Here's what to look out for in Formula 1's 2021 Austrian Grand Prix…

Unstoppable Verstappen

Another race at the same venue makes it a foregone conclusion that Max Verstappen will take his fifth victory of the season. Even without Lewis Hamilton’s late pit stop to secure the fastest lap last time out at the Styrian Grand Prix, Verstappen would have won by over 15 seconds regardless - a dominant margin. 

Unlike last week, Verstappen’s job has been made even easier with Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas only managing fourth and fifth on the grid. The Dutchman will have Lando Norris to contend with on the opening lap.

The McLaren was consistently fast in the opening sector of the lap so Verstappen will have to be wary of Norris’ straight-line speed advantage on Lap 1. Norris has already admitted that he plans to “go for it” up against Verstappen should the opportunity arise. 

While Norris was able to get within a tenth of Verstappen in qualifying, he did get lapped by the Red Bull driver last time out. The positive for Norris, but also Verstappen, is that this time he starts on the more durable medium meaning if he does lack the race pace to Red Bull and Mercedes, he should be able to resist the pressure more easily given that he won’t be disadvantaged tyre wise, probably allowing the Dutchman to eke out his lead even more, should he make a good start. 

The current championship leader’s latest victory was dominant, this one could be even more so should he retain the lead after the opening lap. 

Damage limitation for Hamilton

It’s damage limitation for Hamilton as Mercedes could only manage fourth and fifth on the grid for the Austrian GP - its worst in dry conditions since the 2017 Singapore Grand Prix. The seven-time champion already trails Verstappen by 18 points in the drivers’ championship and it’s almost a certainty that the gap will open up again, potentially to over a race win after this afternoon’s race. 

Verstappen has a comfy buffer between himself and his main rival in the form of Hamilton, with Norris and Red Bull teammate Perez in between. Even if Hamilton was able to clear the aforementioned pair early on, it’s unlikely Mercedes would even have the race pace to challenge given that it was well behind last time out in Styria.

Hamilton has already said that the victory is “definitely out of the question”, while Bottas expects Mercedes to fare better in race trim despite lacking straight-line speed relative to Red Bull and McLaren. 

On the last three occasions where a Mercedes hasn’t qualified inside the top three - Turkey 2020, Mexico 2019 (Hamiton started third rather than fourth due to a penalty), Singapore 2017 - Hamilton won on all three occasions. 

An omen perhaps? Regardless, if Hamilton was to win it’s unlikely it would be down to pure performance.

Another chance for Russell

Russell went one better than last week as Williams progressed into Q3 for the first time since the 2018 Italian Grand Prix. Remarkably, the Mercedes-linked driver didn’t even need the soft tyre to make it into the pole position shootout as he will start the race on the medium, giving him a serious chance of finally finishing in the top ten for the Grove-based outfit.

Russell will start from eighth after Sebastian Vettel picked up a penalty for impeding Fernando Alonso in the dying stages of Q2. A loss of air in the pneumatic system forced him into the pits early and ruined a likely top ten finish at the Styrian Grand Prix.

He showed last time out that he had the race pace and bottle to run inside the top ten comfortably, resisting pressure from McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo. Again, should he make a similarly good start, Russell will have the tyre advantage over the AlphaTauris ahead. The Ferraris behind will likely be a threat as the race progresses but should lady luck be on his side, Williams might get the points it's after at long last. 

Will Ferrari’s gamble pay off?

Ferrari could have progressed into Q3 if it wanted - a switch to the soft tyres would have guaranteed it a spot in the top ten, while given that Russell made it into Q3 on mediums, Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc should have had enough pace to make it through as well.

Still, neither driver was too disappointed not to make it through with both drivers insistent that they didn’t want to start on Pirelli’s C5 soft tyre compound.  Free tyre choice from outside of the top ten gives Ferrari full flexibility as it looks to reduce the gap to McLaren in the race for third in the constructors’ championship.

Let’s not forget at Styria, Sainz qualified 12th but recovered to sixth with ease. An opening-lap collision and pit stop didn’t do much to halt Leclerc as he still finished seventh, highlighting that after its struggles at Paul Ricard, Ferrari is heavily focused on race performance. 

Track position is still key in F1 but Ferrari’s qualifying compromise might be a masterstroke if it can come home with big points and reduce the deficit to McLaren.