Conclusions from the Austrian Grand Prix

Jon Wilde
Austrian Grand Prix

Biggest standouts of 2020 season.

Valtteri Bottas led from start to finish, kicking off the 2020 season with victory in a dramatic Austrian Grand Prix as Lewis Hamilton’s second penalty of the day handed Lando Norris his first F1 podium.

Here are our conclusions from a bonkers season opener…

“The gloves are off”

Those were the words of Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff after Red Bull’s second protest of the weekend proved more successful than the first, securing Lewis Hamilton a three-place grid penalty that arguably cost him victory in the Austrian Grand Prix.

Speaking on Sky Sports before the race, Wolff clearly indicated he knows Red Bull in particular will try every tactic in the book this season to try and gain the upper hand over the World Champions – whether that is on the track or in the stewards’ room.

Red Bull failed on Friday to have the Mercedes DAS system outlawed, albeit that appeared a slightly ‘friendlier’ move inasmuch as they had flagged up to their rivals the intention to protest to the FIA before actually doing so.

But there was something a little more ruthless about the way in which Red Bull got Hamilton his grid penalty after new footage emerged indicating the Englishman had not slowed down for yellow flags during his final qualifying run.

Had Hamilton started second instead of fifth, he may well have won. He was faster than his team-mate Valtteri Bottas for much of the race and you have to think he would probably have been ahead of the Finn before the gearbox issues surfaced in the two Mercedes that left the team telling their drivers to nurse the cars home.

Ultimately, Hamilton’s second collision in three races with Alex Albon, which earned the World Champion another penalty of five seconds that dropped him from second to fourth in the final classification, will also have done nothing to improve the relationship between Mercedes and Red Bull.

Norris now showing he’s a real racer

“The race is probably one of my biggest weaknesses,” said Lando Norris in the build-up to the 2020 F1 season, revealing he planned to improve his Sunday performances having outshone his McLaren team-mate Carlos Sainz in their respective qualifying results last year.

Austria’s season-opener gave the first signal that the 20-year-old from Bristol is set to make good on his promise as he claimed his maiden podium, sparking wild scenes of jubilation among the McLaren team.

Although offered a huge slice of good fortune by Lewis Hamilton’s two penalties at either end of the race, Norris still had to deliver – and he did so in spades at the critical time.

Having fended off a strong challenge from Sainz with four laps to go, Norris then forced his way past Sergio Perez and, most impressively of all, produced the fastest lap of the race on the final circuit to not only ensure he crucially finished within five seconds of Hamilton but also bagged himself an extra point to add to the 15 he collected for finishing third.

A highly promising start from the third youngest driver ever to bag an F1 podium finish and a sign that Lando is quickly maturing into the competitor he has long been tipped to be.

Vettel looking like yesterday’s man

It was another weekend to forget for Sebastian Vettel, right from the moment his Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto bizarrely claimed the global health pandemic had prompted the decision not to renew the German’s contract.

Just how, exactly, Mattia? Okay, perhaps for financial reasons, but Binotto had demurred from making any reference to Vettel’s erratic performances at the wheel of the Ferrari last year when he may well have been entitled to do so.

There was further evidence of Vettel’s apparent decline in Austria. As his team-mate Charles Leclerc stormed to an excellent second place in a relatively uncompetitive car, Vettel was stuck behind Lance Stroll’s ailing Racing Point until just before the Canadian’s retirement.

Then after the first Safety Car restart, the four-time former World Champion went for an ambitious dart up the inside of Carlos Sainz at Turn 3 and was spun around, leaving him to finish P10 of the 11 finishers with only debutant Nicholas Latifi in the Williams behind.

Ex-F1 driver Jolyon Palmer, co-commentating for BBC Radio 5 Live, described it as a “Vettel special”, adding: “It’s exactly what he always seems to be doing, a standard Vettel spin. It’s just not good racing from Vettel – his racecraft is poor now.”

Having been spotted in conversation with Red Bull’s Dr Helmut Marko this weekend – against current FIA protocols – Vettel must know that as he seeks a new employer for 2021, he simply cannot afford to keep making such silly mistakes.

Williams shedding whipping-boy status

The season-opener ended disappointingly for George Russell, having to retire with a fuel pressure issue, but there was definite encouragement for the Williams team and the English driver in particular.

In his debut F1 campaign, Russell and 2019 team-mate Robert Kubica were permanently cut adrift at the bottom of the timesheets and lapped at least once every race. However, things already look much better for the famous manufacturer currently donning the ‘for sale’ sign.

Before having to pull over – forcing the second deployment of the safety car – Russell was running ahead of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean on sheer pace, as well as Sebastian Vettel following his tangle with Sainz. His first F1 points were looking a distinct possibility.

Nicholas Latifi unsurprisingly struggled in his first F1 race, but no longer do Williams appear to have unquestionably the slowest cars on the grid and so respectability rather than embarrassment looks to be on the cards for the remainder of 2020 if they can build on this early promise.

Reliability the key next weekend

Curtain-raisers to an F1 season can be attritional affairs, but 11 finishers out of 20 in the Austrian Grand Prix…did someone just turn the clock back 20 years?

Perhaps the way the season has turned out, starting four months late with a huge gap since winter testing, means the host of retirements was inevitable. It seemed the cars were affected more than the drivers – the start of the race, to the surprise of many, was spotlessly clean.

But with the Styrian Grand Prix taking place at the Red Bull Ring only seven days later, what can the teams do in the meantime to ensure the same failures do not happen again?

Obviously they can identify the problems and do what they can to alleviate them. Both Red Bulls and both Haas cars failed to finish due to reliability issues, while only Ferrari and McLaren appeared to avoid any sort of significant problem – even Mercedes, who passed the chequered flag first and second, urged caution from their drivers for much of the contest.

However, such a short timeframe between races, and with no opportunity to get the cars back to the factory, suggests several drivers again may well find themselves walking back to the pits next Sunday.

Jon Wilde

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