After taking a fifth win of the season last time out, it was time to return to Austria, where last season I’d had a fairly mundane race. The circuit, once known as the Österreichring and later the A-1 Ring, is now called the Red Bull Ring, and it is the spiritual home of Red Bull Racing. Nestled in within beautiful mountainous surroundings, the Red Bull Ring, like many European circuits, has undergone extensive modifications down the years. The current track is one of the shortest laps on the F1 calendar, and 70 laps of this fast track waited for me. The weather in FP1 was a mixture of dry and wet conditions, whereas FP2 was pretty dry and FP3 returned to variable weather. The forecast for qualifying and the race suggested rain, so I set my stall with a wet-weather setup that put a lot of downforce on the car – potentially a risk if the weather wasn’t too bad and speed became the focus. I also upped the difficulty of the AI by 10 points.
It seemed that in qualifying my plan backfired, for I qualified 12th. The conditions had been dry enough that my strategy did not work. My challenge now would be making up for lost ground in the race itself, and the race started in damp conditions that brought out the intermediate tyres. An aggressive opening lap saw me squeeze up a few places and I found myself in ninth. Bold late dives under braking into the formidable turn 3 brought me ahead of the likes of Vettel and Sainz, and I got a warning for a lunge down the inside of Perez a few laps later (personally I felt he’d left the door open but what can you do?). As conditions began to improve I found myself catching Daniel Ricciardo, and once everyone had stopped for slicks I was able to challenge him for fifth. He (and virtually all the other cars) stopped for mediums but I had opted for softs – fresh softs – and soon I was pumping fastest lap after fastest lap, often trading them with Hamilton out in front. I’d catch and pass Ricciardo but he’d keep within DRS range for a while to keep life interesting – and when I ran a little wide at turn 5 he briefly scooted back ahead, but I hung on through the inside of turns 6 and 7 to get back in front. This time I stayed in front, and began to reel in Max Verstappen.
As with Ricciardo I had a good duel with Verstappen. I got ahead but he stayed in touch and my tyres began to go off the boil. The danger was that I’d pit and no one else would, but I made a stop with around 22 laps to go (in theory the softs would last 32 laps), and a lap later Verstappen (along with pretty much everyone else) stopped for fresh mediums. On new softs I began to pull away from Verstappen and tried to chase down the duelling pair of Norris and Bottas. Backmarkers would be both a hindrance and help, but I’d suffer a rare technical problem when my DRS system failed. It’s difficult to know if it was the deciding factor, but I am sure I’d wound up in DRS range of backmarkers and, had the system worked, they might have dragged me into striking distance of Norris/Bottas. As it was I couldn’t quite get into range, but Bottas was pipped by Norris to second place and thus my gap to Bottas in the standings shrunk (by virtue of me claiming the point for fastest lap) by only two points. Given where I’d started, I was prepared to take that was a win!