Mercedes may have a new all-black livery, but its superiority over the field remains stubbornly unchanged, as Valtteri Bottas’s dominant pole so aptly illustrated at the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix.
Not even a trip through the gravel and a clumsy spin on the grass in his second run could keep Bottas from pole and a new track record with a time of 1 minute 2.939 seconds. It was enough to pip teammate Lewis Hamilton by just 0.012 seconds.
The margin between the quickest Mercedes and the next-best car, Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen, was a foreboding 0.538 seconds. The Dutchman said the gap was exacerbated by balance problems aboard his RB16, but even was forced to admit the Mercedes is simply in a different league.
And if Red Bull Racing is in a league separate to Mercedes, certainly so too is Ferrari. The Italian team forecast a difficult weekend as it awaits a major aerodynamic overhaul due in a fortnight, but even its lacklustre practice times didn’t point to such a painful Saturday afternoon.
Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel were among the midfielders battling desperately to qualify for the top-10 shootout. Leclerc scraped through in 10th, eliminating Vettel in 11th in the process.
Leclerc, on pole in 2019, went on to qualify seventh, but he was almost an entire second slower than Bottas and beaten not only by both Red Bull Racing cars but also McLaren and Racing Point drivers Lando Norris and Sergio Perez in fourth and sixth respectively.
Key to Ferrari’s underperformance is a lack of straight-line speed. Team principal Mattia Binotto wrote it off as draggy aerodynamics, but inescapable is that three teams to take the biggest step away from the benchmark during the 2019–20 off-season are all Ferrari powered, adding only further evidence to speculation Ferrari’s power unit was operating outside the rules before being brought to heel by the FIA their infamous confidential deal.
|2020 AUSTRIAN GRAND PRIX PROVISIONAL GRID|
Distance: 4.318 kilometres
Lap record: 1:06.957 (Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, 2018)
Lateral load: medium
Tyre stress: low
Asphalt grip: low
Asphalt abrasion: very low
Safety car probability: 40 per cent
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 359 metres
Pit lane time loss: 16.1 seconds
Fuel consumption: 1.55 kilograms per lap
Tyres: C2 (hard), C3 (medium), C4 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta: hard–medium: 0.3 seconds, medium–soft: 0.5 seconds
The battle for victory looks set to be a straight Bottas-Hamilton affair, in which case the approach the Briton and his team takes to managing the fight will be fascinating.
In the past Mercedes has allowed the following driver to build a tyre offset to the leading car as an alternative strategy, and Hamilton does have the better record of eking out life from worn tyres. Last year’s British Grand Prix was a good example, the Briton pressuring the Finn into an early stop with an aggressive offensive game but having little trouble extending in the clear air.
That said, Bottas did demonstrate marginally stronger long-run pace on the starting soft compound on Friday, so he may be well prepared to weather that particular storm.
|Soft (C4), 8 laps|
|Red Bull Racing||1:09.264|
This of course assumes Verstappen isn’t close enough to interrupt this straight fight as the closest challenger to the pair. But while his decision to start on the medium tyre — the only driver in the top 10 who’ll do so — may make it tempting to believe he’s on for a repeat of his 2019 victory, when he likewise started on the ore durable compound and recovered from as low as seventh on the first lap, there are few reasons to believe a repeat is on the cards.
Then his ability to run long on the medium tyre compared to pole man Charles Leclerc, who started on softs, was key to him seizing the lead late in the race with an inspired run on the hard compound.
However, there are some crucial differences between then and now.
Most substantial is the weather. Whereas last year a European heatwave generated temperatures reaching 33°C, whereas Sunday’s forecast is for a mild 25°C, with consequent implications for cooler track temperatures. Last year’s heat was key to Verstappen unlocking performance from the hard tyre.
The heat also hamstrung Mercedes thanks to its poorly cooled car design, eliminating both cars from contention when they would have in more ordinary conditions likely snatched victory between them given they likewise started on the medium tyre.
|Medium (C3), 6 laps|
|Red Bull Racing||1:08.915|
Verstappen also presented something of an unknown quantity in race trim in 2019, having crashed during second practice without a representative long run. There are no such mysterious apparent this year, with the Friday race simulations suggesting Mercedes’s performance advantage is absolute on both softs and mediums.
Indeed on both those tyres Red Bull Racing was behind Racing Point in race trim on Friday, suggesting a fast-starting Sergio Perez from sixth, just behind Alex Albon in the soft-shod RB16, may become a more critical object of consternation on the pit wall than an attempt to overhaul Mercedes.
Ferrari is hopeful it will prove more competitive in race trim, but the Italian team was hardly competitive on softs on Friday — indeed it was seventh quickest, behind the same cars on the time sheet it will line up behind on the grid.
A point of intrigue will be Sebastian Vettel, who starts 11th and with free tyre choice. The German undertook a long simulation on the hard tyre during Friday practice, and while he’s tipped to start on the medium — a tyre on which he conducted no running on Friday afternoon — an alternative hard-medium or hard-soft strategy would at least give him the opportunity to break away from the midfield his car otherwise appears destined to remain mired in this weekend.