The podium for the 2020 Austrian Grand Prix

Austrian GP - Stat Wrap

By Sean Kelly
C4F1's Virtual Statman

The wait was longer than anticipated, but in the end the opening race of the 2020 Formula 1 season did not disappoint.

If you had been in the grandstands for Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix and seen Valtteri Bottas lead home Lewis Hamilton in a Mercedes 1-2 – with Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari in third – it would have appeared unremarkable.  Yet this does not tell the full story either of why that wasn’t the actual result, or even why you couldn’t have been in the grandstand in the first place….

Bottas was a fully deserving winner of the opening race for the second consecutive year, but while it wasn’t the crushing 20-second margin of victory that marked his Melbourne 2019 success, the Finn led a race from start to finish for the first time in his Grand Prix career, resisting heavy pressure from Hamilton (and from his anxious engineers on pit-wall) throughout.

There could have been no better circuit for Bottas to launch his 2020 campaign as it is by far his most successful track in F1.  Having never taken pole or won at any other venue more than once, Bottas now has 3 poles and 2 wins here.  He’s probably wishing they could race there next weekend too…!

While much attention has been focused on Lewis Hamilton for his recent off-track exploits, he was always in Bottas’ shadow when it counted this weekend – although once again, he was incredibly close to reversing that narrative.

In 2018 he was beaten to pole position by Bottas by only 0.019s.  That was the smallest-ever pole margin at this venue until this weekend, when Bottas edged him out in Q3 by 0.012s!  Hamilton’s raceday chances were then thwarted by a last-minute grid penalty (his third at the Red Bull Ring in the last four seasons), when failing to heed yellow flags for his teammate’s off at the end of qualifying.

The further penalty for colliding with Alex Albon late in the race bumped Hamilton off the podium, but it was still a record-breaking race for the world champion, who scored in his 34th consecutive race, the longest streak of points finishes in F1 history and breaking a record he already held.  Perhaps it felt like a formality, but his previous record 33-race streak had been ended by a mechanical failure in the closing laps of the 2018 Austrian GP, and for a while it looked like lightning may strike twice.

Hamilton’s misfortune was Charles Leclerc’s – and ESPECIALLY Lando Norris’ – joy.  Leclerc’s second place, thereby matching his 2019 result at this venue – was a remarkable save for both him and Ferrari, who looked hopelessly off the pace after a qualifying session in which Leclerc lapped 0.920s slower than he did last season, and without getting within 8.2mph of his benchmark top speed from twelve months ago.  The opening sector of his best lap was slower than George Russell’s Williams, a driver/car combination that is still yet to emerge from Q1.

Leclerc’s achievement would have garnered a lot more attention but for the sensational smash-and-grab maiden podium finish for Lando Norris, putting McLaren in the top three for the second time in the last three Grands Prix, following 5½ years without even one.  The manner of his podium finish will live long in the memory, with Norris running fifth on the road when Hamilton – and then Sergio Perez – were both administered five-second penalties.

Norris’ agricultural pass on Perez with less than six laps to go gave him a shot at keeping within the five seconds necessary to get on the rostrum, but starting the last lap he was 5.530s adrift of the reigning champion in the car that has won the last six world titles.  Against the odds, Norris threw down the fastest lap of the race on the final lap to cross the line with 0.198s to spare, becoming the third-youngest podium finisher in history behind Max Verstappen and Lance Stroll.

In a remarkable coincidence, this podium finish and the one scored by Carlos Sainz in the penultimate round in Brazil last November both share the distinction of coming about after Hamilton incurred a five-second penalty for punting Alex Albon into a spin at a right-hander in the closing stages.

Albon will have sleepless nights over this race, as he was on almost-new soft tyres in the final laps with only the compromised Mercedes duo ahead on fading hard tyres and seemingly there for the taking on a day that Albon started fourth on the grid, breaking a record that existed for as long as the world championship itself.

At the 1950 British GP – the inaugural championship event – the Thai aristocrat Prince Bira qualified his Maserati fifth on the grid, the highest-ever start for a driver from his country.

Now…. full disclosure here.  There had not been another driver from Thailand until Albon made his debut in 2019, and Albon had equaled the record several times, but Sunday saw the record finally surpassed after a maximum-possible interval of 1,018 world championship events.  Not that Albon will be that bothered right now, having seen a first Thai podium – and quite possibly a first Thai victory – disappear into the gravel trap at turn four….

It was a frustrating day for Red Bull all around, on a circuit at which Max Verstappen had won for the past two years in a row, suffering his first in-race power unit failure since Honda began supplying Red Bull at the beginning of last season.

The only driver in the top ten to start the race on medium compound tyres, the Dutchman ran second early doors and was set to copy his 2019 race strategy, pitting much later than his rivals and being quickest at the end of the race, only for mechanical failure to strike before he got that far.

Friday’s practice sessions strongly suggested that Mercedes’ closest challenger this weekend may well have been Sergio Perez in the Racing Point, or the “pink Mercedes” as many rivals sneered, an allusion to the car’s remarkable resemblance to that of the defending champions.

Ultimately this did not quite transpire, but again it was only by small margins.  Perez set an identical qualifying time to Albon, who started ahead of him in fourth by dint of setting his time first, but put into full perspective Perez had been knocked out in Q1 in Austria for the last two years running, and never reached Q3 in the final 8 races of last year either.

The Mexican ran in the podium positions for 12 laps on Sunday, before a clumsy pitlane speeding penalty and fading medium compound tyres – asked to do 45 laps while everyone else was on the hard tyre – saw him end the day sixth.  While still tying his career-best Austrian GP finish, both he and the team will know there is potential for a much better result next weekend.

Carlos Sainz was the man to beat him to fifth, with the Spaniard indulging in some thrilling wheel-to-wheel action with teammate Norris in the closing laps.  His result was just as critical for McLaren, who now find themselves in the dizzy heights of second place in the Constructors’ Championship, their highest placing for over six years.

AlphaTauri had something of a quiet “debut”, but the successor team to Toro Rosso saw Pierre Gasly finished seventh, the same position in which he finished last year’s race while driving for Red Bull.

F1 returnee Esteban Ocon netted Renault’s first points at this venue since way back in 2003 by finishing eighth, one place ahead of Antonio Giovinazzi, who bounced back from Alfa Romeo’s double Q1 elimination to score points in Austria for the second consecutive year.

The final point went to Sebastian Vettel, who remarkably had never finished 10th in his 241-race Formula 1 career until Sunday!  One of the oddest statistical anomalies in F1 was ended thanks to the combination of Ferrari’s lack of pace and Vettel’s costly spin while dicing with Carlos Sainz, ironically the man who will replace him in that car in 2021.

It will be tough for next week’s race to live up to the drama of the belated opening act of 2020, but for all the knowledge the teams gained this weekend they will still head into uncharted territory in a few days’ time, as the Red Bull Ring becomes the first track to hold two championship races in the same season.

Join the C4F1 team for all the highlights from qualifying for the Styrian Grand Prix on Saturday 11th July at 6:30pm, with race highlights from 6:30pm on Sunday.