SPIELBERG, Austria (AP) — Red Bull driver Max Verstappen has won half of the races this Formula One season.
And if that wasn't worrying enough for his rivals, his car keeps getting faster and faster.
The championship leader dominated the Styrian Grand Prix on Sunday to win back-to-back races for the first time in his career.
Leading from start to finish, it was “super nice to drive,” the Dutchman said. “I could keep my pace consistent to the end. The balance of the car was the best so far this season.”
Verstappen has won three of the last four races, and only a tire issue when leading in Azerbaijan prevented him from making it four.
With a clean start from pole in Sunday's race, the Red Bull driver denied Lewis Hamilton an early attack and he remained ahead for the entire race, beating his Mercedes rival by more than 35 seconds.
Hamilton's teammate Valtteri Bottas finished third ahead of Sergio Perez as Red Bull and Mercedes occupied the top four places for the second consecutive time.
“The car was on fire,” Verstappen said over the team radio after crossing the finish line.
Verstappen won a few tenths from Hamilton in most of the laps and was already more than three seconds ahead of Hamilton after 10 laps.
“Straight away I felt good balance in the car,” he said. “It was good to manage the tires basically from the start. We just kept on going, trying to hit our lap times and that worked really well today.”
It was Verstappen’s 14th career win and fourth of the season, increasing his lead over the seven-time world champion in the drivers’ standings to 18 points after eight races. A race win is worth 25 points.
With Red Bull gaining more momentum over Mercedes in every race, Hamilton is gradually losing sight of his record eighth title this season.
That, however, was not on the Briton's mind after eight of 23 races.
“I try not to concern myself with that. Naturally, they are faster so there is not a lot I can do in that respect," Hamilton said.
Losing 0.25 seconds on Verstappen on the straights left Hamilton with few options. He pushed and reduced the deficit on some laps, but then had to be more cautious on others to protect his tires from overheating.
Left with no chance to overtake Verstappen, Hamilton pitted again in the penultimate lap and successfully beat the fastest lap time held by Perez at that time, earning him a bonus point though the deficit to Verstappen grew to over half a minute.
“It was a bit of a lonely race, really. I was trying to keep up with those guys but the speed they have... They obviously made some big improvements over the last couple of races,” Hamilton said. “It was impossible to keep up. I don’t know where we are losing all this time.”
Bottas had the second fastest time in qualifying but started the race from fifth following a three-place grid penalty for spinning in the pitlane during Friday’s practice.
“From where I started this was the maximum today. Bit of damage limitation,” said the Finn after holding off a late challenge from Perez for third place.
Red Bull squandered a potential 1-3 finish with a slow pit stop for Perez, which lasted for nearly five seconds due to an issue with the left-rear tire.
Racing on its home track in the Austrian Alps, Red Bull stretched its winning streak to four races, as Hamilton’s wait for his 99th career victory reached the seven-week mark.
The last time Hamilton went without a win in four straight races came more than three years ago, spanning the last three races of 2017 and the first three of the following season.
The top four went more than a full lap ahead of the rest of the field, led by McLaren’s Lando Norris in front of both Ferraris.
In a tumultuous start to the race for the midpack runners, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Alpha Tauri’s Pierre Gasly touched in heavy traffic, which forced Leclerc to pit right away to repair damage to his front wing, while Gasly went out of the race with damage to his rear-right tire.
Leclerc managed to work his way back to seventh place, just behind teammate Carlos Sainz.
Gasly’s teammate Yuki Tsunoda still scored a point for Alpha Tauri in 10th, finishing behind Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll and Alpine’s Fernando Alonso in eighth and ninth, respectively.
Williams driver George Russell, who is a candidate for Mercedes from 2022 if Bottas were to leave the team, had to retire after two-thirds of the race with a power-unit issue.
The Austrian GP on the same track is scheduled for next Sunday.
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