SPIELBERG, Austria (AFP) – Max Verstappen laid down a marker for the future last Sunday and sparked a new controversy when he pushed Charles Leclerc aside to win ‘the battle of the young guns’ at the Austrian Grand Prix.
The two 21-year-olds had started from the front of the grid, Verstappen for Red Bull and Leclerc for Ferrari, forming the youngest front row in Formula One history.
Monegasque driver Leclerc converted his pole position into a comfortable lead, but his tyre degradation in the closing laps of the race left him vulnerable to a late attack from his Dutch rival.
It climaxed on lap 69 when Verstappen swooped to pass on the inside of Leclerc at Turn Three and forced him wide and off the track as took the lead – a move that was called into question immediately as the stewards launched an investigation.
The hearing to decide the outcome of the investigation and the result of the race did not begin until 6pm local time, around 90 minutes after the race finished.
Verstappen, who had delighted a vast and raucous ‘Orange Army’ of Dutch fans, said the incident was merely “hard racing” and that if he were penalised there would be “no point in F1 – and we should all go and stay at home”.
The Dutchman was lent support from Ferrari’s four-time champion Sebastian Vettel, who finished fourth.
“I haven’t seen what happened,” said the German. “If it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t fair. But I am not a fan of passing on these decisions to people somewhere sat in a chair.
“I think we are the best to judge, in the car, and it’s racing, you know – we’re not fighting for the kindergarten cup.”
Leclerc said he would let the stewards decide, but he felt it was “pretty clear”.
“I was on the outside, just like the lap before, when he left the space for a car width on the exit of the corner, but he didn’t on the other lap.
“So, we touched and I had to go wide. Obviously, I didn’t have any chance to pass back. So, it’s a shame.”
Ferrari Team Chief Mattia Binotto, whose team lost out after a stewards’ investigation into an incident at the Canadian Grand Prix where Vettel was penalised for re-joining the race in a dangerous fashion, said he was confident the stewards would rule for the Italian team.
That would give Leclerc his maiden Grand Prix victory, but in the most frustrating of circumstances.
“It’s been a fantastic fight on the track, but the rules are clear, at the moment,” said Binotto.
“The regulation is causing a collision, or forcing a car off track. I think both situations were there and we trust the work of the stewards.”
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner took a different view ahead of the hearing.
“Max has got the opportunity – he’s fully alongside, fully up the inside and, at that point, Max can’t get out of the way.
“Lecler has to concede the corner at some point. It’s clean. He’s right there. Obviously, he came in aggressively, but what are you supposed to do?
“If they take this victory away from Max here, in my view it would be stealing from Formula One,” he said.
“This is what we need – drivers going wheel-to-wheel and fighting each other.”
Whatever the stewards’ verdict, it brought an end to Mercedes’ record unbeaten start to the season and broke the Silver Arrows’ stronghold after 10 straight wins overall.
It also showed that one week on from the dreary procession at the French Grand Prix, Formula One remains a sport that can produce a thrilling spectacle in the right conditions and at the right circuit.