Bonkers. That’s one way to describe the belated opening race of the 2020 Formula One season.
The Austrian Grand Prix had a little for everyone. There was good, mostly clean racing. The safety car was deployed three times. Nine drivers failed to finish the race – more than twice that of any race last year. An 11th-hour grid penalty for the title favourite and then a five-second time penalty late in the race for him. Double heartbreak for the home team. Two surprise podium finishers...
Expectedly, the Mercedes cars of Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton took the top two spots in qualifying, but a late protest from Red Bull saw the six-time world champion receive a three-place grid penalty for not slowing down adequately under yellow flags after his teammate went off the track during the final hot laps. Nonetheless, the race developed into a straight fight between the Silver Arrows – or black, as their new livery is – especially after Max Verstappen retired from second place after 11 laps.
READ| Lando Norris reflects on maiden podium finish at Austrian GP
Bottas led a calm and controlled race from start to finish even as team warned their drivers to look after their cars over concerns about damage to their gearboxes from repeatedly hitting the kerbs. That seemed one of only two ways to keep Mercedes from taking a one-two finish, the other being an on-track incident – and there was a considerable sense of déjà vu when Hamilton made contact with Red Bull’s Alex Albon with 10 laps to go.
A win denied – twice
Both the Mercedes opted to stay out on the hard-compound tyres after the second and third safety car periods, but Red Bull put Albon on the softs, which theoretically had a 0.7-0.8 second per lap advantage. As the safety car came in on lap 61, Albon attacked Hamilton for second place and clearly had his nose ahead on the outside of turn three. For the second time in three races, the two touched and Albon dropped to the back of the field. As was the case at the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix, Hamilton was deemed to be at fault and was given a five-second time penalty – enough to drop him to fourth in the final classification despite taking the chequered flag in second.
But Albon, who was promoted to Red Bull from its “junior team” Toro Rosso mid-season last year, should take equal blame for the loss of a sure-shot podium finish and possible first race win. When racing resumed with 10 laps to go, the Thai-British driver was on a fresh set of the fastest of the three tyre specs allowed for the race, while the two men in front were on worn sets of the slowest compound. Did Albon need to make a move on Hamilton within three turns? The answer he should be giving himself is no. All he had to do was wait for clean air as the front-runners pulled away and then use the DRS (drag-reduction system) when it kicked in after two laps.
Red Bull will bemoan the wasted opportunities with Albon – who retired on lap 67 of 71 with electronics problems – and Verstappen, the winner at Spielberg in 2018 and ’19. Verstappen was on a different strategy from the rest of the top 10 starters, beginning the race on the medium-compound tyres instead of the soft, which would have let him run a longer first stint and then push his hard tyres in the second half of the race – a strategy that worked well for him last year. But electronic problems put paid to that plan as he pulled into the pits at the end of lap 11.
READ| Austrian GP: Valtteri Bottas wins dramatic season opener
Ferrari were both a disappointment and a surprise at the Austrian GP. Charles Leclerc qualified seventh, but his teammate Sebastian Vettel didn’t make it out of Q2 and started only 11th. Neither was able to make real headway during the race, but after the third safety car period, Leclerc found himself fifth and overtook Lando Norris on lap 64 and Sergio Perez two laps later to move up to third, which translated into second because of Hamilton’s penalty – a finish neither team, driver nor fan would have expected at the start.
As for Vettel, the less said the better. The rookie errors the four-time world champion made when under pressure in 2019 don’t seem to have gone away; instead, they seem to have been exacerbated by the fact that his mistake in Austria came when trying to attack and not defend. The German was up to eighth by lap 31, behind the McLaren of Carlos Sainz, the man set to replace him at Ferrari next year. As Sainz made an unsuccessful attempt to overtake Leclerc on the outside going into turn three, Vettel lunged down the inside, locked up his wheels and ended up facing the wrong direction. He finished the race 10th, ahead of only the debuting Nicholas Latifi in the Williams.
McLaren’s Lando Norris put in a stunner of a final lap to pip Hamilton to the final step on the podium, after starting the race in a career-best third – also owing to a Hamilton penalty.
As lap 71 began, Norris in fourth was a little over five seconds behind Hamilton, who would have five seconds added to his final race time. The 20-year-old then set the fastest lap of the race – a time identical to Verstappen’s fastest lap in 2019 – to cross the finish line about 4.8 seconds behind Hamilton, just enough for his first podium in F1.
Prior to the race, Norris had admitted he had exceeded his own expectations by qualifying on the second row ahead of both Ferraris and the Mercedes-powered Racing Point cars, and his performance in the race, along with teammate Sainz’s fifth place, shows McLaren finally have a car worth racing after being at best a midfield team for the better part of the last decade.
READ| Austrian GP: Leclerc and five others decline to take a knee
Off the track, a split emerged as six of the 20 drivers did not join Hamilton in going down on one knee to support anti-racism before the race, the most notable being Leclerc and Verstappen, though 19 drivers sported “End racism” T-shirts on the grid – Hamilton’s bore the message “Black lives matter.”
The FIA, the motorsports world ruling body, has pledged €1 million to F1’s “We race as one” diversity programme established by Formula One chief executive Chase Carey, who launched the initiative with $1 million of his own. The foundation is designed to help finance internships and apprenticeships in the sport for under-represented groups by ensuring there are opportunities for them to fulfil their potential.
For the first time in the history of F1 racing, a circuit will host more than one in a season. That honour goes to the Red Bull Ring, which will host the only running of the Styrian Grand Prix on July 12.
Hamilton, gunning for a record-equalling seventh world drivers title, has his own teammate as his biggest rival as of now, while Red Bull will look to overcome the double disappointment at their home track. And with only eight races confirmed at this time for the 2020 F1 season, the acceptable margin of error is extremely thin.