Local crowd favourite Max Verstappen claimed victory in the sprint race ahead of the Austrian Grand Prix as Charles Leclerc eventually holding off his Ferrari teammate for second position.
The Red Bull Racing driver needed to defend into Turn 1 and 3 against an initially strong Scuderia threat, but as Leclerc and Carlos Sainz went wheel-to-wheel, the defending champion was able to march away to a relatively smooth triumph.
The start was delayed and an extra formation lap called when Zhou Guanyu momentarily lost drive out of the final corner on his way to the grid when his engine briefly switched off.
The Alfa Romeo was able to find drive and pull away, but not before one lap had been struck off the 24.
This came after Fernando Alonso – due to line up in eighth position – required a pitlane start when his Alpine would not fire on the grid for a technical issue that the team is still to identify.
The regulations permitting that the car cannot be touched with three minutes to go meant Alonso was left on the trolley and with the tyre blankets on. Despite the possibility of a pitlane start, the two-time champion would not take part at all in the sprint race.
After the disruption, it was Leclerc who enjoyed the marginally better launch to force Verstappen to pull to the inside line and squeeze the Ferrari closer to the pit wall.
The Red Bull’s defensive work duly paid off as Verstappen swept into the Turn 1 right-hander in the lead, but a compromised line allowed third-starting Sainz to threaten.
With Leclerc battling Verstappen, Sainz was given room to dive ahead into the first corner and a strong exit enabled the Silverstone winner to move his Ferrari to the outside and attempt a pass.
He put his nose in front of Verstappen in the braking zone of Turn 3 but on the outside and off the racing line, he ran wide and then the subsequent oversteer on the less grippy asphalt allowed Leclerc to accelerate away faster and reclaim second position with a run into Turn 4.
The Ferrari battle allowed Verstappen to initially break away to the tune of half a second, an advantage the reigning champion then doubled at the end of the opening lap.
The Ferraris continued to fight, with Sainz seemingly carrying an early pace advantage to try and leapfrog Leclerc on the outside of Turn 3 into 4, with the red car appears to rub.
With the Ferrari pair allowed to battle for track position, that left Sainz, who had locked up, to virtually stop as he was squeezed towards the gravel trap, in turn gifting Verstappen breathing space of 2 seconds.
Verstappen was able to stretch the legs of his RB18 to take the gap up towards 3 seconds but in the final few laps, Leclerc could lap a tenth or two faster to gradually chip away at the margin.
Verstappen would complain about his struggles on the medium tyres, but the pace swing was not enough to offer a threat as the defending title winner eventually crossed the line 1.6 seconds clear to extend his championship lead to 44 points – Leclerc having taken the bonus point for fastest lap.
Sainz completed the podium another 3.9 seconds adrift of his Ferrari teammate while George Russell converted fourth on the grid in a lonely afternoon, his Mercedes W13 having received extensive repairs following his final-corner shunt late in Q3.
Sergio Perez, who had started P13 after his Q3 times were deleted for a late Q2 track limits violation that initially went undetected, recovered to fifth position.
His impressive climb was aided by a first-corner collision that involved Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri being lifted into the air and spun around.
The AlphaTauri racer, starting P10, had moved gradually to the left as he lined up the first right-hander, but in doing so left Lewis Hamilton pinched with the Williams of Alex Albon.
The lack of room left Hamilton’s front-right to make contact with Gasly’s rear left, prompting his car to hop into the air and spin down to an eventual P15.
Perez had also made rapid moves on the two Haas cars before demoting Esteban Ocon, the sole remaining Alpine securing sixth ahead of Kevin Magnussen.
Magnussen narrowly had the measure of stablemate Mick Schumacher, which left Mick to ask his team for K-Mag to check his pace and offer DRS assistance.
This came as Hamilton welded himself to the rear of Schumacher’s car and stuck his nose alongside at Turn 3 repeatedly, at one stage appearing to touch the Haas’ right-rear wheel, as he fought to claim eighth position.
The Mercedes was still unable to pass with DRS assistance owing to the Haas’ straight line credentials, but Hamilton eventually passed with good drive out of Turn 3.
Schumacher just left enough room to the grass for the W13 to take the position into Turn 3.
Valtteri Bottas used the dice to close but was not truly in the fight and settled in P10 spot.
Despite Daniel Ricciardo asking to be let past, Lando Norris headed a McLaren P11 and P12.
Lance Stroll (top soft tyre runner), Zhou and Gasly completed the top 15 ahead of Alex Albon, who was demoted to P16 with a five-second penalty for squeezing Lando Norris out of room on the exit of Turn 3.
Behind Yuki Tsunoda and Nicholas Latifi, Sebastian Vettel joined Alonso as a retiree.
The Aston Martin was called into the pits on the last lap with damage, Vettel having spun when he collided as he battled around the outside of Turn 7.
So a straightforward sprint victory for Max Verstappen. Who was running up that hill to escape from the Ferraris. Sunday’s race could be much closer especially in terms of race pace and strategy. But the orange army are expecting another Super Max performance. Roll on the main race.
Austrian Grand Prix, sprint race results:
1 Max Verstappen Red Bull 26:30.059
2 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1.675
3 Carlos Sainz Ferrari 5.644
4 George Russell Mercedes 13.429
5 Sergio Perez Red Bull 18.302
6 Esteban Ocon Alpine 31.032
7 Kevin Magnussen Haas 34.539
8 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 35.447
9 Mick Schumacher Haas 37.163
10 Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo 37.557
11 Lando Norris McLaren 38.580
12 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren 39.738
13 Lance Stroll Aston Martin 48.241
14 Zhou Guanyu Alfa Romeo 50.753
15 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri 52.125
16 Alex Albon Williams 52.412
17 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri 54.556
18 Nicholas Latifi Williams 68.694
19 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin DNF
– Fernando Alonso Alpine DNS