The world champions have been struggling a little all weekend – it’s all relative, of course; Lewis Hamilton still qualified second – and three cars from three different teams start in the top three places on the grid.
Verstappen was bumped up to second, alongside Leclerc, after Hamilton was given a three-place grid penalty for impeding Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen in first qualifying, which drops him to fourth, for arcane reasons we don’t need to go into here.
That will make Hamilton’s life considerably more difficult as he seeks a seventh win in nine races – and Mercedes’ as they look for a ninth in a row.
For everyone else, it simply adds to the promise of what could be the closest and most competitive race of the season so far.
Hamilton held his hands up for the penalty once it was announced, and it was clear from the way he talked before the investigation that he expected it was coming.
“I’m excited to get out there and race with these guys; they’re both so talented,” he said, before adding: “If I get to start the race with those guys, I think it will be quite a fun race.”
Indeed. Leclerc versus Verstappen versus Hamilton versus his team-mate Valtteri Bottas. Finally, nine races into the season, F1 has the battle everyone wanted to see before it started.
Leclerc on a roll – but have Ferrari messed up?
Ferrari have looked strong all weekend with Leclerc their main contender. His team-mate Sebastian Vettel was generally a couple of tenths behind the 21-year-old run-for-run, even before a problem with an engine air line forced the German out of final qualifying and consigned him to ninth on the grid.
Ferrari’s competitiveness in Austria is down to their prodigious straight-line speed, a combination of the most powerful engine in F1 and a slippery car. Hamilton lost 0.3secs to Leclerc on the straights, Bottas 0.6secs; the difference accounted for by Hamilton getting a tow.
But they have also stepped up their cornering performance this weekend, with some aerodynamic revisions in the nose area to add to a new front wing introduced at the previous race in France.
On top of that, Leclerc looks like he might have turned a bit of a corner in terms of his personal performance in the last couple of races.
He has been quick all season, and should have won in Bahrain in March but for an engine problem that dropped him behind the Mercedes in the closing laps. After that, he was a little error-prone in qualifying. But he looked at that, and changes to his approach in France look to have moved him forward.
“I’ve changed a little bit the approach from Paul Ricard and I really felt I did a step forward,” Leclerc said. “Austria is also my favourite track, so it might fit a little bit better to my driving style but overall, I think, since Paul Ricard, I did a step forward.”
If Leclerc could convert this pole into a win, it would be a popular victory. Everyone recognises his talent and potential, and many felt for him not only in Bahrain, where victory slipped through his fingers, but also in Baku, where he again looked the form man, only to crash away his chances in qualifying.
But while the Ferrari is the fastest car this weekend, and has a significant advantage on the straights, this race is a long way from a foregone conclusion.
Leclerc said he was happy with the strategy, but Mercedes feel it’s a mistake.
“If we’re on a different tyre, maybe we will be able to offset each other [on pit-stop timing],” Hamilton said. “Them starting on that tyre would tend to think they are going for a two-stop most likely, unless that tyre goes a lot further than we anticipate. I don’t have the numbers but on the medium tyre hopefully we will able to go longer. It will be interesting.”
“Charles starting on the soft is a risky strategy,” he said, “because it is either a two-stop if things go bad or you’re being very compromised towards the end of your first stint. Whereas Red Bull and Mercedes on the medium are in a better place in terms of the strategies available to us. In summary, I’d rather be on the medium than the soft.”
If it turns out Ferrari have made a strategy error, it would not be the first time. But on the other hand, these things are often made into bigger things pre-race than they turn out to be during it.
Either way, it simply adds to the intrigue.
‘Silly season’ – and talk of Verstappen at Mercedes
It’s mid-summer, so it’s no surprise that F1’s traditional driver-market ‘silly season’ has moved into full swing this weekend.
Verstappen has a contact with Red Bull until 2020, but there is a performance clause that could potentially allow him to be free at the end of this season.
The clause centres on his championship position at a certain point in the year, although the details of what position he needs to be in, and when, are murky.
The prospect of a Hamilton-Verstappen ‘super-team’ is a mouth-watering one for neutrals, perhaps less so for Wolff. It is far from clear he would want the headache of sticking Verstappen in alongside Hamilton and waiting for the nuclear explosion that would inevitably occur one way or another.
Both drivers were asked about it after qualifying.
Hamilton said: “People are always making up stuff. It’s the first I’ve heard of it. I think the team’s pretty happy with Valtteri and me. So I do know Max is definitely interested in opportunities. I don’t know. Maybe. If there is [a chance], then great.”
Turning to Verstappen, he added: “I don’t mind driving with you. I’ll drive against whoever.”
For his part, Verstappen said: “I guess there’s people who know more than me!”
Wolff has to decide whether to stick with Bottas, promote reserve driver Esteban Ocon, who lost his place at what is now Racing Point at the end of last season, or entertain the possibility of something else. He rates Verstappen, but that’s not the same as wanting him to be in the team next year, for a number of potential reasons.
Wolff said: “I haven’t spoken to Max and I would like to continue like I have done it in the past, first to evaluate our current line-up and to discuss with the drivers what their views are before really entering into a proper discussion with anyone else.
“That is valid to any driver who can possibly bring something to the game at Mercedes. We have exciting junior drivers that merit to be in F1, Esteban being the one who fell through the chairs last year. And putting that puzzle into place is something I’d like to do over the summer.”
As for Verstappen, his preference is to stay at Red Bull-Honda and make work a partnership that he believes has great potential, and is only in its first season. But of course he is not in F1 to scrape around for lower podium positions or worse, as he has for most of this season so far.
No decisions have been made, and this topic will be around for some weeks yet.
Norris heading for stardom
Lando Norris is such a laid-back and down-to-earth character that he sounded almost disappointed with qualifying sixth, which has now become fifth following a penalty for Haas driver Kevin Magnussen.
The equivocation? It was that he had not found the 0.028 seconds he would have needed to beat Magnussen on track.
“The thing that makes me happy is when we know we have accomplish everything we could have done,” he said. “The team gave me a good car this weekend. I was happy. The only thing that could have made it even better was beating Magnussen.
“It was 0.02secs and there was 0.02secs in my driving, which let me down little bit.
“I guess I’m a little self-critical sometimes but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
Norris entered F1 this year amid high expectations, and he is very much delivering – as is his fellow Briton George Russell in rather more trying circumstances at Williams.
McLaren are impressed – like everyone else.
“The most important thing is raw speed,” said McLaren team boss Andreas Seidl, asked to sum up the impact Norris has made so far. “It is the basis for every successful driver and he has shown from the first race onwards that he had this speed.
“If you go in your first ever F1 qualifying and you score P8, as he did in Melbourne, and then do it more and more often, and showing great speed and great handling of the races, this environment, is impressive.
“He will have a great career in F1 and I am looking forward to having some good years with him at McLaren.”