After seven months, 217 days, F1 returned with the first race of the delayed 2020 F1 season at the Red Bull Ring in the Styrian Hills of Austria. We don’t know just how many races we will get in 2020 but judging by the Austrian Grand Prix, the chaotic, thoroughly entertaining races often with twists and turns that defined the second half of 2019 look set to continue.
For a race that saw all 20 drivers finish for only the 9th time in F1 history, reliability was key for the wrong reasons this year as nine cars failed to finish. When asked about it by Sky Sports Martin Brundle, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner cited it being the season opener being a key factor. It has merit. We do see chaotic season openers and nine also failed to finish on the first race of the hybrid era in 2014; only 7 finished the opening race in 2008. The first races of a season can be problematic for reliability but could the extra shutdown with lockdown have contributed? With these sort of races there always going to be loads of stories of missed opportunities. That is certainly what we saw in Austria but the one constant was the race leader [Pictured in the feature image above; image from formula1.com].
For the first half of the weekend, it looked like Valtteri Bottas was going to be swept away by Lewis Hamilton as the reigning champion topped the timesheet in all three practice sessions. Instead, in Qualifying, he gained the upper hand in his newfound Mercedes lawnmower, joined Rene Arnoux, Niki Lauda and Nelson Piquet in claiming a third pole position in Austria with a sensational lap. The race seemed firmly in control for the Finn as he opened up a healthy lead to Verstappen before his retirement. The three safety cars added pressure to him and even after being told that his gearbox issue was worse than his teammates he lep from start to finish, did not put a foot wrong and deserved the win. It is the second successive year he has won the opening race, he will be hoping it is not a repeat of last year.
2020 Austrian Grand Prix Qualifying Results
Q1: Max Verstappen 1:04.024……………15th Romain Grosjean 1:05.094; 16th Kevin Magnussen +0.070, 17th George Russell +0073, 18th Antonio Giovinazzi +0.081, 19th Kimi Raikkonen +0.103, 20th Nicholas Latifi +0.663
Q2: 1st Valtteri Bottas 1:03.015………10th Charles Leclerc 1:04.041; 11th Sebastian Vettel +0.065, 12th Pierre Gasly +0.164, 13th Daniil Kvyat +0.290, 14th Esteban Ocon +0.502, 15th Romain Grosjean +0.550
Q3: 1st Valtteri Bottas 1:02.939, 2nd Lewis Hamilton +0.012, 3rd Max Verstappen +0.538, 4th Lando Norris +0.687, 5th Alexander Albon +0.929, 6th Sergio Perez +0.929, 7th Charles Leclerc +0.984, 8th Carlos Sainz +1.032, 9th Lance Stroll +1.090, 10th Daniel Ricciardo +1.300
Lewis Hamilton, 13 points adrift after the first race is not ideal even more so given his early weekend dominance but it all went wrong there on in from Qualifying. Being behind Bottas on track; which was his choice in order to gain a tow backfired when Bottas spun on the final run. The stewards initially looked at the incident and did not penalise him despite Hamilton improving his time in that sector. At the time, my thought was the telemetry must have shown Hamilton lifted for them not to dish out a penalty. He did not see the yellow flags but footage showed that he missed not one, but two. Personally, I think these lights should be on the inside of the turn, they’d be easier to see but that is no excuse for a driver of his calibre while Ricciardo did not see the need for them with Bottas off track.
It is not his call though and with the new footage, Red Bull launched a complaint; not their first of the weekend. It was odd timing with the decision being taken almost an hour before lights out but the right decision was arrived at eventually. He didn’t let it get to him though as he passed Albon and Norris with relative ease and was 2nd from lap 11. He was then 8s behind his teammate but was clawing it back when the first Safety Car came out. From there, his options of attacking Bottas were limited by the gearbox sensor issues Mercedes were struggling with but he still looked to be the quicker of the two Mercedes but having passed the pit entry when the second Safety Car was called left them open to those behind who could pit for fresher tyres.
You have to feel for Alexander Albon. He looked set for a podium in Brazil last year before a collision with Hamilton cost him and for the second time in three races, they collided again. Albon felt Brazil was more 50/50 and after seeing the replays it is hard to disagree. On the fresher, grippier soft tyre against the Mercedes with around 30 laps used Medium tyres, he had a great shot at a podium and even the win. Going around the outside of turn 4 was risky and at first, I was undecided between a racing incident or Hamilton’s fault but Albon was almost clear of Hamilton around the outside (no mean feat to do that to a 6 time Champion) when they made contact. Albon eventually failed to finish with a PU electrical issue while Hamilton was given a five-second time penalty which ultimately cost him the podium.
Christian Horner was not impressed but then it was a big weekend for Red Bull at their home circuit and fair play must go to Red Bull and F1 for making the event possible safely during the current pandemic but a lot of the time it felt like they were dictating the narrative. First, they lodged an official complaint about Mercedes DAS system which allows the driver to manually change the alignment of the front wheels for a better toe on the straights. Mercedes insist it is legal and the FIA approved so the protest was always likely to fail. They then led the appeal against Hamilton’s lack of a grid penalty from Qualifying which did succeed and put them in an excellent position.
Red Bull is at present, perhaps the nearest challengers to Mercedes on pure pace but they are still around three or four-tenths shy although Max Verstappen did go top in Q1. Getting him into Q3 on the Medium tyres gave them an excellent opportunity on the reverse strategy and the Dutchman had a much better start off the grid than he did 12 months ago. The biggest shame of the weekend was that we did not get to see this strategy unfold. It would have made for an excellent battle. An electrical issue robbed Verstappen of the opportunity of a hat trick of wins in Austria and given we don’t know how many races we’ll have in 2020, a title challenge as he became the first DNF of the season.
The main beneficiary of Hamilton and Red Bulls misfortune was Ferrari. It was felt their 2020 challenger was struggling and this was confirmed in Austria. All three teams powered by Ferrari; Haas, Alfa Romeo and themselves suffered from the same sort of woes. All three seemed to lack power with Ferrari believing they were losing around a second per lap on the straights. Unbelievable, when they had such a strong advantage in this area last year. The three Ferrari powered cars were also the biggest losers of lap time in Qualifying compared to their 2019 times.
Intriguingly, the Ferrari was strong in Qualifying last year up until the FIA announced they were looking into them at the Brazilian Grand Prix and their ability to challenge for pole positions disappeared. Ferrari are now bringing their updates planned for Hungary forward but even then they are expected to be 0.8s off the pace. So, I do have to wonder what was agreed between the FIA and Ferrari during the winter? Surely with Ferrari making an agreement and commitments with the FIA regarding power units after one of them was seized in Abu Dhabi, that something was involved in their engines that was not meant and they are now paying for it.
Ferrari’s sluggish Qualifying performance was confirmed by Leclerc’s amasement to discover his final Q2 effort was only just good enough to get into Q3 and his proclamation that finishing on the podium was ‘one of the best performances of my career’. Leclerc was phenomenal in Qualifying last year and is a Grand Prix winner so that speaks volumes. He produced a polished drive in the race but without the goings-on in front, he would probably have been 5th at best. He benefited from pitting for fresh tyres behind the second safety car but when he needed to attack he made a splendid move on Perez stick at turn 2. He definitely showed why Ferrari are putting their faith in him.
2020 Austrian Grand Prix Race Result
1st Valtteri Bottas 1:30:55.739, 2nd Charles Leclerc +2.700, 3rd Lando Norris +5.491, 4th Lewis Hamilton +5.689, 5th Carlos Sainz+8.903, 6th Sergio Perez +15.092, 7th Pierre Gasly +16.682, 8th Esteban Ocon +17.456, 9h Antonio Giovinazzi +21.246, 10th Sebastian Vettel +24.545, 11th Nicholas Latifi +31.650, Daniil Kvyat DNF, Alexander Albon DNF, Kimi Raikkonen DNF, George Russell DNF, Romain Grosjean DNF, Kevin Magnussen DNF, Lance Stroll DNF, Daniel Ricciardo DNF, Max Verstappen DNF
Fastest Lap: Lando Norris 1:07.475
If that’s the case then Sebastian Vettel’s performance highlighted why Ferrari are dispensing with his services for 2021. It was an under-par weekend for Vettel as he failed to reach Q3 for Ferrari for the first time based on pace alone, no mitigating factors like reliability or tyres, just pure pace. He did not have the pace and then there was the incident with Carlos Sainz, the man he is set to replace. First of all, he’s that far back I cannot believe Vettel would even try it but he brakes far too late and spins under heaving racing and unfortunately not for the first time. It’s an amateur mistake and not one you would expect from a multiple world champion. The stewards did not punish him as he fell to the back of the pack and only salvaged points through the issues of those in front.
His replacement at Ferrari, Sainz did not make as many headlines on the track in Austria as he did last year or during the lockdown period but it was still a consistent performance from the Spaniard that demonstrated why Ferrari want him in their car for 2021. He was hampered by yellow flags in Q3 which prevented him from getting a time closer to his teammates but it was interesting to see him racing against Leclerc, his teammate for next season. He’ll be ruing not getting ahead of Norris when he had the big chance to on lap 66 as they had similar race pace but it was a decent showing from him.
The other big beneficiary though was Sainz’s teammate, Lando Norris. He has been open about the nerves of his rookie year but judging by his performance in Austria, they are gone. After FP2, he did not look back and was ahead of Sainz throughout as he recorded his best ever Qualifying; 4th. Starting 3rd, it initially looked like he did not have the race pace of those around them in the midfield like the Racing Point but it is strategy that defined the race and pitting behind the second Safety Car for fresher tyres. After a close call with Perez in the pit lane, he wasn’t afraid to show his teeth against the Mexican and made the rather argy-bargee move stick and the final lap effort to get within 5s of Hamilton to get the final podium spot with the fastest lap of the race was sublime. A fantastic effort!
It was also history in the making and not just because of the socially distanced podium ceremony on the track or Lando Norris becoming only the third youngest podium placed driver in F1 history. It was also the first time Mercedes, Ferrari and McLaren for all their success in Formula One have shared a podium and the first time Ferrari and McLaren have had a driver on the same podium since the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix.
Racing Point has a good car this year. The controversially nicknamed ‘pink Mercedes’ showed great pace and potentially third quickest on the grid. Sergio Perez seems more comfortable in the car and could easily have got a podium. The pace was there in the car and it looked like Racing Point had pulled a blinder putting him on the Medium tyre behind the first Safety Car. However, not pitting behind the second left him vulnerable. He was caught napping by Leclerc but a five-second penalty for speeding through the pit lane cost him as he finished 6th. At least he finished. Lance Stroll looked slightly less comfortable and was a few tenths adrift of Perez. He got into Q3 though for the first time since Italy last year. Unfortunately, he struggled in the race with sensor-related power issues early on and was forced to retire on lap 19.
2020 Austrian Grand Prix Points Scorers
Drivers: Valtteri Bottas 25, Charles Leclerc 18, Lando Norris 16, Lewis Hamilton 12, Carlos Sainz 10, Sergio Perez 8, Pierre Gasly 6, Esteban Ocon 4, Antonio Giovinazzi 2, Sebastian Vettel 1
Constructors: Mercedes 37, McLaren 26, Ferrari 19, Racing Point 8, Alpa Taura 6, Renault 4, Alfa Romeo 2
Renault were tipped to be a dark horse for this year but their performance in Austria was slightly disappointing. It wasn’t an easy weekend for the Enstone team and Daniel Ricciardo felt the car was better than 10th on the grid but he had the edge over new teammate Esteban Ocon. After 588 days since his last Grand Prix, Ocon must have been glad to be racing again but it took him time to readjust. The Frenchman suffered bargeboard issues in Practice, qualified 6 tenths slower than Ricciardo in Q2. He slowly grew in the race as it went on though, kept his racing clean and hard to deliver points on his F1 return. For Ricciardo, qualifying 10th meant he was vulnerable to Vettel on fresher tyres in 11th. The pair were racing when a cooling issue forced him to become the second retirement of the season on lap 17.
With their new guise, Alpha Tauri had a decent debut with Pierre Gasly finishing 7th but it could’ve been a double points finish if not for Daniil Kvyat’s late retirement with a delaminated tyre. He was unlucky. The Russian and Team Principal Franz Tost blamed Ocon but the offscreen incident seems to be hard but fair racing forcing him over the treacherous kerbs on the previous lap. It would have been good for both drovers to get points. 12th and 13th in Qualifying are probably where they realistically expected to be knowing that ‘the Renaults, McLarens and Racing Points are very strong’ so both drivers drove well. Gasly out-qualified his teammate and produced a good drive in the race. Unlike Kvyat, he was able to hold Ocon behind in the closing stages and all the more remarkable that the team considered retiring his car after 10 laps with brake issues.
The new Haas is still a lower midfield car I think, perhaps 8th quickest. There is potential in it as Kevin Magnussen finished 9th in Fp1 and the vibe in the team seems to be that it is more raceable than its predecessor. Still, they lost one car in Q1 and could only manage 15th. Brake issues defined their weekend. It afflicted the team in practice and took both cars out of the race as Gunther Steiner confirmed post-race. Magnussen had been out-qualified by Romain Grosjean but he was battling Ocon for 11th when his brakes failed. Points were possible but thankfully for him, he avoided the Frenchman and tyre barriers. Grosjean meanwhile tapped a wheel into the grass at turn 4 on lap 20 which spun him further down the field before brake issues forced his retirement. A double DNF was not how Haas wanted to start 2020.
Then in the pecking order, I think come Alfa Romeo despite the two points they collected. They struggled battling with Williams at the bottom of the timesheets for most of the weekend but their race pace seems to be stronger. Antonio Giovinazzi led the Alfa charge most of the weekend qualifying ahead of his teammate and being ahead on the road in the race, keeping his head out of trouble to score two unlikely points in 9th; the most places made of any driver. He deserves some credit for that. It wasn’t such a good weekend for Kimi Raikkonen and he may well ponder his future if he endures more like it. Pitting for new tyres behind the second safety car looked to be a good strategic choice only for the front right tyre to just come off as they were to get back to racing.
This prompted the third and final Safety Car but it was strange, to be honest. It did not look like your typical unsafe release from the pitlane, someone amongst the pit crew would normally realise something has gone wrong So, in this case, it was not something apparent. Instead, it seems that the bolt on the tyre came off while n track promoting the incident. Alfa Romeo were fined for their troubles of course.
2020 Austrian Grand Prix Driver and Constructor Ratings
Drivers: Valtteri Bottas 9.5, Charles Leclerc 9, Lando Norris 10, Lewis Hamilton 6.5, Carlos Sainz 7.5, Sergio Perez7.5, Pierre Gasly 7.5, Esteban Ocon 7, Antonio Giovinazzi 7, Sebastian Vettel 5, Nicholas Latifi 6, Dannil Kvyat 6.5, Alexander Albon 7.5, Kimi Raikkonen 5.5, George Russell, Romain Grosjean 6, Kevin Magnussen 6, Lance Stroll 6.5, Daniel Ricciardo 7, Max Verstappen 8
Constructors: Mercedes 8, McLaren 8.5, Ferrari 7, Racing Point 7.5, Alpha Tauri 7, Renault 7, Alfa Romeo 5.5, Williams 6.5, Red Bull 6.5, Haas 5.5
Williams remain I think the slowest car on the grid but they are certainly stronger than they have been the last couple of years but with the team seeking investment and as the teams develop will they be left behind? I fear this may have been their best chance for points in 2020.
George Russell excelled in the Virtual F1 winning four successive races and returned to the real world where he left off, extracting the maximum from his Williams and outperforming his teammate. He was an agonising 0.073s from Q2 and out-qualified both Alfa Romeo’s. The race pace is perhaps not so strong and it prompted Russell to struggle slightly but the Brit was 12th just behind Giovnazzi when he was forced to retire so, points were possible. For Nicholas Latifi, the good news is that he got through his first Grad Prix and not everyone does that on their debut. He also almost got his first point. The bad news is that he was outpaced by his teammate, qualified last and was the first driver of the season to bring out the red flag when he spun in FP3. The only way is up!
After dealing with the reliability issues caused by the kerbs, the twists and turns of the Safety Car period, the unexpected podiums they get to do it all over again at the Red Bull Ring. It s the first circuit to hold more than one Grand Prix in a calendar year in successive races but it will be under a different title; the first every Styrian Grand Prix.