Spoilers ahead so beware…
Doesn’t it feel good to be back?! After 219 days without a race, Formula One is back at the Red Bull Ring to start the 2020 season.
Originally scheduled to be the eleventh round of the championship, the Austrian Grand Prix became the season opener due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This truncated season is set to consist of eight races in Europe but hopefully, more circuits will be added to the schedule as the season develops.
The most frequent question I’ve heard about this season is: will it still count? Lewis Hamilton, British Mercedes driver and six-time world champion, is set to dominate again this year in his black-liveried Mercedes and if he wins this championship he will equal Michael Schumacher’s astonishing seven world championship titles. People question if by only having eight races this season, will he have really achieved that seventh title? Commentators say it will count because the early seasons of F1 in the 70s and 80s also held fewer races. The 1961 season comprised of eight races and Phil Hill is recognised as an F1 World Champion. I interpret this to mean the more recent world champions, the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, have outperformed previous champions as the seasons are usually longer now with upwards of twenty races, so this shorter season cannot be seen as an easy win.
The two Mercedes drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, topped the timing sheets for the three free practice sessions held on Friday and Saturday.
Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll in the Racing Point cars showed promise but fans may be dismissive of their achievements as the car has been in the spotlight since pre-season testing in February for looking remarkably like the 2019 Mercedes W10. This earned the Racing Point nickname of the ‘pink Mercedes’.
The McLaren cars were impressive during practice and may be rivals against Racing Point for the ‘best of the rest’.
There were a few slip-and-slides during the practice sessions with rainy weather, however, Nicholas Latifi’s spin at turn 1 in FP3 brought out the red flag, delaying the rest of the session for 10 minutes and meant his mechanics would have to skip their lunch break to repair the car in time for qualifying that afternoon.
Romain Grosjean encountered a loss of brake fluid pressure so only completed two laps in FP1 but was running again for FP2 that afternoon.
In Q1, the bottom five drivers are knocked out and the remaining fifteen battle again in Q2. The remarkable takeaway from Q1 was that George Russell in the Williams, the car with a huge legacy but little pace in recent years, was only 0.07 seconds off getting into Q2.
In Q2, where the next bottom five are knocked out, there was another surprising turn of events. Vettel in the Ferrari placed only 11th meaning he could not continue to battle it out in the top ten, while his teammate, Charles Leclerc, just scraped through in 10th. If this pace continues, the Ferrari may be only a midfield car and not a championship contender.
After the first run of Q3, Bottas headed the field and it would remain that way for the second run. On his second run, Bottas ran wide at turn 4 across the gravel and grass meaning a yellow flag was waved. Daniel Ricciardo’s lap was therefore ruined and he placed 10th. It was later revealed that Hamilton’s lap was affected by the yellow flag but he failed to slow down, resulting in a three-place grid penalty dropping him from second to fifth for the start of the race. Max Verstappen, Lando Norris and Alex Albon benefited from this penalty, each moving up a place on the starting grid.
Firstly, what an amazing season opener, full of reliability issues, safety cars and overtaking dramas.
Max Verstappen was initially the one to watch as he started on medium C3 tyres while the rest of the top ten started on soft C4 but his race soon came to an unfortunate end, retiring on lap 10 with loss of power, ruining his hopes of three back-to-back wins at the Red Bull Ring.
Ricciardo was the next to fall, retiring due to cooling issues, quickly followed by Lance Stroll in the Mercedes powered Racing Point. This is such a disappointment for Racing Point who looked to be on for a high point finish in this race. The two Mercedes drivers were warned of Stroll’s sensor issues and instructed to stay off the kerbs over team radio but neither driver listened. This was clearly frustrating for their race engineers although it did provide viewers with entertaining radio conversations.
The first safety car of the race was deployed on lap 26 when Magnussen had brake issues and ran off at turn 3; an issue seen on the other Haas on Friday. Many cars pitted to make use of a slower lap time and opted for the hard C2 tyres, except Perez who wore medium C3. The slower pace behind the safety car may have helped the Mercedes here as they wouldn’t have to drive over the kerbs and so could manage the sensor issue.
On the restart, Vettel attempted to pass Carlos Sainz but spins dropping him back to 15th. This kind of mistake is being seen all too often now by Vettel and may play a role in why his contract with Ferrari was not renewed for next season. Ironically, Sainz is the driver taking his place. The Ferrari’s lack of pace can be seen by the lack of aggression from Vettel and he fails to make up places after the spin like a championship contending car should.
On lap 35, Grosjean was given a black and white flag for track limits, indicating unsportsmanlike behaviour. In this case, Grosjean was exceeding track limits too often and gaining an advantage.
Looking down the running order, I was astonished to see Russell’s Williams in 12th out of the sixteen still running. He was driving excellently but unfortunately his engine blew just as the second safety car period was ending so the safety car was re-deployed for the third time.
Perez used an alternative strategy on this safety car too by not pitting to gain track position. This meant that he had to drive smart on his heavily used medium tyres while Albon, Norris and Leclerc around him had fresh tyres. The Mercedes did not pit either but they were increasingly suffering with their sensor issues (and uncooperative drivers).
Safety car number four was deployed on lap 55 when Räikkönen’s Alfa Romeo lost a tyre on the pit straight. This will come with a huge fine for the team. Just before the safety car was deployed, Albon passed Perez to claim third and on the restart he eagerly tried to pass Hamilton in second but they touched and he spun. This incident was much like the one in the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix. Hamilton was given a 5 second penalty, as well as 2 points on his licence. Albon had driven well all race and was on for a podium finish. Albon ended up retiring leaving Red Bull with a double DNF and no points.
The final lap was exhilarating. Daniil Kvyat’s AlphaTauri suffered a rear tyre delamination, possibly due to the heat, and slides off down the escape road. Norris sets the fastest lap of the race and finishes 4.8 seconds behind Hamilton promoting him to third and sliding Hamilton down to fourth with his penalty. Only eleven of the twenty cars finished and the top ten score points so Latifi in the Williams was tantalisingly close to a points finish on his F1 debut.
At the end of the first race of the season, Mercedes are on top with 37 points followed by McLaren on 26 and Ferrari on 19. Red Bull, Haas and Williams are yet to get off the starting line.
Holly’s driver of the day…and loser
Charles Leclerc is my driver of the day as he made what little pace the Ferrari had on the straights count and definitely outperformed his teammate. At the end of the race he said:
“What a race! That’s probably one of my best performances ever! It was so difficult…The road is still long guys but anything is possible. Stay motivated and we will make it.”
I think Alex Albon has to be the loser of the day. He was so close and couldn’t quite grasp it and it is more frustrating that the incident wasn’t his fault. It was also unfortunate that the spin was so close to the end that he couldn’t recover.
All timing information is from formula1.com and was correct at the time of publication.