Charles Leclerc reignited his world championship hopes by racing to victory at the Austrian Grand Prix as team-mate Carlos Sainz emerged unscathed from his Ferrari after it caught fire.
Leclerc passed championship leader Max Verstappen three times to claim his first triumph since he took the chequered flag in Australia on April 10. Verstappen finished second after Sainz’s engine expired with 14 laps remaining.
Sainz broke down at the uphill Turn 4 but moments later later his car dramatically caught alight.
With Sainz still in his cockpit and his car rolling downhill, the Spaniard had to battle gravity as he unstrapped his seatbelts and attempted to leap from his flaming machine.
The television cameras cut away from the flashpoint, but seconds later, Sainz was seen walking away from his wreckage, with the flames extinguished by marshals.
Sainz’s retirement allowed Lewis Hamilton to take third with Mercedes team-mate George Russell fourth despite an opening-lap collision with Red Bull’s Sergio Perez.
A travelling Dutch contingent of 60,000 fans have turned the 11th round of 22 here at Spielberg’s Red Bull Ring into a home fixture for world champion.
And after he raced away from pole in a plume of flare-generated orange smoke, it looked as though their man would celebrate a second win in as many days following his triumph in Saturday’s sprint. However, Leclerc had other ideas.
By lap 10, Leclerc was crawling all over Verstappen’s Red Bull gearbox and after two failed attempts at Turns 3 and 4, the Ferrari driver made his move stick a couple of laps later with a cute move at the right-hand fourth corner.
Red Bull reacted immediately by bringing Verstappen in for a change of rubber with Sainz assuming second position.
Further back and Verstappen’s team-mate Perez was already out of contention after he banged tyres with Russell at the fourth bend.
Perez was punted into the gravel and, although Russell protested his innocence, the Englishman was hit with a five-second penalty. Perez attempted to continue before he was forced to retire with damage to his car.
Hamilton struggled in the opening exchanges of Sunday’s race, falling behind Mick Schumacher and bemoaning the superior straight-line speed of the Ferrari-powered Haas.
But as the race developed, Hamilton drew pace from his Mercedes machine and on lap 14 moved back past Schumacher and then overtook Kevin Magnussen in the other Haas the next time around.
Up front, and Leclerc made his first stop on lap 26. He left the pits 6.7 sec behind Verstappen, but moved back ahead of his title rival for a second time just six laps later.
“The car is so unpredictable, it is really crazy,” said Verstappen before he was hauled in the pits for another change of rubber.
On lap 40, Sebastian Vettel was in the gravel at Turn 4 after he tangled with Pierre Gasly.
“He has to give up the corner,” said Vettel. “I had my nose ahead. What is wrong with these people?” Gasly was punished with a five-second penalty.
With 21 laps to run, Leclerc was called in by Ferrari for his second and final stop before re-passing Verstappen on the exit of Turn 3.
The Scuderia appeared on course to claim a one-two finish only for Sainz’s late dramatic exit. The virtual safety car was deployed with Leclerc and Verstappen changing tyres for a third time.
Leclerc complained about his throttle in the closing stages but crossed the line 1.5 sec ahead of Verstappen, with Hamilton another 40 sec back. Russell impressed to drive back from 19th, after he stopped for repairs, to finish fourth – 17 seconds adrift of Hamilton.
Leclerc has reduced the championship deficit from 44 points to 38.
The Ferrari driver said: “I definitely needed that one. The last five races have been incredibly difficult for myself but also for the team. To finally show we have the pace in the car and that we can do it is incredible.”
Hamilton, who made up five places from his starting slot of eighth, said: “I wasn’t expecting that.
“Yesterday was a difficult day and it has been a rough weekend. But we move forwards from here. We made some improvements this weekend and we just have to keep chipping away.”
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