- Charles Leclerc is second and Lando Norris third
- Lewis Hamilton suffers dramatic late-racing demotion
Giles Richards – The Guardian
Valtteri Bottas celebrates after winning the race at the Red Bull Ring. Photograph: Reuters
Incident, spectacle, drama, tension: Formula One could not have asked for a better season opener at the Austrian Grand Prix. The coronavirus may have ensured there were no fans at the Red Bull Ring to witness the grand theatre but it can be assured they would have been thrilled by racing that ebbed and flowed, down to the final lap’s last tenth of a second. Valtteri Bottas took the flag for Mercedes from pole but was only one player in a grand cast.
He was joined by a disappointed Lewis Hamilton, whose day ran like some violent rollercoaster, from a grid penalty pre-race to challenging for the lead to another late punishment demoting him from second to fourth, after a clash with Red Bull’s Alexander Albon. As if scripted, Albon is the same driver with whom he had collided in Brazil last year – three races ago in the pandemic-adjusted timeline. Then there was McLaren’s Lando Norris, the 20-year-old British driver in only his second season in F1, who made his first podium in third by delivering the fastest lap of the race on the final lap, and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, pulling out the most unlikely second from seventh on the grid in what he described as one of the best races of his career.
F1 had adjusted well to the new reality of racing in an enclosed biosphere. The masks, the distancing and testing for Covid-19 have all been in place and successful. It was worth it.
The buildup could scarcely have been more intriguing. Hamilton suffered a late setback with a three-place grid penalty from second to fifth, imposed after Red Bull had protested against the FIA decision not to penalise him for failing to slow under yellow flags during qualifying. The protest was submitted an hour and a half before the start and the penalty was given 40 minutes before the off.
There was a sense of anticipation over whether drivers would take the knee on the grid before the race, a subject that had dominated so much debate over the weekend. In the end some did and some didn’t but there was at least the collective commitment to “End Racism”, expressed on their T-shirts.
By the time Bottas led away from pole it must have been sweet relief that finally drivers could focus on the day job after 217 days since the last race in Abu Dhabi. However, it soon became clear there would be nothing straightforward about these 71 laps in the Styrian mountains.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, starting in second, soon dropped out with an electrical problem, leaving him furious. The Dutchman was the first of nine retirements in a race that had every team holding their breath, unsure whether attrition would see off their cars, which have not run in anger since testing in February.
Mercedes, dominant all weekend, had the breathing space they needed with Bottas and Hamilton in a one-two and the Briton pressuring his teammate. The pair were in a battle of their own but not entirely left to their own devices after the safety car bunched up the field. Nor were they worry free.
Just over half distance Mercedes grew concerned that the endless buffeting the cars were taking from the kerbs was a threat to their gearbox and the increasing urgency of their messages to both drivers stressed how close they believed the cars were to potential failure.
Ferrari, struggling all weekend for pace, had lower expectations. Sebastian Vettel spun early after an ill-advised lunge past Carlos Sainz, leaving Leclerc stoically keeping his nose clean. He stayed in the hunt as did Norris, who had started from fourth, despite neither being close to Mercedes on absolute pace.
Their persistence paid off as two more late safety cars threw all the balls in the air once more and Hamilton experienced an unpleasant lurch in the ride. Bottas, to his credit, held the lead from pole to flag but he was alone in having a largely untroubled afternoon. Behind him the final 16 laps were nail-biting.
Williams’s George Russell lost power on lap 51. Under the safety car, pit stops once more ensued and Albon took the softs but the two leaders stayed out on their slower hard tyres. Racing resumed on lap 55, only for Kimi Räikkönen to promptly and spectacularly lose a wheel on the final corner, immediately promoting the safety car once more.
There were 10 laps remaining when they began racing again. Albon swarmed all over Hamilton and spun out after the pair touched as the former went round the outside through turn four. The incident was investigated by the stewards and Hamilton was given a five-second post-race penalty while Albon, who was forced to retire, believed the incident cost him a chance of winning. It might have been called a racing incident and inevitably Mercedes considered the punishment harsh, Red Bull fair.
In their wake Leclerc was scything through the field, passing Racing Point’s Sergio Pérez and Norris for third, enough for second after Hamilton’s penalty. Norris smelled his chance too and with determination beyond his years delivered a breathtaking final lap. He gained 0.728sec on Hamilton, putting him just over a tenth inside the five-second gap he needed to claim third. He is the youngest British driver to stand on the podium and appreciated what the moment meant. In tears he celebrated close to, but sufficiently distanced from, his team. His talent will ensure he enjoys a proper raucous celebration with them in future.
The stands sadly did not ring out after the engrossing and bravura show but F1 at least had the race it needed to get the season back on track. Indeed, more may yet be to come. With the first double-header at the same circuit in the sport’s history, they all go again next weekend at the Red Bull Ring.