The Austrian Grand Prix, Formula One’s first race back from its COVID-19 hiatus, was everything the sport could have hoped for after a 200-odd-day break.
The race featured plenty of passing, clever and clumsy driving in equal measure, unpredictable unreliability and a battle for the podium that lasted until the very last lap.
Valtteri Bottas took away 25 points from a track around which he’s typically been strong, and with title rival Lewis Hamilton finishing fourth and Red Bull Racing failing to score, he’s stolen an early match in his fourth championship campaign with Mercedes.
The 2020 Austrian Grand Prix featured far more unknowns than any other recent season-opening race. Preseason testing was so long ago that almost every team had brought major and untested upgrades to their car, muddying the already haphazard winter form guide, and the sheer scale of time away from the track meant there was likely to be a degree of rustiness in proceedings.
But all that absence did nothing to dull Mercedes’s advantage, which has grown since the end of 2019. The German machines, now liveried in black, were untouchable in practice in qualifying, though the scale of domination was exacerbated by Red Bull Racing’s failure to find balance in its peaky RB16 machine in time for Saturday afternoon.
Ferrari’s complete absence from the frontrunning scene was the largest surprise. Charles Leclerc was almost a second off Bottas’s pole time and Sebastian Vettel failed to make it through to Q3 at all thanks to a car so problematic that no upgrades will be brought before a major revision in Budapest in two weeks.
There was substantial intrigue about the order of the midfield, with McLaren and Racing Point in particular looking like they’d taken steps toward the front — though, again, the appearance of progress may have been exacerbated by Red Bull Racing and certainly Ferrari drifting backwards.
But even after practice and qualifying the Austrian Grand Prix itself remained something of an unknown quantity, and the results proved fascinating ahead of the second race at the Red Bull Ring next weekend.
Valtteri Bottas was flawless in Austria, getting cleanly off the line and executing three safety car restarts, but even this sparkling form wouldn’t have been enough without some luck to counteract the almost terminal gearbox issues that threatened to derail his race.
First his chief rival, Lewis Hamilton, was demoted to fifth on the grid for ignoring yellow flags during qualifying. This, combined with Lando Norris challenging Max Verstappen off the line for second place, meant the Finn was able to build a handy buffer early and manage his pace.
The first safety car was also perfectly timed for him, preventing Hamilton from attempting an alternative strategy to get past him from second place, and gearbox issues also afflicting the sister car meant the Briton was unable to apply much pressure after lap 45.
Finally, Verstappen’s lap-11 retirement and Alex Albon’s trip through the gravel after Hamilton pushed him off the road late in the race meant there were no drivers left to have a crack in the final stage of the grand prix, clearing Bottas’s path to victory.
Those gearbox issues made it three Austrian Grand Prix weekends in a row that Mercedes risked throwing away victory through unreliability, with Mercedes worrying the issue was an “instant kill” for its race.
Unable to use the kerbs and forced to moderate pace, the newly liveried cars should have been vulnerable to Red Bull Racing, but this year the home team faced problems of its own.
Verstappen, winner in 2018 and 2019 and starting second on the grid in 2020, was starting on the medium tyre rather than the soft and was ready to deploy an alternative strategy to apply pressure, but an electronics problem put him out of the race on lap 11.
Albon, on the same tyre strategy as Bottas and Hamilton, didn’t have the pace in a straight fight, but the second safety car presented an opportunity to get ahead, Mercedes opted to stay out, worried that track position lost to Albon if the Thai hadn’t stopped would be too difficult in compromised machinery, so Albon dived in to switch from hards to softs for an aggressive 20-lap push to the flag.
He fell behind Sergio Perez at the stop but needed only three corners to regain third place. Estimating he had only five laps of substantial pace offset in his grippier tyres, he attacked Hamilton on the next lap with a bold move around the Briton’s outside at turn four.
But the pair collided and Albon was spun into the gravel. Hamilton was handed a five-second penalty for running him out of road, but the damage to Albon’s race had been done, with Albon falling to last.
Without the crash it seemed certain Albon would have had the pace to challenge for the lead, though a power unit failure with four laps remaining means he may not have been able to hold on for victory in any case.
The Austrian Grand Prix is typically a one-stop race, and a single tyre change appeared guaranteed when a safety car suspended the race at lap 26, bang in the middle of Pirelli’s expected pit stop window for the hard compound.
But the second safety car intervention with 20 laps remaining forced teams to reckon with the prospect of a second stop.
A second stop for fresh rubber proved the right thing to do, and on a weekend Ferrari was otherwise having a torrid time at the races, the Italian team identified the opportunity and brought in Charles Leclerc, toiling in sixth, for new mediums.
He lost not places, but on the yellow-marked tyre the Ferrari came alive. He made short work of Lando Norris and Sergio Perez, the latter stuck on old mediums from lap 26, to put himself third on the road, which turned into second after Hamilton’s penalty, a strong return after almost missing out on Q3 and qualifying a disappointing seventh on Saturday.
Racing Point was the only team to opt for an aggressive strategy at the first safety car on lap 26. When the rest of the field switched to the hard tyre, Sergio Perez instead moved onto the medium. It was eight or so laps early than the optimum window for the more delicate rubber, but the team banked on the Mexican’s typically tyre-friendly driving style to keep the tyres alive.
It was a worthwhile gamble. Perez used his extra grip to pass the hard-shod Lando Norris for fourth on lap 33 and keep the McLaren at a safe distance up until the second safety car period, when Racing Point decided to leave Perez out on his ageing tyre.
It was the wrong call. Norris, Carlos Sainz and Leclerc had switched to fresh rubber and each found their way past the pink car with relative ease, relegating Perez to sixth after Alex Albon fell to the tail of the field.
Had the second safety car not intervened, Perez looked like he had the pace to stay ahead, even with others around him on the more durable hard tyre. But a stop during the caution would have been enough to secure the same result anyway.
Daniil Kvyat likewise rued the second safety car, though the Russian was called in for fresh softs for the final stint. He lost places to Esteban Ocon and Antonio Giovinazzi, but while he made quick progress past the latter, contact with the former triggered a suspension failure that put him out of a race in which he was set to challenge teammate Pierre Gasly for seventh.
Valtteri Bottas: soft (used) to lap 31, hard (new) to lap 71.