The chorus rang around the Red Bull Ring: ‘Campione, campione, ole, ole, ole.’
For Lewis Hamilton, the chant was a warning as loud as the orange flares that lit up the sky. His title rival Max Verstappen had just won the Austrian Grand Prix, his third successive victory, not by an inch but a mile, and the Dutchman’s fan club in the 60,000 crowd were celebrating with beers and football songs.
Hamilton was 18 points adrift before the race but that gap is now 32 after he came home fourth. The great champion cannot afford to make errors like the one he made on Sunday, when he lost downforce after running over the kerb on the exit of Turn 10 midway through the race, leaving him to nurse his machine to the end.
Max Verstappen celebrates his dominant victory at the Red Bull Ring for his team at the Austrian Grand Prix on Sunday
Valtteri Bottas (right) was able to hold off Lando Norris (left) to finish second ahead of McLaren driver in the final standings
The top three drivers spray champagne on top of the podium following a race where every lap was led by Verstappen
What should have been a damage-limiting second place suddenly became fourth, where he started, costing him six points.
Admittedly, with or without that miscalculation, Hamilton in a slower Mercedes could never have toppled Verstappen and Red Bull operating at the top of their games. It’s merely the 36-year-old could have applied a plaster on what is now the deepening wound of his campaign.
Hamilton finished an eye-watering 46 seconds behind Verstappen, who even had the luxury of making a second pit stop courtesy of his huge lead over Valtteri Bottas in second.
He admitted Mercedes were ‘miles away’ from Red Bull but was not willing to cough up a mea culpa afterwards, instead saying: ‘I wasn’t going over the kerb more than anyone else, so I have no idea where the damage happened, but there was a lot of damage.’
Grandstands were restriction free for the first time since the pandemic with many of the 132,000 supporting Verstappen
Verstappen’s (centre) lead in the world championship is now a huge 32 points in front of title rival Lewis Hamilton
Norris put in an outstanding drive to claim the final podium place for McLaren as he celebrates with his team in Parc Ferme
That is what he told Sky Sports, anyway, before pulling out of his scheduled print media session.
Hamilton’s team principal Toto Wolff tried to protect his star man, the chap they announced on Saturday would be staying on for two further years at the cost of £40million a season.
But, as a final thought on the ‘mistake’, I’d say to them both: nobody else was driving the car!
Hamilton has generally made very few lapses over the years, driving cleanly even in frantic wheel-to-wheel combat with a rare, intuitive feel. But he has now run off the track three times in nine races, having done similar at Imola and in Baku, with Verstappen putting him under ever more pressure in the title fight.
Following an opening lap safety car, Verstappen led away from Norris and Sergio Perez at the fourth lap restart
Perez was forced off the circuit by Norris at turn four on the restart leading to a five-second time penalty for the Brit
Hamilton could only finish fourth after running second, having picked up damage during the grand prix in a costly mistake
If all this analysis seems to suggest we might as well wrap up the trophy and send it straight round the corner to Verstappen, though, then hope for Hamilton lies in the ludicrous length of this season: there are 23 rounds, for heaven’s sake!
The calendar, the longest ever, was elongated for financial reasons, but it diminishes the value of each race and renders any seemingly large ‘turning point’ a little less significant. It presents chance after chance to resurrect your fortunes.
Hamilton remains as hungry as ever and will try to use the energy offered by the British Grand Prix at Silverstone to lift him in two weeks’ time. He has won there an unrivalled seven times and will race in front of the biggest ever Covid-era crowd, with 140,000 mostly Union flag-loving fans.
Team principal Wolff was outwardly sanguine last night, despite the stuffing Mercedes had received, albeit it was slightly soothed by Bottas finishing second after holding off a brilliant drive by McLaren’s Lando Norris. But the Austrian did admit: ‘We are against the odds now.
George Russell (back) was passed by Fernando Alonso in the Alpine with just three laps left to miss out on 10th place
Russell was denied a rare points finish which would have been Williams’ first for two years and his first for the team
Carlos Sainz’ late race charge saw him leap from seventh to fifth after passing Charles Leclerc and Daniel Ricciardo
‘Red Bull have an overall performance advantage, but in all these years I have tried to keep our feet on the ground when we do well and now I need to do the same in the opposite direction.
‘We are not going to give up at any stage of the season unless it is not mathematically possible to win the championship. We need to be optimistic and not pessimistic. There are positive things to take away from today.’
Not frightfully many, mind. Verstappen led throughout after taking pole and set the fastest lap. ‘I feel incredible,’ said the 23-year-old. ‘The car was unreal. On every tyre set it was really enjoyable to drive. It’s insane. I’m a bit amazed myself how today went.’
The boy Max is going so well he doesn’t need a hand from Lewis.
RE-LIVE ALL THE ACTION AS IT HAPPENED…
The 2021 F1 season continues in Austria on Sunday with Max Verstappen carrying all the momentum as he continues his world title battle with Lewis Hamilton.
The Red Bull racer will start the Austrian Grand Prix on pole, with Mercedes man Hamilton down in fourth after another frustrating qualifying session on Saturday by his standards.
Follow Sportsmail’s DAN RIPLEY for live Formula One coverage of the Austrian Grand Prix, including build-up, updates and result. The race starts at 2pm (UK time).