Verstappen beats Perez in entertaining wet Austria Sprint

© XPB 

A knives-out first lap battle between Red Bull team mates Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez kicked off what proved to be a highly entertaining sprint race in wet conditions at Spielberg, Austria.

Verstappen repelled Perez and went on to stretch out a 20s lead, with Perez briefly dropping behind Haas' Nico Hulkenberg. He soon fought back to secure second place, with Carlos Sainz third ahead of Aston Martin pair Lance Stroll and Fernando Alonso.

Hulkenberg was one of a number of drivers to pit late in the race to change from inters to slick tyres allowing him to charge his way back to sixth at the finish ahead of Esteban Ocon, the Alpine beating Mercedes' George Russell in a drag race to the line by nine thousandths of a second.

It was a grey and wet afternoon in the Styrian hills that greeted drivers as they headed to the grid for the start of the Austrian GP sprint race at the Red Bull Ring. Virtually everyone was on intermediate tyres, with the bold exception of Valtteri Bottas in P19 where Alfa Romeo appeared to be gambling that the rain would stop soon and hand them an advantage. But in the meantime, just getting around the formation lap was challenge enough even for those on the appropriate inters.

Max Verstappen lined up on pole ahead of Red Bull team mate Sergio Perez, followed by Lando Norris, Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz, with Fernando Alonso in sixth after Charles Leclerc had been handed a three place grid penalty for blocking another car during the showdown. At the back, Bottas crept down pit lane to change his tyres to inters after all before the race got underway.

The conditions meant it was a breathless opening to the race when the lights went out. Verstappen managed to fight back against an assertive Perez, who wasn't happy with the robust riposte: "What's wrong with Max?" he complained over the team radio. The spat opened the door for Hulkenberg with the Haas taking the opportunity to bustle his way his way into second, while Norris was caught out by the Red Bull fight and got bounced back to tenth place by the end of the first lap. It left him just ahead of Kevin Magnussen, who was under pressure from the two Mercedes drivers of George Russell and Lewis Hamilton seeking to use the weather to give them a chance for a damage limitation run after setbacks in the earlier showdown.

(L to R): Sergio Perez (MEX) Red Bull Racing RB19 and Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB19 battle for the lead at the start of the race. 01.07.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 10, Austrian Grand Prix, Spielberg, Austria, Sprint Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Moy / XPB Images

By lap 8, Verstappen was pulling clear of Hulkenberg by almost half a second a lap, while Perez had stabilised behind the Haas in third ahead of Sainz, followed by the Aston Martin pairing of Lance Stroll and Fernando Alonso. Alex Albon had got a great start in the Williams for seventh, while Esteban Ocon was still in the final points-paying position ahead of Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris. The rain, while not heavy, was continuing to fall making visibility difficult as water spray was thrown into the air in rooster tails.

Magnussen ran wide out of the final corner onto the kerbs on lap 10, opening the door for Russell to finally push his way past and still make it cleanly into turn 1. Hamilton didn't have time to follow his team mate through and remained bottled up in 13th behind the Haas for another lap before likewise pulling off the pass. Meanwhile the merest whisper of a drier line was starting to appear, and the drivers were seeking water to keep their precious inters from overheating. Even so, there was no chance of race control enabling DRS in these conditions - yet.

Perez needed no help to finally blast his way past Hulkenberg in turn 7 to take back second place on lap 12. As we've seen so many times in the past with the Haas, the VF-23 was now waning rapidly and next time by it was Sainz who was easily forcing his way by. Leclerc was also pressing his attack on Ocon for eighth but finding himself sternly rebuffed by the Alpine, while behind them Norris, Russell and Hamilton were all on high alert alert for any advantage that might come their way. It did so on lap lap 16 when Leclerc ran wide, allowing Norris to squeeze his way past and hold on to ninth.

Carlos Sainz Jr (ESP) Ferrari SF-23. 01.07.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 10, Austrian Grand Prix, Spielberg, Austria, Sprint Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Batchelor / XPB Images

With little to gain from the status quo ahead of him, Russell broke ranks and headed for pit lane to be the first to trade up to soft slick tyres, with McLaren playing copycat with Oscar Piastri next time by. Race control duly responded by enabling DRS for everyone. Straight away, Russell was setting purple sectors - but with only eight laps remaining, was there time to make up the time deficit of his call to pit lane?

More drivers decided to gamble - Hamilton moving to softs, Magnussen and Hulkenberg onto mediums as was Williams' Logan Sargeant, while Nyck de Vries and Zhou Guanyu switched to the softs. Leclerc was in as well, and even Albon from the points. Eight drivers remained on inters - Verstappen, Perez, Sainz, Stroll, Alonso, Ocon, Norris and Pierre Gasly - but Hulkenberg was hunting them down and soon picked off Gasly on lap 21 who was then dispatched by Russell on the next lap. Further back, Hamilton had put Albon down a place but was running out of time to catch Gasly and the others.

By the time the drivers' ordeal was over, Verstappen's margin at the front was 20 seconds with Perez holding on to a much tighter advantage over Sainz for second. Stroll was allowed to circulate unmolested by Alonso in fourth, with the Spaniard having to dart around to hold off a flying Hulkenberg to the line. Ocon finished in seventh just nine thousandths of a second ahead of Russell who claimed the final point ahead of Norris, Hamilton, Piastri, Leclerc, Albon, Magnussen and Gasly.

The final five were Yuki Tsunoda, Nyck de Vries, Logan Sargeant, Zhou Guanyu and the hapless Valtteri Bottas.

Race winner Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB19 in parc ferme. 01.07.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 10, Austrian Grand Prix, Spielberg, Austria, Sprint Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Batchelor / XPB Images

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