King of the mountains: Can Bottas stay at the top in Austria once again?
As expected, the new black liveried Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 cars dominated Saturday’s Qualifying at the opening round in Austria. The gap to their nearest rivals Red Bull Racing was over half a second! But just when you wondered if this season was going to be another predictable affair, provisional pole-sitter Bottas ran wide off the track in the ultimate lap of Q3.
Incredibly, the excursion didn’t damage his W11s floor. Instead, it saw his teammate Lewis Hamilton first being summoned by race stewards for not slowing in the yellow flagged zone, and later penalised three places on the starting grid for Sunday. This meant Hamilton had to get past Max Verstappen, Alex Albon and Lando Norris, right at the start, if he wanted to take the fight back to Bottas.
A Max versus Lewis duel is always a blockbuster. But an electronic steering wheel glitch saw the young Dutch star retire his car prematurely during the race.
Behind Hamilton, the sole Red Bull of Albon battled it out with McLaren’s Norris, Sainz and Racing Point’s Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll, who were followed by Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo and the Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel.
But at one-third the distance, Ricciardo, Stroll and Haas’ Kevin Magnussen all retired for various reasons. Suddenly, it seemed like a race of attrition when even Mercedes radioed their drivers to stay off the kerbs as they feared a gearbox problem!
This meant that the charging Hamilton had to park any intentions of fighting Bottas for the win, as the champions were keen on bringing it home clean, in a dominant one-two. So keen on preserving a formation finish at the checkered flag, Mercedes ran a conservative strategy during another Safety Car period while the opportunistic Red Bulls decided to roll the dice.
When Kimi’s stricken Alfa Romeo brought out yet another Safety Car, the race turned on its head for Mercedes. Albon’s RB16 was equipped with the faster, softer tyres while the champions were sitting ducks with worn, hard tyres.
But the inexperienced eagerness of the Thai Brit driver saw him risk an attempt outside the racing line on Hamilton. It failed clumsily, but it earned the champion a five-second penalty. The incident saw Ferrari’s Leclerc come into play and Norris snatch the final podium spot in thrilling fashion on the very last lap.
Round 2 this Sunday in Austria could see fewer retirements but a lot more excitement for sure.
The writer is a motorsports enthusiast who will cover the 2020 FIA Formula One® season exclusively for Indulge.