Austrian GP: Verstappen boxing clever by doing just enough to keep Hamilton out of range

The Red Bull racer responded to any attempt to challenge him at the Styria GP by nudging further and further ahead

Max Verstappen delivered something of a masterclass in Styria last Sunday.

The young Dutchman led from lights out to the chequered flag to put world champion Lewis Hamilton on the receiving end of the type of emphatic defeat he is used to dishing out.

But for all Verstappen’s solo superiority this race it is unlikely to have a starring place in the history books. And perhaps it should.

Those days are always the ones people remember: Hamilton’s final corner genius in Brazil 2008, Jacques Villeneuve's move on Michael Schumacher in Jerez 1997 or Mika Hakkinen’s dive inside the German at Les Combes in 2000.

But the truth is that championships are built on other days. Days when a golfer makes a difficult chip from the rough to rescue par or a footballer’s well-timed tackle prevents a goal. Or by a lonely boxer jogging the gruelling miles to peak fitness.

Or, indeed, on days like this, when the young Red Bull ace did as much as was needed and no more.

Red Bull have an edge, of course they do. But the race could have gone wrong in a million ways. Verstappen ensured it did not.

He leapt off the grid ahead of Hamilton who’s Mercedes usually makes the better start. First hurdle overcome. On the next lap he put himself out of DRS range. Second hurdle vaulted.

The Styrian GP was a 71-lapper but by the sixth time around the young Dutchman was 2.6 seconds clear of Hamilton and already cruising. Another landmine dodged. By the stops on Lap 26 the difference was over five seconds.

In F1 parlance that means ‘long gone’.

The public perception is that the driver in front sets the pace and the pursuers are desperately trying to catch him.

But sometimes it’s the other way around. The guy ahead isn’t racing as fast as he might but just fast enough to stay ahead, or in this era, to stay out of DRS range. If Hamilton fired in a fast lap, Verstappen replied in kind. If he relented, so did the Dutchman.

After all you get 25 points whether you win by one second or one kilometre.

In June 2002 I was in Montreal for the Grand Prix and settled down to taste the atmosphere as (Canadian raised) Lennox Lewis fought Mike Tyson for the world heavyweight title.

Lewis was bigger, faster, in better shape and, in truth, Tyson sluggish, complacent and past his best. Lewis was six inches taller and, crucially, had a reach 13 inches longer.

Arguably he could have beaten Tyson sooner but he just jabbed with his left, staying out of reach, and used his superior weaponry until he found the decisive blow in the eighth. By then Tyson was a spent force.

So with Verstappen. He had more but he just kept firing in the jab. Taking it steady.

After the tyre stops Hamilton upped the pace to see if anything would give. But the gap remained the same, give or take: 4.1s, 3.9, 4.0, 4.2, 4.4, 4.4, 4.4, 4.5, 4.8, 4.8.

Verstappen wasn’t racing away. Perhaps there was the question of tyre wear but, in truth, he just didn’t need to.

In any case, the Mercedes Hamilton was driving wasn’t good enough to ask serious questions of its rival.

So unrelenting was Verstappen’s pace that the man who never gives up, gave up.

On Lap 58 the difference, which had grown in tenths, suddenly began to leap by half a second or a full second each time around. In the next seven laps the gap leapt five seconds.

Then three laps from home Hamilton surrendered any thoughts of victory and grabbed at the only morsel likely to slip from Red Bull’s table on this dominant day – the single point for the fastest lap.

Afterwards Mercedes boss Toto Wolff manfully admitted this was the first time in eight years his team had no answer to the pace of a rival.

And there was a collective intake of breath up and down the paddock as he revealed Mercedes had stopped development on this year’s car to focus on the radical rule changes of 2022, although it was later denied.

So Mercedes were left reeling, from the worst series of defeats in the turbo-hybrid era.

But just like that day Lewis and Tyson went toe-to-toe in Memphis, sometimes a fighter is shifting his weight under the impact of a staggering blow but others he is just swaying with the force to clear a path for the devastating counter punch.

Updated: June 30th 2021, 3:29 AM
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