After a week’s wait, Formula 1 returned to the Red Bull Ring in Austria for the second round of the world championship. Same track, same teams and drivers… surely a similar result to last time? Formula 1 is never like that.
For starters, qualifying was wet. Very wet. Rain sometimes sees qualifying called off, but thankfully the authorities didn’t pull any such moves, allowing the drivers to pit themselves against the elements, which always provides a mighty test of skill and bravery. It also has a tendency to separate the wheat from the chaff, and one man in particular, Lewis Hamilton, demonstrated his mastery of the inclement conditions.
Not only did he end up on pole, but he was 1.2 seconds faster than second-place man Max Verstappen, and 1.5 seconds clear of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas. Verstappen might have been a bit closer in terms of time, but was wrong-footed by Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari at the end of his final flying lap, putting his Red Bull into a spin.
For the race itself, it was fair to say Hamilton controlled it from start to end. He got away well, quickly built up a good lead, and was never troubled, even as a very early safety car threw a bit of a curve ball into proceedings. Why a safety car on the opening lap? For that, you must ask Ferrari.
More Frustration for Ferrari
Neither red car had a particularly great qualifying. Whereas for the Austrian GP Sebastian Vettel was knocked out in Q2, this time Charles Leclerc was eliminated at that stage, by Vettel himself. Leclerc then took a three-place grid penalty for impeding other drivers’ qualifying laps, so he would start 14th. Vettel couldn’t do any better than 10th, capping off a bad day’s work on Saturday, despite the arrival of upgrades to the car.
In the race, things only got worse. On the opening lap Leclerc made a clumsy attempt to get by Vettel as Vettel himself tangled with cars ahead. As a result, Leclerc clipped the kerb and his car broke Vettel’s rear wing, as well as sustaining race-ending damage to the floor of his own Ferrari. They weren’t beaten on raw pace, but there wasn’t the opportunity to find out what their pace actually was.
A lot of credit needs to go to McLaren. Carlos Sainz put his orange car in 3rd in qualifying, actually beating Bottas, whilst Lando Norris (who took a brilliant opportune podium at the previous race) qualified 6th but owing to penalties started 9th. As the race developed, Sainz faded to 9th place, but Norris once again demonstrated the quality that has some top teams keeping an eye on him, racing hard and taking advantage of circumstances to get himself up to 5th – right at the very end, having pounced upon Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo and both Racing Points.
Pink Mercedes look racey
Much has been made of the apparent similarities between the 2019 Mercedes and the 2020 Racing Point. Armed with a Mercedes engine, there’s little doubt that successfully mimicking the championship-winning car from last year would yield good results. This has rattled a few cages, with Renault filing a complaint after the Styrian Grand Prix, which this author feels is a case of sour grapes. The FIA has seen the data and visited the team’s facilities, checking out all the work, and they’ve been satisfied. It is understandable that Renault would be frustrated – Sergio Perez charged through the field from 17th to finish 6th, at one point setting fastest laps – and should have been 5th, perhaps even 4th, until front wing damage from a late move on Red Bull’s Alex Albon slowed his pace. Such a quick car, one that has fundamental qualities similar to the world champions, is a threat to prize money for others.
Perez was the driver of the day. He pulled off some punchy overtaking moves, including one upon his teammate Lance Stroll, and whereas Stroll struggled for many laps to pass the slower Renault of Ricciardo (eventually managing so on the final lap), Perez made it look easy. The veteran excels at charging through the pack, and if they can qualify higher up the field, what else could Racing Point achieve?
Spare a Thought for Williams
George Russell qualified 12th for Williams, a sterling effort given the car (especially since he was only a whisker away from Vettel’s P10 time). Slowly but surely Williams are recovering, albeit an early trip to the gravel ended any hopes of challenging for points. What further forward progress could be made? Probably not a lot in a week, but they will try.
In the end, the weekend belonged to Hamilton and Mercedes. Bottas soon got by Sainz and from there was calm and patient, closing in on Verstappen at a steady rate of knots, and comfortably getting by when he was in range to strike. The one-two finish leaves Mercedes already looking very comfortable in the constructor’s championship, whilst Hamilton has cut the gap to Bottas down to 6 points. Game on.