Perhaps the was something in the Styrian air. But more likely it was because F1 machinery had lain dormant for four months since pre-season testing ended.
The practice sessions gave little reason to doubt Lewis Hamilton would begin his pursuit of a seventh world championship with another victory. But Valtteri Bottas snatched pole position away from him, and while Hamilton looked to be quicker on race day, for the second year in a row he couldn’t stop his team mate claiming the spoils in the season-opener.
Hamilton’s early setback
Max Verstappen had won F1’s last two visits to the Red Bull Ring, and the team were clearly well up for the fight with Mercedes. Friday’s unsuccessful attempt to have their novel dual axis steering system banned was merely an opening salvo.
They had more luck on Sunday morning, after turning up new video of Hamilton’s driving over the final lap in Q3. The 360-degree onboard footage from the Mercedes cast doubt on the stewards’ earlier decision not to penalise Hamilton after he’d seemingly failed to slow for a yellow flag when Bottas went off in front of him at turn four.
Red Bull had recent experience of this: Four races earlier (or, to put it another way, eight months ago) Verstappen had lost pole position for failing to slow when yellow flags were shown during qualifying in Mexico. Once the new video was shown to the stewards, Hamilton was docked three places on the grid, moving Verstappen onto the front row and elevating Alexander Albon to fourth as well.
Mercedes and Red Bull therefore shuffled their cars around, as did McLaren, for Lando Norris was promoted to a third place which equalled the team’s previous best starting position at the same track four years earlier. Meanwhile the drivers headed to the front of the grid where they took part in a pre-race show of support for diversity.
The issue of whether some would ‘take a knee’ – the increasingly widespread gesture of support for the Black Lives Matter movement – had been a significant pre-race talking point. The majority of them did, but all wore T-shirts with anti-racism messages.
Hamilton, still the sport’s only black driver as he begins his 14th season of competition, had been the most vocal supporter of the cause, but categorically denied claims he’d coerced rivals into ‘taking a knee’. He headed back to his Mercedes, repainted black for the season as a declaration of the team’s opposition to racism.
No one could doubt the subject of racism matters greatly to Hamilton. But his desire to win is no less strong. Had this, on top of all the disruptions of F1’s first ‘closed event’ due to Covid-19, been a distraction too far?
Team principal Toto Wolff didn’t think so. “He was in a very good way,” said Wolff after the race. “No difference to all the other weekends that we have worked together. It is a topic that is very close to his heart but it had no impact on his racing.”
Verstappen’s charge ends early
The start was orderly. Most of the front runners had qualified on soft tyres, but Verstappen lacked initial bite from his harder medium rubber, handing Norris an opportunity.
“I was a little bit nervous, I’m not going to lie,” the McLaren driver admitted afterwards. “All of my practice starts went pretty terribly. I hit anti-stall on every single one actually.
“So I was dreading it, kind of, but I knew Max was on the medium so I knew I had a good chance against him and looking back at last year we were the best starters of the whole grid.”
Norris probed Verstappen’s defences but settled in behind him. Indeed, all of the top nine held their starting positions. Sebastian Vettel, who qualified on ‘new tyre pole’ in 11th, gained one place at the expense of Daniel Ricciardo’s Renault.
But from their woeful seventh and 11th places on the grid, the Ferraris made little headway among their midfield rivals. The SF1000 was giving away seven-tenths of a second to the Mercedes on the straights alone.
Was this a sign of how the off-season rules change, prompted by their secret deal with the FIA, had forced them to change their car? “I’ll let you guys draw your own conclusions from that,” said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner when asked.
Bottas pulled out a healthy lead over the opening laps and continued to edge clear of Verstappen. On lap 10 the Red Bull driver began to match his lap times.
Horner, however, had other problems to concern himself with. It took until lap 10 for Verstappen to stop Bottas pulling away from him – and just as it seemed his medium tyres were tipping the balance in his favour, his Honda power unit packed up.
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Mercedes hit trouble
That left the black cars running one-two. Hamilton had already passed Norris and Albon with little difficulty, DRS amplifying the Mercedes’ straight-line superiority. The world champion was pressing on, lap times consistently in the low 1’09s, chipping tenths out of Bottas’s margin.
By lap 20 Ricciardo and Lance Stroll had joined Verstappen in retirement. The Haas drivers were also struggling with their brakes. On the 25th tour, Esteban Ocon took Kevin Magnussen for 11th place, and in the hot air from the Renault the Haas driver got no response from his front brakes and spun into retirement.
The Red Bull Ring’s extensive gravel traps mean the Safety Car is often needed to retrieve vehicles. That handed an opportunity for the field to pit, and almost everyone took it. Mercedes ‘stacked’ their drivers very effectively – Hamilton’s stationary time was actually slightly quicker than Bottas’s.
“We were not that far from stopping,” said Bottas. “I think less than 10 laps from the planned stop lap, so just about to try and lift the pace.”
Williams curiously opted not to bring Nicholas Latifi in immediately, and the short duration of the Safety Car meant he didn’t have time to rejoin the queue before the race restarted.
When it did, Hamilton tracked Bottas but couldn’t pass his team mate. Albon was now third behind them in the sole remaining Red Bull following Verstappen’s exit.
But Mercedes had reliability concerns of their own. They’d been worried about Bottas’s car from an early stage in the race, and the team grew increasingly worried about Hamilton’s W11 as well.
Mercedes had been aware of the problem since Friday, which has its roots in the design of the car and can affect its gearbox. “At the moment if we build the car and run it, this problem will appear at some point,” explained the team’s trackside operations director Andrew Shovlin. “It’s a question of how soon.”
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Both drivers were therefore instructed to steer clear of the Red Bull Ring’s famously vicious kerbs. But riding those accounts for a lot of lap time at the circuit, and the temptation to ride them was great. Hamilton, drawing closer to Bottas, told the team “he’s using much more kerb than me” at one stage.
“Initially it was a tricky one because I was watching in the mirrors and I could see Lewis still pushing pretty hard and making use of all the track,” said Bottas. “But obviously you want to prioritise the reliability.
“It took a couple of laps to really optimise the new way of driving and avoiding the kerbs. The kerbs here, the more you go onto them, the vibration just kind of ramps up.”
They ran this way for many laps, until George Russell, who had his Williams up to 12th before being passed by Kimi Raikkonen, stopped with a loss of fuel pressure. That triggered the return of the Safety Car.
Mercedes reckoned they did not need to pit for fresh tyres – a decision they later had second thoughts about – so left Bottas and Hamilton out. Albon pitted from third, while Sergio Perez stayed out and inherited his position, and Norris and Leclerc came in from fifth and sixth.
Albon and Hamilton tangle again
Albon’s potential was clear as he immediately passed Perez after the Racing Point driver edged wide at turn three when the race restarted. However the Safety Car reappeared, and Perez retook the place, though he correctly relinquished it again before the restart. The latest interruption came after Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo shed its front right wheel, the nut having been cross-threaded during his pit stop.
The race finally resumed for good with Bottas leading Hamilton and Albon, who could afford to lean on his soft tyres harder with fewer laps to cover. He got Hamilton on the defensive at turn four and made an audacious bid for the outside line. The move looked complete – but the pair touched at the exit of the corner and, with shades of their tangle at Interlagos last year, Hamilton motored on while Albon picked himself out of the gravel.
The stewards came down on Albon’s side. Both drivers had room to spare at the point of contact, and Hamilton had plenty of lock on, but the fact his front wheel made contact with Albon’s rear swung the decision against the Mercedes driver. Result: five-second time penalty.
“I think Alex didn’t have the straight line speed so he had, with the grip advantage, to try to pass him in or out of the corner,” summarised Horner. “And as far as he was concerned, the job was done, he was starting to look down the road towards Valtteri when Lewis put a wheel on the inside.
“So I think it’s more perhaps Lewis that the question should be asked of, what he would do differently.”
This changed the complexion of the chase to the flag. The Mercedes pair were still nursing their cars home, but every car within five seconds of Hamilton at the finish would cost him a place. That would not include Perez, however, as he had also collected a five-second time penalty for speeding in the pit lane.
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Leclerc wielded his new tyre advantage superbly, passing Perez and Norris – the latter also on new rubber – and positioning himself to inherit second from Hamilton. But he knew the result was no vindication of the performance of the new Ferrari.
“I don’t think we are satisfied with the pace of the car,” he said. “Yes, it’s a great result. But realistically the pace is not where we want it to be. So there’s still stuff to do. We are unhappy with the pace of the car at the moment.”
Norris also sprang a surprise attack on Perez, then unleashed a mighty final lap, setting the quickest time of the race as he pinched third from Hamilton by less than two tenths of a second. Bottas had tried to set the fastest lap, avoiding the kerbs as he did so, but admitted it “didn’t feel right” to risk 25 points in pursuit of one more.
“With three laps to go that I got told that Lewis had the five second penalty and we used the rest of our engine modes and obviously I pushed it a bit more in terms of track limits and using the kerbs,” said Norris.
“On the final lap I managed to close in, I don’t know what it was, over a second and a bit on Lewis so that was a key. I got the podium on the final lap of the race. If I was any further back or I didn’t put in as good as a lap, I wouldn’t be here.”
Perez’s penalty dropped him to fifth behind Sainz, so McLaren ended the day with more points than anyone apart from Mercedes. Pierre Gasly, Ocon and Antonio Giovinazzi were next.
Vettel scored the final point on a horrible start to his last season for Ferrari. Having failed to reach Q3 24 hours earlier, he laboured in the midfield, spun while trying to pass Sainz, and was the last car running apart from Latifi’s delayed Williams. Daniil Kvyat and Albon were also classified, but both had stopped, Kvyat after suspension damaged caused a spectacular, Mansell-esque tyre failure.
A win for driver and sport
Formula 1’s first Closed Event, held months after the season should have started in Australia, can fairly be called a success. Over 4,000 tests for Covid-19 were conducted and none came back positive. It has proved it can hold international races successfully as the world emerges from a pandemic which has claimed over half a million lives.
The Red Bull Ring is the first track where Bottas has won more than twice. He clearly has the measure of the place, and if he can repeat his performance in the second half of F1’s unprecedented double-header, he will give his world champion team mate some cause for concern.
In the meantime Mercedes and Red Bull need to find reliability and Ferrari needed to find performance. A lot of it.