Jolyon Palmer column: 'Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc show F1 future is bright'

By Jolyon PalmerFormer Renault driver on BBC Radio 5 Live
Jolyon Palmer

The Austrian Grand Prix showcased everything that is good about Formula 1 - and was exactly what the sport needed seven days after the snoozeathon of the French Grand Prix.

Two of F1's most exciting drivers staged a thrilling fight for the lead, after exceptional performances from both, and the entire weekend was full of thrills and spills.

The win was not decided until two laps to go, and the standout moment was a controversial passing move between two men who might not be championship contenders this year but, the way they are going, surely will be before long.

Did Verstappen deserve a penalty?

Formula 1
Verstappen celebrated victory on the podium but it was not until three hours after that a decision was made to not penalise the Red Bull driver

It took the stewards three hours after the race to decide not to penalise Red Bull's Max Verstappen for the winning move, in which he forced long-time leader Charles Leclerc's Ferrari off the track at Turn Three.

I've agonised over this for a couple of days, and, after looking at it again and again, I probably agree with the stewards' decision, purely because there are strong arguments on both sides of the debate and no concrete evidence of wrongdoing.

Leclerc made a mistake by leaving the door wide open for Verstappen, who took the inside and bundled his rival off the track on the exit of the corner.

The rules state that deliberate crowding of a car beyond the edge of the track is strictly prohibited. The question is - was it deliberate? If it was, then it's simply against the rules. If it wasn't, then it's good, hard racing.

My hunch is Verstappen knew what he was doing, that he learnt from the lap before, when Leclerc came back at him on the run into Turn Four and reclaimed the place. The next time around, I suspect he behaved the way he did to stop that happening again.

This is backed up by Verstappen turning into the corner much later and then releasing his steering slightly towards the exit, which guarantees Leclerc goes off. The Dutchman also goes on the throttle early while turning, which inevitably forces him wider.

Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen race side by side
Verstappen described his move on Leclerc "hard racing"

I've been in Verstappen's shoes myself and did the same thing to Felipe Nasr back in my GP2 days.

The thing is, though, Leclerc might well not have had room on the outside regardless of Verstappen opening his steering, because both of them had entered the corner a bit faster and later than on the previous lap.

The gap on the outside of Verstappen was possibly going to close anyway, simply because of Verstappen's momentum and the fact he braked and entered the corner later on this lap.

In that case, should Leclerc simply have yielded and cut back to the inside of Verstappen on the exit?

It was a horrible task for the stewards to call one way or another. So it's no wonder they took their time on it.

Ultimately, I can't disagree with the decision not to penalise Verstappen because it was just such a tight call.

Use a good track, get a good race

In a way, it was a shame talk of a penalty overshadowed the race itself and this one moment should not distract from what was a fabulous, old-fashioned grand prix weekend.

And I say weekend because the action started on Friday.

The Red Bull Ring's high kerbs and gravel traps caught drivers out and highlighted a real issue with the car park-like Paul Ricard circuit that hosted the French race the week before.

In France, drivers could go off track anywhere and gain an advantage. The track is simply a plain section of asphalt among a load of painted blue and red parts.

Paul Ricard
"High kerbs and gravel traps at Red Bull Ring make for more exciting races than the car park-like Paul Ricard"

In Austria, the track boundaries are much clearer, with raised kerbs marking the edge, and often grass or gravel beyond.

Verstappen was actually the first man to find the barriers on Friday, followed by Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas shortly afterwards.

Then Leclerc's team-mate Sebastian Vettel made it a car from each of the top three teams off the track as he spun his Ferrari and narrowly missed the barrier that Verstappen had hit moments before.

Saturday saw more drama for Vettel as he had reliability problems in qualifying, which ended his hopes of challenging for pole.

And championship leader Lewis Hamilton was penalised for impeding in qualifying. It was a rare error from him and his Mercedes team and that cost him his front-row grid spot.

Hamilton made more mistakes in the race, clouting the kerbs a number of times and eventually damaging his front wing. It was not his best weekend, and the same can be said of Mercedes, who had overheating problems that kept them out of the fight for the win.

Leclerc's win getting closer

Charles Leclerc
Leclerc has finished on the podium in each of the last three races

Through all the drama, Leclerc shone brightly.

He took his second pole position of the season in commanding fashion. And, as with his first in Bahrain, both of his laps in final qualifying were good enough for pole.

In the race, Leclerc did everything right - up until the fight with Verstappen in the closing stages.

Yes, he probably should have defended the inside after Verstappen made it clear what he wanted to do, but in reality Leclerc was fighting a losing battle against a Red Bull car with much more pace.

Ferrari arguably pitted Leclerc too early as well, which cost him some crucial tyre life at the end of the grand prix.

But rather than look at this as another lost win for Leclerc, it is better to see it as another star performance that underlines his quality.

Leclerc outpaced team-mate Vettel all weekend. As other drivers were running wide left, right and centre, I don't remember him even going into a run-off area, let alone spinning or damaging a front wing over the kerbs.

Ultimately it will hurt being beaten by Verstappen, but Leclerc is showing exactly why Ferrari hired him. His first win is surely just around the corner.

Although he was exemplary in Austria, Leclerc has been prone to errors this year, which he needs to eradicate.

Putting it in the wall in Baku qualifying, misjudging a pass in Monaco and often not getting the most out of his final qualifying laps have all held him back slightly this season so far.

But that's only natural, as this is just his second season in F1. He will get there - and he is clearly getting there quickly.

For the past two weekends, he has been close to perfect and left his team-mate in the shade. And when your team-mate is Vettel, a four-time world champion, that is no mean feat.

Verstappen driving like a dream

Max Verstappen
Verstappen recovered from eighth to win in Austria

For all Leclerc's quality, though, the real driver of the race was Verstappen. He did hit the barriers on Friday, and subsequently looked like he was on the back foot, but he produced a brilliant qualifying lap to take third, which became a place on the front row of the grid after Hamilton's penalty.

Verstappen's next, and final, mistake was as the lights went out. He dropped from second to eighth on the first lap. And his race looked like it had gone from a potential victory challenge to being a slog to get back even to the podium.

But no. Verstappen's race was the remedy F1 craved.

He never wins the easy way, and in Austria he scythed his way through the field, passing six cars on track.

It was a display not unlike Brazil last year, where he did a similar thing, only to be hit by the lapped Force India of Esteban Ocon.

When Verstappen is in moods like this, he is just unstoppable.

He fell behind his team-mate Pierre Gasly on the opening lap, and ended up lapping him with a handful of laps to go.

Gasly is having an awful time of it in the other Red Bull, but still he must have been astonished when he saw his team-mate in the lead battle in the closing stages, having had him in his mirrors on lap one.

Verstappen gets a lot of stick for being aggressive and error-prone, and this is largely because of the way he arrived into F1 - and his difficult run at the start of last year, when he had incidents in all the first six races.

But the fact is it is now more than a year since he made a serious error that affected a qualifying session or race. I don't view the Ocon/Brazil collision as a mistake by Verstappen, so I'd have to look back to Monaco last year, where he hit the wall in free practice and couldn't take part in qualifying.

So Verstappen has been driving at the very top level for over a year now.

After the race on Sunday, his team boss Christian Horner said he had thought for a while that Verstappen was the best driver in F1. And while Hamilton would have a fair bit to say about that, there is no doubt the two of them have been the outstanding performers in the field for the past year.

If Verstappen could get into a genuine front-running car, he would be frightening.

Right now, in the Red Bull, he's the underdog we love to watch. But give him a front-running car and he could be the next 'boring' dominator, following in the footsteps of Hamilton and Michael Schumacher.

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