It seems like an eternity since I was able to enjoy a live F1 Grand Prix – being required to work weekends pretty much knackered that opportunity. Today, I was able to watch the first race of a much-delayed season, and the wait was most definitely worth it.
Not for everyone though. In a season that will be defined by being shorter than most, the margin for error is razor-thin, and there were quite a few errors, not to mention reliability issues that changed the complexion of the race for many drivers today. Only a handful of drivers were able to keep their focus and get the kind of start to the season that they truly wanted.
Among them was pole sitter Valtteri Bottas of Mercedes. Whilst the vote for driver of the day went to Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc (and not without some justification), Bottas lead from start to finish and won the race by maintaining his concentration, despite coming under pressure from teammate Lewis Hamilton at various points in the race, and despite managing a potential gearbox issue that kept him from utilising the entirety of the track. Bottas is noted for his composure and composure could well be a key trait this season.
Hamilton’s race was in many ways a repeat of his qualifying experience. He’d been due to start second, but a rules infringement led to him being demoted to fifth, where he remained for the first few laps, before he could start to employ the full power of the Mercedes car. Coupled with an early retirement for Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, it wasn’t long before Hamilton was in second, and he was quickly reeling Bottas in.
Multiple safety car periods would disrupt Hamilton’s efforts. The first came on lap 24, when Kevin Magnussen retired, his Haas suffering a brake failure and spinning out at the end of a high speed straight. Mercedes pitted both cars and switched from the soft tyre to the hard, indicating their intention to go to the end. From there, Hamilton kept pace with Bottas but issues with both cars (caused by the excessive bumps from the kerbs) led Mercedes to determine both cars had a critical gearbox issue, which limited their racing line. This made it virtually impossible for Hamilton to pass Bottas, and the team decided to protect their 1-2 finish.
The race was turned by further safety cars. George Russell had been running quite well in 12th for Williams when a fuel pressure problem put him out, which led to the safety car, which led to a bunch of hasty pit stops, and one of these led to another safety car, when the front-right wheel detached itself from Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo. The incident was potentially very dangerous, with the heavy tyre bouncing across the track, though thankfully no one was hurt.
In the middle of the chaos, Red Bull had pitted Alex Albon and stuck soft tyres on him, in the hope of a late charge. Albon immediately put Hamilton under pressure, and having gotten the job done around the outside of turn four on lap 60, he was then tagged and spun around by the world champion (for the second consecutive race in fact). Albon’s podium chances were dashed, and it looked like Sergio Perez in the Racing Point might have a chance, especially when Hamilton was given a five-second time penalty.
Perez himself then took a five-second time penalty for speeding in the pit lane, which opened the door for Leclerc (whose Ferrari performed much better on the hard tyre), and also the duelling McLaren pair of Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz. Leclerc ended up taking second by virtue of Hamilton’s penalty, behind Bottas, whilst Norris put in the fastest lap of the race on the final lap to get within five seconds of Hamilton and claim third.
Will Hamilton’s mistake prove crucial? The contact with Albon was his responsibility, and in a short season he is already 13 points down on the one man with the machinery to beat him. Time will tell. Time may also end up being a harsh judge of Sebastian Vettel, who struggled all weekend, comfortably outperformed by Leclerc and putting himself right down the pecking order with an ill-conceived move on Sainz at turn two, tipping his own car around. Vettel eventually finished 10th, but only by virtue of retirements for other, faster drivers. It was not the start either he or Ferrari would have wanted.
Leclerc’s second place owed a certain something to luck with penalties for others, but his performance was certainly better than Vettel’s, even if the deficiencies of the car remain. If not for Red Bull’s woes and a retirement for the pacy Racing Point of Lance Stroll, Ferrari might have have had a far worse race. Their upgrades for Hungary cannot come soon enough.
A Race of Attrition
Nine of the twenty cars failed to finish the race. There were electrical faults, engine problems, brake trouble, fuel pressure issues, and a tyre failure, as well as the wheel falling off Raikkonen’s car. Neither Haas reached the finish line, and nor did either Red Bull. In an era categorised by reliability, this was quite shocking, especially given the impact of losing so many points in a shortened season. There’s plenty for teams to mull over as they prepare for round two.
Are McLaren Back?
In terms of raw pace, the McLarens were better than they’ve been for years. They were capable of mixing it up with Ferrari and Racing Point, and whilst luck smiled upon them to take a podium, the overall performance was much stronger. Next year McLaren switch back to Mercedes engines – how might that trouble the works team?
Bottas had a thoroughly great weekend. Pole, leading every lap and winning the race is a big statement of intent for the start of the season. He absorbed pressure and repeatedly had to show discipline to restart the action following disruptive safety car spells. We don’t yet know just how many races we’ll get, but he’s started strongly, and with the same venue ahead of us next weekend, must fancy his chances.