Ben's Austria Preview
By Ben Edwards
Calling ‘Lights Out’ is something I have sorely missed this year, but finally we are about to enjoy the sight of Formula One cars launching from the grid and into real competition for the first time in seven months.
It’s not quite the longest period between races in the world championship. The gap between the finale in the inaugural season of 1950 and the first race of 1951 was seven weeks longer, but in those days there were only seven or eight grands prix per year.
This year’s tally is yet to be finalised, but getting one under the belt is going to be a major if challenging achievement. Who will come out of lockdown in the finest form, and how will the tempo of this first race set the rhythm for the remainder of the season?
My instinct says that Max Verstappen is going to be a formidable threat not only in Austria but throughout the revamped calendar. He’s targeting a hat-trick of victories on the Red Bull Ring, having snatched his second win from Charles Leclerc in the dramatic final moments of last year’s race.
In each of the last two years, Verstappen’s first win of the season came in Austria. If he can maintain that sequence, then he’ll be leading the world championship for the first time in his career. And the second round will be just seven days later around the exact same circuit.
Verstappen has been maintaining his competitive streak through plenty of sim racing and his single-minded focus is unlikely to be affected by the various restrictions imposed by the effects of coronavirus. Ultimately, a driver is a self-isolated individual in a racing car and being in that zone is what makes him or her feel fulfilled.
Teams will be operating as completely separate entities with no interaction with other groups and social distancing in the paddock. Bearing in mind that a racing driver needs awareness of centimetres of distance at 200mph, keeping a metre away from another individual in the paddock is not going to be an issue.
The lack of spectators will hurt at times, especially for the race winner who celebrates in relative silence, but all these guys have come up the ladder of motorsport and achieved personal highlights at events where barely anybody was watching. They’ll cope.
Lewis Hamilton has coped with plenty of difficulties in his career as he expressed recently in his support for #BlackLivesMatter and setting up The Hamilton Commission to improve diversity within the sport. He still goes in as favourite to win the title this year, and his Mercedes team has won four of the last six races in Austria.
Went down to Hyde Park today for the peaceful protest and I was so proud to see in person so many people of all races and backgrounds supporting this movement. It was really moving. I’m feeling extremely positive that change will come, but we cannot stop now. #blacklivesmatter ✊🏾 pic.twitter.com/koOTEPOXAh— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) June 21, 2020
Hamilton has had only one of those victories, snatched from teammate Nico Rosberg on the final lap in 2016, and there have been moments of frustration for him at the Red Bull Ring. In 2017 a gearbox change cost him places on the grid and although he made up ground, he was beaten to the podium by Daniel Ricciardo.
Last year, a penalty for impeding Kimi Raikkonen in qualifying dropped Hamilton from the front row to fourth on the grid and clipping a kerb with his front wing as he tried to make up for the lost ground cost him valuable time in the race.
In 2018 Hamilton suffered a mechanical failure, as did teammate Valtteri Bottas who had won 12 months before. That was the last time that a Mercedes F1 car failed to finish through reliability, a pretty remarkable record of 33 races. With a limited number of events this season, a single non- finish could prove decisive in terms of the championship.
It was 50 years ago that Ferrari won the first race to be held at this venue as future Le Mans superstar Jacky Ickx led home teammate Clay Regazzoni, the Swiss tiger who was in his first year with the team and was happy to let Ickx past in the early laps. I can’t see Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc cooperating in the same way, especially now we know that Vettel will be leaving Ferrari at the end of the year.
Leclerc came so close to winning this race last year, and part of the failure was due to his strategy engineers underestimating Verstappen’s pace after he had dropped back to seventh on the opening lap. Focus switched to Mercedes and Leclerc was asked to control his pace accordingly. Had he been given free reign, he may well have had a big enough lead by the time Verstappen was out of traffic.
As for Vettel, two podiums in six races in Austria with neither being a victory indicate that this is not his favourite track. And yet this is where he first drove a single-seater racing car back in 2003 at the age of 16, so the memories are well-embedded and if ever there was a time to use that experience this is surely it.
We have a tantalisingly unpredictable opening to the new season and for all of us it will be a bit strange. As part of the Channel 4 crew I will be commentating this one from a bunker in the UK, a room with intriguing insights into the sport from years gone by. More F1 history is about to be written and let’s hope the racing gives us all something to celebrate.
To find out more about Ben's bunker - and to watch highlights from qualifying for the Austrian Grand Prix - tune in to Channel 4 on Saturday 4th July at 6:45pm with the best of the big race at 6:30pm on Sunday 5th July.