There was next to no jeopardy for Red Bull and Max Verstappen en route to another crushing Formula 1 win in the Austrian Grand Prix. Until late on.
With 10 laps of the race remaining, and a lead of more than 20 seconds, Verstappen received the first indication that Red Bull was actively considering a bid for him to get fastest lap.
Despite being on the cusp of a full pitstop’s advantage over Charles Leclerc in second, though, the initial plan did not involve stopping to put on softs – as Verstappen eventually did.
“Just make sure you have some tyres left for the end of the race,” Verstappen was told by race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase. “Might decide to use them.”
When Verstappen countered by suggesting “we could also do a pitstop”, Lambiase’s reply was unsurprising: “That perhaps is slightly more risk. But either way just look after the tyres. [Leclerc is] 21 seconds behind.”
For a few laps, there was no further discussion. Then Verstappen was instructed to prepare for the fastest lap – on what were now 17-lap-old mediums. He was told to start cooling his tyres and, if necessary, letting the Alpine of Pierre Gasly that he had just lapped go past, to do a couple of laps “off the pace”.
Verstappen pushed back: “I prefer to box, this is just silly to do that.” Again he was told the risk of pitting was not worthwhile. And then he was informed that the current fastest lap was just four hundredths of a second better than his own.
But still Verstappen was not on board. “We are 24 seconds in the lead, come on,” he said. And then he sent a very smart message: “These tyres are not going to get better, they are just degging.”
That was decisive. Whether Verstappen believed it or not, it sent a clear message to Red Bull that trying to push for a personal best (and get the fastest lap as a result) on these older mediums was a needless risk in itself, and one that would possibly fail anyway. And while pitting for softs had a higher peak risk given all that can go wrong in a pitstop, the act of then getting fastest lap would be a breeze given the performance of that tyre.
It’s exactly how it played out. Red Bull aced the stop, Verstappen had enough time in hand to spend his out-lap – the penultimate lap of the race – getting his tyres in the right window and his battery well charged. And on the final lap of the race, without even sweating track limits and clearly still driving with margin in hand, Verstappen claimed the fastest lap by a full second and scored an extra point as a result.
“To me not [a risk],” Verstappen said about the late pitstop. “But to the team, I think they were a little bit more nervous.
“I saw the gap and I was like ‘we have to pit, I want to go for the fastest lap’. When you have the opportunity [you should take it]. And that’s what we did at the end.”
He added: “From the outside maybe it looks like a big risk. But when you’re in the car… For me, it didn’t feel like a risk at all.”
What Verstappen wasn’t told during the in-race discussion is that team-mate Sergio Perez held the fastest lap he was being lined up to target. That’s not relevant because of anything between those two drivers but it is potentially significant because it means Red Bull had possession of the fastest lap already.
It may have been all about getting the bonus point for Verstappen, it may have been just about securing it for the team. With Verstappen, Red Bull had the option of covering anyone else making a late bid for the fastest lap, whereas Perez didn’t have that luxury.
But either way, Red Bull was willing to take a risk to make certain of something that was already in the team’s possession. And the margin to Leclerc was not so big that it had a lot of insurance should anything have gone wrong.
Any kind of issue in the pits or even on the out-lap could have derailed not just the fastest lap bid but cost Red Bull the win entirely. It was a move with a non-zero chance of backfiring spectacularly and that’s why it’s the kind of thing you don’t really see teams risking. We see pitstops go wrong quite frequently, and the stakes are much higher in a situation like this.
A loss of one or two seconds in the middle of the grand prix is pretty much nothing. It’s either not going to cost the team the lead or it will but there is plenty of time and opportunity to get it back. If Verstappen had lost the lead on the penultimate lap, it was possibly game over (although depending on the exact time loss, then such was the tyre and car advantage, maybe repassing Leclerc would have been inevitable).
Some will think that Red Bull should not have risked this. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. Clearly the team had total faith in its pit crew and in Verstappen, and it was rewarded. It may have looked like borderline showboating to do all this for a final flourish on the very last lap of the grand prix, but it was more a display of everything that is making this combination so utterly dominant at the moment. Red Bull’s operations are on point. The car is, as Verstappen put it, “on fire”. And the driver isn’t half-bad either.
“It was the first time that we’ve obviously been back here since Dietrich [Mateschitz]’s passing and it felt very poignant that it was a great team performance,” said Red Bull team boss Christian Horner.
“We decided to go for the fastest lap on the last lap, despite the risk involved in fluffing a pitstop – at the back of my mind was his [Mateschitz’s] mantra was always no risk, no fun.
“And the mechanics have been in such great form. It seemed a low risk thing to do in the end.”
All this situation showed, from the moment GP and Verstappen started debating the best way to go for the fastest lap to the crucial seconds of that late pitstop, is that Red Bull’s only real jeopardy comes from within. No, not in-fighting, or self-sabotage.
In normal circumstances, the only thing that will defeat Verstappen and Red Bull is something in their control. F1 is relying on variables like a botched late pitstop, car trouble, or Verstappen making a mistake.
There are other influences too, but those things are the key difference between Verstappen winning races and not winning races. It is only when Red Bull makes life harder for itself, or takes a risk, that even half an eyebrow is raised over the outcome of a grand prix.