov. “It was actually a hard weekend for me,” he noted sanguinely after the race, “I qualified in P15, but we did a good job yesterday, working hard to get up to P8 and the reverse pole.
“Today we had a great start, a great restart after the safety car, and I’m pretty happy: thanks to the team, and to everyone who supports me. This was actually a good boost for me for the next race, but I need to improve my qualifying compared to this race because it was a bit of a disaster! If I get a good qualifying I think I can fight again for the top 3 in Silverstone.”
The rest of the field probably agreed with the sentiments, but more than anything they will need to ensure that Leclerc doesn’t improve too. And on current form, it’s hard to bet against him turn 5 into 6 poles in Silverstone’s Round 6.