Lewis Hamilton got his mojo back, cruising to a dominant Styrian Grand Prix triumph as Ferrari imploded again with a self-inflicted double retirement on the opening lap.
Here are our conclusions from race two of the 2020 F1 season at the Red Bull Ring…
Hamilton fires on all cylinders
Doubts had been expressed about the six-time World Champion’s form before a spectacular qualifying performance in the wet – and Sunday showed he remains very much at his peak.
At 35 years of age and as one of the elder statesmen on the grid, there may come a point when Hamilton is evidently past his best as a racer. Some were even daring to think that time could be now, given the previous weekend’s disappointment, a comparatively lacklustre Friday practice outing and the perceived distractions.
But in a qualifying session held amid downpours, when driver talent came to the fore, the Englishman was the pick of the bunch by a country mile and, starting from pole position in his Mercedes, he sparkled again in the race.
— Planet F1 (@Planet_F1) July 12, 2020
Never troubled by either his team-mate Valtteri Bottas or Max Verstappen in the Red Bull, and with no sign of the gearbox issues of a week earlier, Hamilton coasted home nearly 14 seconds clear to close the Finn’s early World Championship advantage to six points.
Before the race, Hamilton had told Jenson Button on Sky Sports that you “can’t afford to be 1% or 2% off” in F1. “You have to have your A-game every week because I know the form Max and Valtteri are in.”
And he certainly brought his best stuff to the table this time. “This win feels like a long time coming since the final race of last year,” he said. “Last weekend was difficult but this is a great step forward.”
Ominous words for the rest of the field.
When will they ever learn?
After a 2019 campaign that was littered with errors from both drivers, culminating with an infamous collision in Brazil that caused them both to retire, Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel have picked up exactly where they left off in Austria.
Last week, it was Vettel who spun, leaving him to finish down in 10th position as Leclerc claimed an excellent second. This time, neither got beyond the opening lap as Leclerc tried a banzai move up the inside of the pack at Turn 3 which only succeeded in knocking off his team-mate’s rear wing and damaging his own Ferrari irreparably.
“Guys, we’re on row 5. That’s not what Ferrari is. Make sure to come home with a good result.”
36 seconds in: pic.twitter.com/fZWHEhkhBq
— Giedo van der Garde (@GvanderGarde) July 12, 2020
Cue the humiliation of the team packing up their garage ready for transportation to Hungary while their neighbours were readying themselves for vital pit-stop action.
At least Leclerc held up his hands for his mistake and took full responsibility. But just where do the Italian giants go from here? It’s bad enough that, on pace, they are currently very much a midfield team – when their cars are not running into each other, that is.
They also, as both drivers conceded afterwards, missed out on the perfect opportunity to make a direct comparison of performance before and after the upgrades they had fast-tracked for this weekend. A soggy qualifying session was no help in that respect.
Vettel, of course, is leaving Ferrari at the end of the year. You have to wonder whether – or even how soon – team boss Mattia Binotto might be following him through the exit door.
Quite simply, Ferrari are becoming, or maybe they already are, a laughing stock and some difficult conversations are certain to ensue at Maranello in the coming days.
Racing Point have podium potential
With Ferrari struggling so badly, the door is wide open for a team to snatch the ‘bronze medal’ position behind Mercedes and Red Bull – and on Styrian Grand Prix evidence, it could well be Racing Point.
The Pink Panthers have not lived up to their promise yet, at least in terms of points. But there was much to like about the drives of Lance Stroll and, in particular, Sergio Perez second time around in Spielberg.
Starting 13th and 17th, the Racing Points ended up sixth and seventh in a race of only three retirements and it could have been even better for Perez, the more experienced of the duo.
And now @SChecoPerez gets past Ricciardo!
— Formula 1 (@F1) July 12, 2020
The Mexican was pumping in fastest lap after fastest lap as he closed on fourth-placed Alex Albon until getting stuck behind the Red Bull. Eventually, Perez went for a move that ended with the cars touching and his sustained front-wing damage, leaving him to be passed on the final lap by Lando Norris and almost by Stroll.
Nevertheless, it was a terrific display by ‘Checo’, one that was recognised by the fans who voted him as Driver of the Day with 34% of the nominations, around three times as many as winner Lewis Hamilton.
“Debatably we were the third or even second quickest team out there,” said Stroll justifiably afterwards, with Racing Point faring much better than they had the previous week to validate the encouragement of their pre-season testing results.
The ‘pink Mercedes’ – which has upset Renault so much with its similarity to last year’s World Championship-winning car that they launched a protest after this race – had struggled in the wet during qualifying. But if given the all-clear by the FIA they can go to Budapest with real hope that granted fine weather, they could well be challenging for the podium.
Albon off the pace
From being a man who might have won the Austrian Grand Prix until his collision with Lewis Hamilton, Alex Albon was strangely subdued seven days later – and that has to be something of a worry for his long-term Red Bull prospects.
While his team-mate Max Verstappen was splitting the Mercedes pair until a front-wing issue resulted in him being passed by Valtteri Bottas late on, Albon ran, and finished, a distant fourth and was almost overtaken for that position by Sergio Perez until they made contact.
— Formula 1 (@F1) July 12, 2020
“We lacked a bit of pace this weekend,” said Albon with considerable understatement. “Max and I think we have the same areas where we know the car is weak.”
In the end, Albon finished 11 seconds behind Verstappen. However, for most of the race, the gap between them was half a minute and the London-born Thai driver’s performance was, dare we say it, somewhat reminiscent of Pierre Gasly before he was dropped by Red Bull.
Okay, that is probably harsh. Albon has fully justified his place with Red Bull, having mostly impressed with his racecraft since his promotion last season at Gasly’s expense. It would be unfair to judge him on a single below-par display.
However, this is Red Bull. They are never shy of moving the furniture around when they deem it necessary and both of their AlphaTauri drivers, Gasly and Daniil Kvyat, have paid the price for failing to live up to expectations in the past.
Albon is sure to get at least a few more races to fulfil the abundant promise he has shown. But in the Styrian Grand Prix, he missed a good chance to give Red Bull a double-pronged attack on Mercedes and improvement will be needed in Hungary.