Arguably the closest weekend of the 2023 campaign, Round 5 in Spielberg provided no shortage of talking points and highlight moments throughout.
Not only was Qualifying at the Red Bull Ring the closest of the season, both races were gripping affairs, and the winner far from certain right up to the final laps. With the three DRS zones keeping the pack closely bunched, the overtaking didn’t stop from lights to flag.
As the season crossed into the second half, strong results were crucial in order to stake claims and bolster title bids or capture form heading into a summer break.
The Red Bull Ring’s layout emphasises top end speed with three DRS zones making up half of the lap, a tow in Qualifying can be the difference maker. Another major aspect is track limits, with the penultimate and final corners catching many out through the Qualifying session.
In the end, it was ART Grand Prix’s Grégoire Saucy that took the honours, claiming pole position by the slenderest of margins, 0.004s quicker than PREMA Racing’s Dino Beganovic to seal the top spot. Such was the competitiveness of Qualifying that 26 cars were separated by just 1.063s, with nine of the top 10 drivers split by under two tenths.
Championship leader Gabriel Bortoleto earned third place on the grid, but he was surrounded by would-be title contenders. Paul Aron shared the second row with the Brazilian while Josep María Martí lined up on reverse grid pole, with Gabriele Minì alongside him.
Saturday’s Sprint Race presented an altogether different challenge, with the bring blue Austrian skies from Friday replaced by overcast and rainy conditions. After formation laps behind the Safety Car, a standing start procedure kicked off the action as Martí held the lead from pole at lights out.
Minì dropped to third after a fast start from Kaylen Frederick while Aron was on the scene at Turn 7 to relegate the Hitech Pulse-Eight driver to fourth, the Estonian up from P8 on the grid.
As the chasing pack squabbled, Martí built up his lead to just shy of four seconds by Lap 8, before Aron managed to clear Frederick to claim second and set about chasing down the Campos Racing driver.
Minì was the next to clear the ART driver with a bold move to the outside at Turn 6, while Caio Collet was through at Turn 3 at Turn 10 one lap later. Just behind the pair, Franco Colapinto attempted to repass Zak O’Sullivan for fifth at Turn 4 but ran off the circuit and through the gravel, falling outside the top 10.
Fellow Williams Academy driver Oliver Gray tried his own pass at Turn 4 but also came unstuck, colliding with Van Amersfoort Racing’s Rafael Villagómez leaving both out on the spot. The incident brought out the Safety Car on Lap 11.
Back to racing conditions entering Lap 14, Martí escaped up the road as Aron defended second from Minì at the restart. Once the PREMA driver had his tyres up to temperature, the gap to the leader slowly but surely began to close.
Pulling off the switchback at Turns 7 and 8, Aron was briefly through for the lead but having retained the inside line on the run to the final two corners, Martí moved back through. Still fighting onto the next lap at Turn 4, Minì put them three wide but it was Aron who exited the corner with the lead ahead of the Italian, with Martí down in third.
Collet was able to take third on the penultimate lap as was O’Sullivan, and the Brazilian held off the challenge from the Briton to seal the final place on the podium behind a charging Aron and Hitech Pulse-Eight’s Minì.
The wheel-to-wheel action of the Spielberg Feature Race was some of the closest and best from the 2023 campaign. Several lead changes and endless battling for the podium places made for a hugely engaging watch and highly entertaining race from start to finish.
The rain subsided for the Feature Race and Saucy aced his start to lead from pole ahead of Beganovic. Aron was immediately pressuring Championship leader Bortoleto while Williams junior drivers O’Sullivan and Colapinto scrapped for fifth, the former coming out on top on the opening lap.
Minì’s podium finish from the previous day was a distant memory after the Italian was left out of the running following contact with teammate Luke Browning. Front wing damage left the Italian driver skating across the gravel and into retirement at Turn 4, bringing out the Safety Car.
With racing back underway on Lap 5, Saucy held onto the lead but with Beganovic and Bortoleto for very close company. The Swede was able to sweep through for the lead on Lap 7 at Turn 4 and the rest of the top five queued up to become involved in the battle.
Side-by-side at Turn 4 for the lead and third on Lap 10, Beganovic held firm at the front while Aron swept past Bortoleto for P3 as the action kept coming. One lap later, the Trident driver was back through while O’Sullivan caught his teammate napping to relegate him to fifth.
Slight contact between Aron and Saucy on the exit of Turn 3 on Lap 11 left the latter with a puncture and the PREMA with front wing damage, taking them both out of contention for victory.
Keeping himself out of trouble, Bortoleto was next to make a pass for the lead though Beganovic fought back past immediately on the following straight and moved back into first. Another lap in the books and another pass for P1, this time Bortoleto making it stick through the ever popular fourth corner.
O’Sullivan had kept a low profile through all the chopping and changing of position and was up to third on Lap 13. That became second as he cleared teammate Beganovic the following lap and he was quickly onto the back of the race leader. The Briton wasn’t done, passing the Brazilian at the first time of asking under braking for Turn 3 while Colapinto snuck his way past Beganovic to claim third.
After hitting the front, O’Sullivan was able to keep the rest behind despite his lack of DRS. Collet had his eyes set on back-to-back podiums and was daring on the brakes to pass Beganovic on Lap 18 at Turn 3 for fourth. Sebastián Montoya followed through with one of the moves of the season, surging around the outside of the Swede despite touching the gravel between Turns 6 and 7. The Colombian was through on Collet to take fourth on Lap 23 and he closed onto the back of Colapinto’s MP Motorsport car.
On the penultimate lap, Bortoleto got side-by-side with O’Sullivan at Turn 3 but was left bouncing across the kerbs on corner exit as the PREMA driver got his elbows out. The Trident was just about able to stay ahead of Colapinto and co.
With one lap left, the identity of the winner was anyone’s guess as the top five still could not be separated. Montoya looked to have the most grip left in his tyres and the Hitech Pulse-Eight man tried a pass on Colapinto at Turn 6. Unwilling to yield and with time running out, the pair made contact that allowed Collet to sneak through for the final podium place.
O’Sullivan was a worthy winner in the end as Bortoleto extended his title advantage in second. Collet made it two podiums in two days while Colapinto dropped to fourth after his and Montoya’s contact.