Words by Tony Robertson (Twitter: @TonyRob84).
Welcome back to Overtime Online’s weekly F1 column Life In The Fast Lane.
It feels good to be able to write this: IT’S RACEWEEK.
This weekend the Formula One season finally got underway, with the first long-awaited race at Austria’s Red Bull Ring and boy oh boy did it deliver.
Where to begin with this race?
Valtteri Bottas took the chequered flag on the season opener following his pole setting lap the day before. That’s not to say he won the race easily.
No, this Austrian Grand Prix would prove to be a challenge for the even best of drivers with not one but TWO safety cars deployed throughout as well as a staggering nine retirements.
Coming out of the Saturdays qualifying sessions, there were a few major things to note:
Firstly that Mercedes was unsurprisingly very quick, with Lewis Hamilton who had the second fast time qualifying more than 0.500 seconds ahead of the next fastest, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
Though Hamilton ultimately dropped to fifth after stewards awarded a penalty for failing to slow down during a yellow flag when teammate Bottas was off track, which opened the door for Lando Norris to pick up his first-ever podium qualifying time and McLarens best qualifying position since 2016.
BREAKING: Stewards have reversed their decision not to penalise Lewis Hamilton for failing to slow for yellow flags in qualifying
— Formula 1 (@F1) July 5, 2020
Which brings me nicely to the next major point of note, the pace of the midfield. McLaren and Racing Point in their ‘Pink Mercedes’ had pace which matched that of the top of the field with the obvious exception of Mercedes.
Since this season will be shorter than a typical season we could well see a shake-up of the usual big three whereby one of Red Bull or Ferrari could drop out for one of McLaren or Racing Point.
Talking of Ferrari, they’re my final major point of note from qualifying. While most teams have improved upon last years qualifying times with the most improved being Racing Point (-0.921) and Williams (-0.737) Ferrari along with Alfa Romeo (+1.119) have massively regressed.
Now Ferrari said they wouldn’t be competitive in the first two races of the season but to be nearly a second slower than a year before is nigh on catastrophic (+0.920 to be exact) in Formula One terms.
Whats more Sebastien Vettel, who announced he would be leaving the team at the end of the year, was eliminated in Q2, meaning he would start the grid in 11th place. Meanwhile, Charles Leclerc only managed to drag his car to seventh in Q3. It’s safe to say this Ferrari car is a bit of a dog to drive.
Gains/losses for Austria qualifying vs 2019 times:
Racing Point -0.921
Red Bull +0.038
Alfa Romeo +1.119 #F1
— Phillip Horton (@PHortonF1) July 4, 2020
This was certainly intense. As we got underway Bottas got away excellently, immediately creating a gap between himself and the cars behind.
As I mentioned earlier a staggering nine cars retired throughout the race for various reasons. The first of these was Verstappen, winner of the last two races at the circuit, who had a loss of power on lap 11.
Next up was Renaults Daniel Ricciardo and then Lance Stroll who appeared to retire due to a gearbox issue, which the Mercedes team also had but had managed to alleviate the issue by telling the drivers not to mount the kerbs.
Then came Kevin Magnussen who suffered from a loss of brake fluid in his Haas, who are another team who were slower in qualifying than last year (+0.619), going into turn three.
Moving onto lap 31, a battle for seventh ensued, as Carlos Sainz was pushing Leclerc for the position into turn three. Sainz was quicker thanks to the slipstream he had got off of Italian Car and attempted a move around the outside but the position was well defended by Leclerc.
Though Vettel who had been observing the battle from eighth place saw a gap on the inside and attempted to exploit it but only managed to spin after colliding with Sainz and consequently dropped down the order.
The next victims of a mechanical failure where the winner of the Virtual Grand Prix series George Russell and the other Haas of Romain Grosjean with the former causing the safety car to be deployed. Though just before the restart Kimi Raikkonen’s front right wheel went cascading off due to not being fastened properly, yet another mechanical failure.
Lap 61 saw the biggest moment of controversy as Hamilton and Alex Albon repeated their antics from Brazil 2019 but this time in reverse position. Albon used his slipstream and his softer compound tyre to his advantage as he tried to go round the outside of the six-time world champion. However, Hamilton once again clipped Albon’s rear right tyre and sent the Thai driver spinning into the gravel with Hamilton ultimately being given a five-second penalty for the incident.
— Formula 1 (@F1) July 5, 2020
As the race moved towards its climax Leclerc proved why he is such talent in F1 as he went past Norris into P4 and then dived bombed Sergio Perez on turn three to take P3 from the Mexican who was later passed by Norris at the same turn with two laps to go.
Just before the last lap got underway Danii Kyvat’s rear left tyre effectively crumpled into non-existence but the AlphaTauri driver managed to get the car clear of the track.
With the top three of Bottas, Hamilton and Leclerc it looked certain that Hamilton would, bar the best lap of Norris’ F1 career, retain a podium finish. However, Norris managed to do just that. Picking up seven-hundredths of a second to his fellow Brit and setting the fastest lap of the race managing to squeeze onto the podium by just a tenth of a second and pick up his first-ever podium finish in F1 in just his second season.
— Formula 1 (@F1) July 5, 2020
It’s for this reason that Norris is my driver of the day with Leclerc coming in a close second and Bottas in third.
Furthermore with Sainz coming in fifth, McLaren have started the season extremely well and now sit in second in the constructors, making them my team of the day.
The driver who had the biggest day to forget has top be Max Verstappen, though of course he could not be blamed for the issue which ultimately forced him to retire.
In general Red Bull’s dream start to a season with a double bill at their favourite track turned into a complete and utter nightmare.
And with that, this weeks column is just about concluded. I’ll be back again next week for more coverage of Formula One with the next race being round two of Austria.
You can check out last weeks column here.
All the best. Stay safe.