F1 2020 returned with a bang in Austria, a race that was eventually won by Mercedes’ Valterri Bottas, following suit on his start from 2019 where he also took the first victory of the season.
The race was set to be a little uneventful as the Mercedes pair of Bottas and Lewis Hamilton — starting from 5th after a late protest by Red Bull over Hamilton’s qualifying investigation — just drove away from the field, their pace was what everyone feared.
However, the safety car would have a say on this race on multiple occasions and the one that blew the race open was the safety car deployed after George Russell and Romain Grosjean’s quick-fire retirements on lap 50/51. The Mercs were already having to back off of Austria’s notorious kerbs, with Mercedes fearing post-race that both cars might not make it to the end of the race.
With the field closing up, the Mercedes’ wouldn’t be able to take it easy: no more margin to manage after the safety car closed the field up. Added to that, a number of drivers behind Bottas and Hamilton made pitstops onto softer tyres while the Mercedes pair stayed out on the hards.
Sergio Perez’s older mediums wouldn’t pose a problem but the new softs put on Red Bull’s Alexander Albon made you wonder if they would put pressure on the leading duo.
Sure enough, Albon put instant pressure on Hamilton and his hard compound tyres, trying his luck around the outside of Turn 4. The result is as you know…
You could look at this incident with Hamilton from a few different perspectives.
In some ways, Albon could’ve maybe been more patient. The opportunity to pass Hamilton would’ve surely come again the next lap, if the opportunity wasn’t clear-cut when he tried, he could’ve waited. You could look at it that way.
On the other hand… Albon was through on the outside. His car was ahead of Hamilton’s and he left more than enough space for Hamilton, who definitely could have applied some more steering-lock heading into Turn 4 and had a lot more space to his right-hand side to utilise. I do think part of that from Hamilton’s side was some understeer but he didn’t do a lot to avoid hitting Albon either.
Some people thought a 5-second penalty wasn’t harsh enough, Toto Wolff thought it was too much (?). At the time, I actually thought the stewards would call it a racing incident but they slapped Hamilton with 5-seconds in the end, demoting him from 2nd to 4th.
I know it’s the first race, but how many other opportunities is Albon going to get this season to have a legitimate chance of nabbing a race win? Max Verstappen isn’t going to be out of every race, Red Bull aren’t going to have a tyre advantage like that over Mercedes at the same time the German outfit are nursing problems at that stage of the race. Was that his big chance to win a race?
Whether Albon would’ve gone on to win the race if he had passed Hamilton, that would appear to have been unlikely, as Albon would later retire from the race close to the end, with Red Bull suspecting a power unit failure. Honda’s initial assessment points to a ‘PU electrical fault’.
If that is indeed the case, maybe it didn’t matter that Albon collided with Hamilton from his point of view…
How much more cruel would it have been to overtake Hamilton, overtake Bottas and then suffer that suspected power unit failure? At least this way Lando Norris got a podium out of it by way of Hamilton’s penalty… It just wasn’t meant to be for Alex Albon on Sunday.
Moving onto of Hamilton, I think it was clear he had the pace advantage over Bottas in the race but his error in qualifying/not claiming pole position put him on the back-foot for the race and cost him. Added to that, with Mercedes managing their issues from running on the kerbs, I think they just wanted to keep a 1-2 finish (Mercedes say they didn’t impose team orders) and didn’t need a potential collision between their two drivers — I think Hamilton had the pace to attack Bottas and overtake him. If Hamilton can claim pole position next week, I think he would probably drive away from Bottas. He is going to need to next week.
Moving onto Bottas, this was basically as good of a start as he could have wished for. Max Verstappen was ruled out of the equation early and Hamilton already 13 points adrift after his penalty. It was a great victory and certainly not a straightforward one, nursing the issues from running over the kerbs and the numerous safety car restarts.
Things move fast (no pun intended) in F1 but if Bottas can follow this result with another victory next week, it puts him in a solid spot. Bottas’ title hopes fell apart pretty quickly after his victory in Baku last year, so to validate a serious title challenge, Bottas needs to do the same thing next week, and that’ll be a good start. If he can do that in Hungary too? Maybe we can talk then about Valterri Bottas as a serious title contender…
Disappointing day for Red Bull to say the least… The season isn’t long, this was the worst thing that could’ve happened to Max Verstappen out of the gate. Red Bull needed things to go their way, they did not need a double DNF in the first race. Things can only be better next week.
I think Racing Point will be pretty disappointed with how their race unfolded too. Retirement for Lance Stroll doesn’t help, and Perez’s potential podium went up in flames when he received a 5-second penalty for speeding in the pit-lane (before being overtaken by Lando Norris on fresher tyres). Their race pace was good but I think they’ll be disappointed with what McLaren were hiding all this time. I’m sure they would’ve thought a podium was possible on Sunday after Verstappen’s retirement.
Speaking of Norris, he did a mega-job in qualifying on Saturday and did the business again in the race. His battle with Sainz late on was one of huge importance: any longer held up in that battle and he doesn’t finish on the podium. How and where he pulled that last lap out of — the lap that brought him within Hamilton’s 5-second window and the fastest lap of the race — I have no idea, but his podium is an excellent result for F1 itself, not just Norris who drove a blinder. Everyone is delighted for him.
That leads us nicely into the red cars: the Ferraris.
Their race pace was a little better than what qualifying showed but they’re still closer to Racing Point and McLaren than Red Bull. Charels Leclerc somehow managed to pull his Ferrari past Norris and into what would become 2nd place — more than what Ferrari could have imagined was possible heading into Sunday’s race.
Sebastian Vettel, on the other hand, did not fare as well. As his teammate overtook Carlos Sainz, Vettel decided to send an overtake up at Turn 3, but was even spinning before he made contact with Sainz in his attempt to get out of it. His pace after that was pretty bad — I believe he was still behind the Williams of George Russell when the Williams retired on lap 51 and eventually finished in 10th behind Pierre Gasly, Esteban Ocon and Antonio Giovinazzi. I’m going to assume his car was damaged in some way but…not great for Vettel.
Looking at the rest of the grid, Pierre Gasly had a quiet, solid race in 7th. Alpha Tauri were running well in this race and Daniil Kvyat was unfortunate to suffer what looked like a tyre-blowout (turning out to be a suspension failure after making contact with Esteban Ocon) towards the end of the race. Ocon was fairly far from his teammate this weekend but can be happy enough with 8th place, as will Giovinazzi with 9th place — that Alfa Romeo is not great, neither was Kimi Raikkonen’s tyre escapade.
Haas, meanwhile, decided to hop into a time-machine, running into brake troubles in a double DNF.
Overall, a great race for F1 to return with and the ending was absolutely fantastic, though it has to be said the reason it turned into what it did was because of that safety car on lap 52, forcing the field to close up while Mercedes were dealing with their issues — without that, we probably would’ve had a dull race.
Hopefully next week won’t be a procession and that we can at least see Max Verstappen in the mix too.