Valtteri Bottas may have taken the chequered flag at the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix, but this was no Mercedes domination.
Superficially Formula One’s long-awaited resumption looked little different from races past. Mercedes was blistering quick in qualifying, locking out the front row by more than half a second from Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen, and Bottas converted pole into a flawless light-to-flag victory.
But the face-value evaluation belies how hard the reigning constructors champion had to work to get the job done.
This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.
“Winning a Formula One grand prix is never easy, but today definitely come easy at all,” Bottas said relievedly after the race. “There were many variables; I managed to dodge many bullets today and get the win.”
The bullets began flying before the race had even begun, with the stewards discovering video footage of Lewis Hamilton ignoring yellow flags in qualifying. The sister Mercedes car was demoted from second to fifth, promoting Verstappen to the front of the grid.
Though the Dutchman’s car wasn’t in the same league as the Mercedes, he was starting on a harder tyre, giving him the same strategic advantage that delivered him victory at the Red Bull Racing in 2019.
Verstappen’s car lasted only 11 laps before succumbing to electrical gremlins, but by then Bottas was facing a second serious problem: his gearbox was being shaken to destruction by the circuit’s aggressive kerbs, and he had to slow to keep it together.
Worse, Hamilton had recovered to second place and was chipping away at his lead. The Briton had a plan to long run on his first set of tyres so he could make it to the end of the race with a quicker second set. Bottas, managing his gearbox problem, would be easy meat.
The plan was scuppered by a lap-26 safety car, but at the resumption Hamilton too developed gearbox issues, and on both cars the issue had become so serious that Mercedes principal Toto Wolff was worried it would be an “instant kill”.
A second safety car — in the Mercedes engine powering George Russell’s Williams no less — put Bottas into check again when Mercedes opted against switching to fresh tyres, worried another stop would add too much risk to the already fraught situation.
Enter Thai driver Alex Albon, who dived into the pits to fit a set of the softest rubber for a 20-lap assault on the lead. Immediately he had racewinning pace and in only a couple of laps was sizing up the leading pair.
But an ambitious move around Hamilton’s outside at the long turn four resulted in contact, Hamilton understeering into his side and punting him into the gravel, dropping him to last. Ironically it benefitted Bottas — not only was Albon out of the picture, but Hamilton copped a penalty for the crash, ending his threat for good.
Nursing his car and keeping off the kerbs, Bottas had dodged his final bullet and took the chequered flag.
It was a thrilling first chapter in F1’s most unusual season to date.
Charles Leclerc finished a hard-earned but fortunate second, dramatically outperforming his own woeful Ferrari that had struggled to qualify for the top 10 only a day earlier. His teammate, Sebastian Vettel, finished
And final word must go to Lando Norris, the sport’s newest podium-getter. The McLaren driver turned in a strong drive, including a forceful pass on Sergio Perez and the fastest lap of the race on the final tour, to snatch third place ahead of Hamilton.
Formula One remains at the Red Bull Ring this weekend for the styled Styrian Grand Prix.