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 STYRIAN GRAND PRIX PROVISIONAL GRID|
|20||Romain GROSJEAN||Pit lane|
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
Starting tyre choice will be free for all thanks to wet qualifying, and it will be fascinating to see what variations are adopted through the grid, particularly with several cars out of place.
Teams will have the chance to put what they learnt from last weekend into practice, with one important lesson being the greater durability of the soft tyre. It’s rated to run as far as lap 33 — almost half distance — guaranteeing a one-stop strategy without any safety car interventions.
As per last week, a straight switch from soft to hard is rated as the quickest route to the flag, but the medium tyre will play a greater role this week, especially with substantially cooler temperatures forecast. Sergio Perez, for example, demonstrated the versatility of the yellow tyre seven days ago in a long final stint that would have paid dividends had it not been for the second safety car.
And Perez is a driver to watch today after bombing out of qualifying a lowly 17th despite his Racing Point car looking among the quickest during practice. The pink machine’s long-run pace was also impressive on Friday, the team unlocking some of the pace it felt was missing last weekend.
The Mexican, renowned for his soft touch with the tyres, will see opportunities to start with a harder compound to overcut the bulk of the midfield before ending on softs to scythe into the top 10, much as the top 10 did to him this time last week.
Teammate Lance Stroll, starting 12th, is on the bubble with strategy choice. The Canadian is a fast starter and may feel the softs would be a wiser opening choice to get him into the fight for points immediately before adapting to the rhythm of the race.
Up ahead the battle for the lead will be tense, with Max Verstappen out to avenge the power unit failure that cost him a ticket to the fight last weekend. But unlike last week, he can’t make a qualifying gamble to bake in a tyre offset, so the Dutchman and his Red Bull Racing team will have to think on their feet to outwit poleman Lewis Hamilton.
However, though Hamilton ran rampant in qualifying, he was less happy in the dry during practice — though he intimated Saturday night his issues had been rectified — and his Mercedes team isn’t fully convinced the electronics issue that afflicted his gearbox last week have been cured.
Though overtaking is relatively easy at the Red Bull Ring, the position of their teammates might prove crucial to their strategies, with Valtteri Bottas starts fourth ahead of Alex Albon in sixth. Splitting strategies between garages in the hope either might play a blocking role will add an extra dimension to the race.
Doubling-up races at the same circuit had a lot of potential to generate repetition, but the opening two rounds at the Red Bull Ring are proving excitingly unpredictable.