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Graham Read
Formula 1 Correspondent
9:28 AM 5th July 2020

Bottas On Top In Austrian Thriller

Formula 1 made its long awaited return in Austria this weekend and, after being fastest in pre-season testing back in February, the Mercedes team continued its domination of the sport since 2014 as Valtteri Bottas won an absolute thriller of a race.

Valtteri Bottas remained calm under pressure to claim the victory spoils
Valtteri Bottas remained calm under pressure to claim the victory spoils
Austria’s Red Bull Ring circuit is beautifully located just outside Spielberg and is one of my personal favourites for reporting from, but this year was of course so different, with the event forced to run behind closed doors due to the global coronavirus pandemic. In the F1 media world the television presenting teams always tend to receive preferential treatment, but even their numbers were restricted and only a select few print and online reporters were permitted to attend, with no access to either the paddock or pitlane nor any interviews allowed with any driver or other team member face to face. So we had a new reality with virtually all having to stay away and report remotely.

As with many other sports including top level football, it’s actually often easier to report away from the venue than in a packed media room when you simply watch exactly the same TV coverage but with far more background noise and interruptions. Not as much fun as being at the circuit of course, but far more cost effective and perhaps a sign of things to come in the new times we are all facing. Even the legendary Murray Walker used to report on plenty of foreign Grands Prix from the UK for budgetary reasons, so it is far from a new phenomenon.

The teams’ motorhomes were a little more basic than normal!
The teams’ motorhomes were a little more basic than normal!
Max Verstappen’s usual high spirited travelling army of over 30,000 Dutch fans clad from head to foot in orange had to stay home too and even the teams’ glitzy and expensive paddock motorhomes which they prefer to call “brand centres” were replaced by small groups of what looked like white painted portacabins. Maybe an early indication of next year when F1 team budgets will be significantly cut and all teams will need to introduce austerity measures, even if they are reluctant to give up their plush motorhomes.

Anti-coronavirus measures at the circuit also meant the maximum number of staff for each team was reduced to 80, with no contact allowed between personnel from the ten outfits. It was also agreed that pre-race procedures would be shortened and simplified, with Martin Brundle’s famous live grid walk a casualty. The usual post Grand Prix podium celebrations would take on an amended format on the track itself too at the end of the slowing down lap, but the traditional champagne would still be sprayed.

Mercedes ran its new black livery for the 2020 season at the Red Bull Ring
Mercedes ran its new black livery for the 2020 season at the Red Bull Ring
On the Monday before this opening race the Mercedes team had revealed that for the whole of this season it is changing the traditional Silver Arrows livery of its cars and overalls to black in support of F1’s new diversity campaign, the Black Lives Matter movement and its mixed race lead driver. References to the names and corporate colours of leading sponsors Petronas and Ineos were understandably still retained though.

Meanwhile, both Ferrari cars carried the message #forzaAlex on either side of the air box in support of the former F1 driver Alex Zanardi, who was severely injured during a handbike race in his home country last month. Having previously suffered the loss of both legs in a CART racing accident in Germany back in 2001, the highly likeable Italian remains in intensive care in a hospital in Siena in a serious but stable condition following two lengthy neurosurgical operations and facial surgery.

Ferrari’s message of hope to the Italian former F1 driver Alex Zanardi
Ferrari’s message of hope to the Italian former F1 driver Alex Zanardi
With an upgraded Honda power unit in the back of his Red Bull, Verstappen was hoping to make it three wins in a row at the Red Bull Ring since 2018. Elsewhere down the pitlane Racing Point (the team based opposite the main entrance to the Silverstone circuit and which will be renamed Aston Martin next year) was looking for a strong start to the season, with its new car very much based on last year’s double championship winning Mercedes design. So much so that it quickly gained the nickname as the “pink Mercedes”!

Of course the ontrack action is what most fans have long been waiting for, with no Grand Prix having taken place since the beginning of December last year in Abu Dhabi, and it was great to hear those hybrid power units fired up again come Friday morning’s opening free practice session, even if the noise still doesn’t make your spine tingle like the preceding V12s, V10s and V8s.

Although the world’s focus is always on the Formula 1 action, it has to be remembered that every Grand Prix meeting also features a full three day programme of practice, qualifying and racing for all the support events and so it remained in Austria, with constant action from the F2, F3 and Porsche Supercup championships supporting F1.

When the F1 cars rolled down the pitlane at the start of their first practice period the circuit was still damp and there was little running for the opening half hour following the usual installation laps. Come the end of the 90 minute session it was business as usual as Lewis Hamilton and Bottas topped the timesheets for Mercedes on soft specification tyres, with Verstappen the best of the rest, if a mighty 0.6 seconds adrift. The Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel were only 10th and 12th fastest on medium rubber, opting not to use the soft version yet.

The iconic Italian team had already promised to introduce a revised version of its new car in Hungary in two weeks’ time, knowing it has work to do to match the other frontrunners. Friday marked four time champion Vettel’s 33rd birthday and it remains to be seen whether the German’s future still lies in F1 after being released by Ferrari at the end of this season. What is very much for sure is that he will be highly motivated to prove a point if given a competitive car.

Mercedes continued to lead the way In Friday afternoon’s second practice period, with Hamilton again outpacing team-mate Bottas, and Sergio Perez was delighted to finish third quickest for Racing Point in his “2019 Mercedes look-a-like” car ahead of Vettel’s Ferrari.

As expected, the Racing Point “pink Mercedes” cars showed improved form
As expected, the Racing Point “pink Mercedes” cars showed improved form
Of course Formula 1 wouldn’t be Formula 1 without a good old dispute between teams over the technical regulations and the latest one was prompted when Mercedes ran its controversial Dual Axis Steering system (DAS) in both of Friday‘s sessions. Red Bull had intended to officially protest it before the opening race in Australia back in March, but we never got that far before all proceedings were cancelled there and everyone went home.

Fast forward to Friday afternoon in Austria and Red Bull submitted an official protest to the FIA stewards about the Mercedes system, with their technical chiefs Adrian Newey and Paul Monaghan explaining how they felt it broke two regulations. The Mercedes drivers use it to alter the toe-in angle of the front wheels by pulling the steering wheel towards their chests or pushing it away for the reverse effect, improving the car’s performance. It had already been banned by the FIA for next year and at half past midnight on Saturday morning the stewards, after a lengthy deliberation, adjudicated that it was legal and that Mercedes could continue to use it. Of course Red Bull’s management were not impressed with this response, but decided not to appeal the decision for now at least.

The mood at Red Bull would not have been helped when Mercedes then again dominated the final practice session, with Hamilton and Bottas again on top, followed by Verstappen and the still flying Racing Point steed of Perez.

It was fully expected that after the qualifying hour the two Mercedes cars would claim the front row on the grid for the following day’s race and so it turned out, although it was Bottas who headed his team-mate for a change after setting a new lap record with his first attempt in Q3. The Finn subsequently flew off the track during his second effort, but Hamilton had to settle for second ahead of Verstappen, the only driver in the top ten set to start the Grand Prix on medium tyres when everyone else would be starting on softs and thus possibly giving him a strategic advantage. McLaren’s young British driver Lando Norris put in a superb effort to qualify fourth, whereas Ferrari were left hoping for better race pace after Leclerc was dismayed at only being seventh fastest and with Vettel down in 11th position.

Charles Leclerc feared Ferrari would struggle, but things improved come race day
Charles Leclerc feared Ferrari would struggle, but things improved come race day
In a weekend which was already giving us a bit of everything, there was drama a couple of hours after the end of qualifying when Hamilton was summonsed to see the stewards as he was under investigation for potentially not slowing for yellow flags when Bottas went off and also for a breach of the strict track limits rules. The Mercedes driver was found guilty of the latter infringement and had the relevant lap time deleted, but avoided any censure re the former when it was revealed that he was erroneously shown both green and yellow warning lights as he passed the off-track Bottas. This meant he would still start from the front row of the grid the following day. Or would he?

Red Bull and Ferrari were particularly unhappy with the stewards’ decision, with new evidence clearly showing Hamilton blasting past a yellow warning sign without slowing and in doing so improving his lap time. In extraordinary circumstances the stewards met again to review the evidence at 1.45pm local time, just an hour and 25 minutes before the race start and the Mercedes driver was given a three place grid penalty, promoting Verstappen to the front row alongside Bottas.

Lewis Hamilton picked up penalties for infringements both in qualifying and then the race itself
Lewis Hamilton picked up penalties for infringements both in qualifying and then the race itself
As Sunday’s race start approached all drivers had agreed in advance to wear End Racism t-shirts for the playing of the Austrian national anthem, but at the usual drivers meeting on Friday there were differing views about whether drivers should also adopt the Black Lives Matter “take a knee” action. The FIA and the Grand Prix Drivers Association took the middle ground by saying it was not their role to give instructions to the drivers about such issues and in the end 13 of the 20 drivers followed Hamilton’s example.

Such is Mercedes’ ongoing superiority over the rest of the grid that it was very much expected that Hamilton would quickly regain his lost three places and, together with Bottas, would dominate proceedings out front and, to be honest, that’s pretty much what happened. But we were also treated to so much additional action that the 71 laps flew by.

As the race settled following a clean if typically frenetic start Bottas led from Verstappen, with Hamilton usurping Alex Albon at Turn 4 on lap nine to claim third position. Just two tours later we had more drama though as Verstappen slowed with a power unit electrical issue, dropping to the back of the field and limping to the pits and into retirement. An absolute disaster for the Red Bull team.

With the two Black Arrows settling in out front and Hamilton starting to eat into Bottas’ lead, further retirements followed for Daniel Ricciardo’s Renault and Lance Stroll’s Racing Point as some of the trackside kerbs were playing havoc with sensors on the cars. Mercedes was quick to warn both its drivers to look after their cars.

Come lap 26 Haas’ Kevin Magnussen became stranded at Turn 3 with a brake problem and the safety car was called into action whilst the stricken car was removed. This prompted a flurry of pit stops, with the pair of leading Mercedes cars executing a well timed back-to-back stacking operation on the same tour. With racing resuming four laps later, Vettel’s afternoon was soon to deteriorate as he made contact with McLaren’s Carlos Sainz at Turn 3, the Spaniard being the driver who will be taking his seat at Ferrari next year.

Out front Bottas still headed Hamilton, with Albon third but over four seconds adrift. As the race progressed into its second half both Mercedes drivers kept receiving serious warnings from their race engineers about the need to stay away from the kerbs due to clear sensor issues, but neither seemed willing to obey until told that the problems were becoming critical.

Further retirements for Williams’ George Russell and Haas’ Romain Grosjean ensued with fuel pressure and braking issues respectively, forcing a brief reappearance of the safety car. On lap 55 Albon regained third position from Perez, but straightaway the safety car was back on track after Kimi Räikkönen’s Alfa Romeo dramatically shed its front right wheel.

As the safety car headed back down the pit lane with eleven laps remaining Albon was soon pressing second placed Hamilton and seemed to have found a way past round the outside at Turn 4, but, as in Brazil last year, Hamilton made contact with the young British/Thai driver and tipped him into a spin when a first podium finish was very much in sight. This led to the stewards giving Hamilton a five second penalty for causing an avoidable accident, which was to prove crucial come the chequered flag.

In the closing stages Leclerc found his way past Perez for third position, although the Mexican soon picked up his own five second penalty for speeding in the pit lane and to make matters even worse for Albon his Red Bull car also joined the growing list of retirements, with AlphaTauri’s Daniil Kvyat soon to follow suit.

Lando Norris (centre) was thrilled with his first F1 podium finish
Lando Norris (centre) was thrilled with his first F1 podium finish
After application of Hamilton’s time penalty he dropped from second place to fourth, with an absolutely elated Norris claiming his first F1 podium finish behind Bottas and Leclerc. Norris even picked up the extra point for the fastest lap which he set on the very last tour. A true flying finish.

We are all now living in such different times and this applies to the F1 circus too. Normally you can see the paddock already starting to be packed up before the chequered flag has even flown, ready to move on to its next destination, but this time round all is remaining in place for a second race at the same Austrian circuit in just one week’s time.

Its title will be the Steiermark Grand Prix, relating to the Styrian area in which the track is situated, and it will be fascinating to see whether anyone can mount a better challenge to all-conquering Mercedes.

2020 Formula 1 Austrian Grand Prix

1 Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) 1hr30m55.739s
2 Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +2.700s
3 Lando Norris (McLaren) +5.491s
4 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +5.689s
5 Carlos Sainz (McLaren) +8.903s
6 Sergio Perez (Racing Point) +15.092s
7 Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +16.692s
8 Esteban Ocon (Renault) +17.456s
9 Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo) +21.146s
10 Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) +24.545s
11 Nicholas Latifi (Williams) +31.650s
12 Daniil Kvyat (AlphaTauri) Retired
13 Alex Albon (Red Bull) Retired
14 Kimi Räikkönen (Alfa Romeo) Retired
15 Romain Grosjean (Haas) Retired
16 George Russell (Williams) Retired
17 Kevin Magnussen (Haas) Retired
18 Lance Stroll (Racing Point) Retired
19 Daniel Ricciardo (Renault) Retired
20 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) Retired

2020 Formula 1 Drivers Championship

1 Valtteri Bottas 25
2 Charles Leclerc 18
3 Lando Norris 16

2020 Formula 1 Constructors Championship

1 Mercedes 37
2 McLaren 26
3 Ferrari 19