Lewis Hamilton opened his 2020 victory account by converting a superlative wet-weather pole into a comfortable win at the Styrian Grand Prix to confirm Mercedes’s place at the head of the field.
Hamilton was absolutely peerless in the saturated qualifying conditions, and though Max Verstappen started alongside him on the front row of the grid, the Red Bull Racing driver never quite had the pace to challenge for the lead, and by the time of his pit stop on lap 24 that his strategy had become defensive rather than progressive.
Off the podium the battle for fourth went down to the wire, with the front of the midfield tightly matched after different strategies brought Racing Point, Renault and McLaren together in the battle for points.
Back-to-back races at the Red Bull Ring in more ordinary circumstances would likely have delivered repetitive, predictable results, but the chaos of the first round back from the COVID-19 hiatus combined with the heavy rain on the Saturday of the second round that cancelled a practice session and affected qualifying meant neither race looked much like the other.
But the twinned grands prix did give teams a chance to learn certain things to benefit them in the second race, particularly regarding the tyres. The softs proved far more reliable in the first race, turning the red rubber into the spine of all strategies for the second, especially in the cooler conditions. This also pushed the hard out of favour for all but one team.
The free starting tyre choice brought about by wet qualifying didn’t quite deliver in terms of variation in the first stint, but the new wide window for the first pit stop thanks to the durability of the tyres did give teams the chance to play around with strategy and ultimately had a substantial effect on the order of the points-paying places.
Hamilton’s victory was never really in doubt, having aced his start and the nailed the safety car restart after the first-lap Ferrari crash.
Verstappen was nominally his closest challenger, but the Mercedes car was clearly quicker in the race, and the fact they both started on the soft tyre meant there was nothing to swing that balance back towards Red Bull Racing.
Ultimately the Dutchman was forced to concern himself with Valtteri Bottas behind, freeing up Hamilton to run his optimal strategy and control the pace through to the end.
Worth noting is that Mercedes’s quick fix to the gearbox sensor issues that almost cost it dearly last week clearly held, allowing both Hamilton and Bottas to extract the maximum from the car for the duration of the race.
Verstappen didn’t have the raw pace to challenge Hamilton in the opening stint on the same tyre, but the Dutchman might have had a shot at holding second place had he had more support from teammate Alex Albon.
Albon started sixth and was up to fourth behind Bottas shortly after the safety car restart, but from there it was clear he was severely lacking performance compared to any of the three frontrunners. BY lap 20 he already well outside Hamilton’s pit stop window, effectively dealing himself out of a role deciding the order of the podium.
It meant Mercedes was able to sandwich Verstappen early, and when Bottas brought himself comfortably into undercut range he forced Verstappen to stop pre-emptively on lap 24 to cover him off.
It proved too early, but the Dutchman ultimately didn’t have a choice. Bottas ran until lap 34 before switching to the mediums, which allowed him to close up to Verstappen at the end of the race as the RB16’s tyres began expiring, snatching second with four laps to spare.
Albon finished the race 44.4 seconds behind Hamilton and 31 seconds off Bottas in second place.
Racing Point was the stand-out team of the race, with Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll starting 17th and 12th on the grid but taking the flag sixth and seventh respectively.
But for Perez fourth place beckoned in a particularly impressive race for the Mexican.
The foundation for his recovery was his excellent safety car restart, climbing up to 11th by lap six. By lap 25 he was up to eighth, having picked off Lando Norris and Pierre Gasly and benefitting from Esteban Ocon’s retirement.
Perez is famed for his soft touch on the tyres, and this was key to him subsequently extending his first stint to lap 38. Thanks to a slow pit stop for Carlos Sainz — more on that below — he was able to pass the Spaniard for seventh on his out lap.
From here the lessons from the Austrian Grand Prix came to the fore. Perez had an impressive long stint on mediums last week; this week he was able to lean harder on the yellow rubber in fewer laps to extract scintillating pace.
He passed his teammate and Daniel Ricciardo by lap 48 and by lap 69 was trying to pass Albon for fourth. But the pair collided, Perez damaging his front wing, which dropped him to sixth at the flag.
Stroll couldn’t quite find the same pace but was nonetheless impressive. His earlier stop, on lap 33, dropped him among some slower cars, which meant his already ambitious undercut attempt on Ricciardo didn’t pay off, and he remained stuck behind the Australian until the penultimate lap.
Sainz was down from third to fifth early and was coming under pressure from Renault, but Esteban Ocon behind was busy defending against teammate Daniel Ricciardo.
Ricciardo was on the medium rather than the soft and needed to make progress to maximise his strategy, but Renault refused to intervene. He eventually made his way through on lap 19, having lost around five seconds, to close up on the McLaren, but the best of his tyres was spent and he couldn’t make the pass.
Sainz pre-empted an undercut on lap 32, but it dropped the Spaniard into traffic. Worse, the stop was slow, guaranteeing Ricciardo the place once he stopped on lap 37.
But while the Australian won from Sainz’s botched stop in the short term, it cost him in the long term. Both Racing Point drivers were also able to get past the McLaren in the stops, allowing them clear air to chase the Renault ahead, which was less happy on the softs than it was on the mediums.
Perez breezed past Ricciardo but Stroll took until the penultimate lap to barge through with a borderline move at turn three. By then Norris, who had stopped on lap 39, the latest of the lot of them, had caught up, and with an enlivened light McLaren and on fresher tyres cut past both and, later, past Perez, who was limping with his broken front wing, to take fifth.
In the end Ricciardo finished just over a second behind Norris, suggesting the time lost behind Ocon was worth a decent chunk of points.
Finally, AlphaTauri was the only team to try one-stopping onto the hard tyre, but the results were mixed at best. Daniil Kvyat made the white-striped work to take the final point of the race, but Pierre Gasly, after starting seventh, struggled to get any heat into them on a much cooler day than experienced during Friday practice or last week’s race and was forced to make a second stop late onto the softs.
It was a real outlier of a decision considering the cooler weather and that running on the previous weekend proved the softer two compounds to be extremely durable, though it’s debatable whether it cost the team any points considering Gasly was already tumbling down the order early behind the faster midfield runners that ultimately comprised most of the top 10.
Lewis Hamilton: soft (new) to lap 27, medium (new) to lap 71.