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#1019 2020 Austrian Grand Prix

2021-04-23 00:00

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#2020,

#1019 2020 Austrian Grand Prix

One hundred and twenty-eight days after the first tests in Barcelona, it's back to racing on the Spielberg track in Austria. We find a deeply transfor

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One hundred and twenty-eight days after the first tests in Barcelona, it's back to racing on the Spielberg track in Austria. We find a deeply transformed Formula 1 at the start of the new World Championship. The false start at the Australian Grand Prix has inevitably led to massive changes to get back on track as soon as possible. The debt inherited by Liberty Media from the previous management, amounting to 2.9 billion dollars, is too high to think of stopping the Championship. So the Circus is the first international sport to reopen its doors, albeit metaphorically. The first big news of this season is that the races will go on, but behind closed doors.

 

No spectators allowed, staffing reduced to a minimum, restricted media access and a strict system of bubbles between and within the teams themselves to avoid infection as much as possible. Systems are also in place to substitute work groups should members test positive for Covid-19. After being caught off guard at the Australian Grand Prix, with the race being cancelled only a few hours before its start, Formula 1 is not unprepared this time around.

 

The calendar is undoubtedly a second innovation: revealed during the season itself, the calendar promises to be one of the most varied and interesting seasons in recent years, with eagerly awaited returns and interesting new additions. The FIA is forced to revolutionize the calendar for the 2020 season as a reaction to the spread of the pandemic. The Dutch, Monaco, Azerbaijan, French, Singapore and Japanese Grands Prix are cancelled. On 2 June, the Federation draws up an initial calendar, which includes eight races, all in Europe, and decides that the season will restart on 5 July with the Austrian Grand Prix.

 

Thus, the World Championship starts in Austria for the first time ever, and the season starts with a European race for the first time since 1966. 2020, however, is not solely marked by the Covid-19 pandemic, but also by profound changes in the social fabric. The Black Lives Matter movement, which originated in America and quickly spread around the world, is also finding its way onto the Formula 1 tracks through Britain's Lewis Hamilton, who is fighting a battle that concerns him personally. On the eve of the Austrian Grand Prix, Hamilton declares:

 

"Equality and inclusion must be central to Formula 1, my appeal was to all the teams and not all of them responded. There is still work to be done in relation to minorities, I will continue to push until I see a changed paddock".

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This is how the Circus becomes aware of the importance of this fight and the messages of equality and unity it wants to convey, deciding to race under the #WeRaceAsOne slogan. There will be a minute's silence before each race, where drivers will be free to decide whether or not to kneel in support of the cause, replicating the iconic BLM symbol. Mercedes will abandon its traditional silver livery, used in testing and planned for the Australian Grand Prix, in favour of a black livery in support of the movement and as a message of support of the racial protests in the USA. McLaren, instead, joins the #WeRaceAsOne initiative, which raises funds for organizations fighting against Covid-19, and presents a slightly updated livery with the addition of a few details.

 

This is a completely new season, as unpredictable as it is exciting. Compared to the 2019 cars, there is no shortage of new features and technical developments. The Barcelona tests, in fact, provide a first glimpse of the cars that will fight for the title, confirming expectations apart from a few surprises. Mercedes is starting from a clear advantage this year too, with Lewis Hamilton aiming to win his seventh world title, to match Michael Schumacher. Alongside the Briton is 30-year-old Finn Valtteri Bottas, a solid driver who still lacks something to be able to prevail on his teammate. Maybe this will be the decisive season, who knows.

 

The reigning champion team is further favoured by DAS, a dual axle steering system that changes the front wheel alignment while driving, which will be banned from the 2021 season. Ferrari, on the other hand, seems to be in great difficulty. The data that emerges from the Barcelona tests indicates an uncompetitive car compared to its competitors, so much so that team principal Mattia Binotto admits the Scuderia's difficulties before the end of the tests:

 

"Looking at the race simulations we are not the fastest. The overall performance of the car is simply not good enough to be competitive enough to try to win the first few races".

 

As a consequence, there will be no chance of finding a red car matching its competition at least until the third Hungarian Grand Prix, where an improvement package is expected to be introduced to try and make up the lost ground. The situation within the Scuderia doesn't seem to be the best: during the forced stop, Sebastian Vettel was informed that management had no intention of renewing his contract. The press conferences now have a new format. Here, Sebastian confesses what went on behind-the-scenes:

 

"I was very surprised to receive the call from Mattia Binotto, in which he told me that Ferrari had no intention of moving forward with me. There was never an offer. After the Barcelona tests it was clear that we weren't where we wanted to be. In Australia, we were curious to see where we were at, the same applies to this weekend. The last two months have been upsetting for everyone. Everyone at the factory has been working to get every update to the track, but they will only arrive for Hungary. We didn't bring the update in time for this race, the schedule has been very tight".

 

Visibly bitter about what happened, Sebastian adds:

 

"Team orders in my last year at Ferrari? If the situation arises and if it makes sense, both drivers are expected to help each other, but that has nothing to do with the fact that I'll be leaving at the end of the season. I'm certainly not going to make life easier for Leclerc, I'm not going to let him pass easily in every overtake, we'll continue to fight like we did last year. I've always tried to integrate well in the team. I always want to be successful and think about the personal result, but you drive for a team. It's hard to know what will happen this year, we don't know how competitive we will be. It will be interesting to see where we stand and adjust accordingly. We don't know how long the season will be and whether we will do eight or more races. In any case we will try to do our best, as always. It's really nice to be back here, I had a little taste driving the old car at Mugello, but it's great to be back here and I'm looking forward to tomorrow".

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After the German's comment on the lack of contract renewal, Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto further clarifies:

 

"Sebastian was very honest in telling how it went. We have always been clear with him from the beginning: he was our first choice, we said it privately and also publicly. Then the pandemic changed everything. A much more restrictive budget cap, the new regulations postponed until 2022, cars frozen for the most part for 2020 and 2021. And the fact that the season didn't start didn't give Sebastian the opportunity to get back on track to show how motivated he really was to drive the Ferrari. And so, during the shutdown, as Ferrari we had to reconsider our position. We told Sebastian. And even though he accepted it, he's still not fully happy with the decision, which is normal. But our choice doesn't change the esteem in which we hold him. It's clear that during the winter a lot of drivers came and knocked on our door. I think it's quite normal when a driver comes to the end of his term in a seat as prestigious as the one at Ferrari. But then the pandemic arrived and everything changed".

 

From 2021 onwards, he will be replaced by 25-year-old Spaniard Carlos Sainz, who has found the right environment for constant and surprising growth in the McLaren team, so much so that he convinced the Maranello team to take him on. The Ferrari project, however, continues to focus on its rising star, 23-year-old Charles Leclerc from Monaco. After an impressive debut season, Charles has been signed a five-year contract and a significant pay rise, further proof of the Monegasque's value.

 

"After the tests we thought we weren't at the level we wanted to be. Then there was the lockdown, and, after the reopening, we analysed the situation to understand the problem and where it came from. We looked for a different road to Budapest and there was no time to bring the update here. Fighting for the World Championship? It won't be easy".

 

Admits Charles Leclerc, before moving on to Vettel's farewell next season:

 

"I don't think it will change our relationship compared to last season. Sometimes we will have to try to work as a team and that benefits us as drivers. I will miss Vettel's experience and his speed, I have learnt so much from Seb and I will continue to learn so much from him until the end of the season. I will miss him as a driver but also as a person. There have been battles on track that have ended in a way we didn’t want to but there has always been respect. I will miss his way of working".

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While Ferrari has already decided what to do next season, at Mercedes, Hamilton's future remains uncertain, as Toto Wolff explains:

 

"When and if we renew? We think it's better to make a decision later. Drivers like Sainz, Ricciardo and Vettel are in a strange and difficult situation because they have a whole season to go with a different team to their future".

 

The six-time World Champion's contract expires at the end of the season and talks have resumed with the Woking-based team, after the delay caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the Mail, Hamilton would like to increase his salary from forty to around forty-five million euros per season. This would make him by far the highest-paid driver on the grid, as well as increasing a fortune estimated at almost two hundred and fifty million euros, making him the richest sportsman in England. Lewis will likely be able to end his Formula 1 career at Mercedes, as the negotiations should not be very complicated: both parties have said they are confident that they will reach an agreement. Many eyes will be on Lewis Hamilton both for sporting and other reasons, as he will carry on with his Black Lives Matter initiatives in Austria and elsewhere.

 

"It is unfortunate that it took another black death in the United States to start this movement. George Floyd's video struck a chord, I have been trying to get to the bottom of this complicated issue. It's good to see initiative on the part of Formula 1, I've spent a lot of time on the phone defining these programmes and trying to do more and more".

 

The World Champion and his teammate Valtteri Bottas will wear black overalls for the race at the Red Bull Ring, the same colour as the livery of their single-seaters.

 

"Equality and inclusion must be central to Formula 1, my appeal was to all the teams and not all of them responded. There is still work to be done in relation to minorities, I will continue to push until I see a changed paddock. It all starts with education and that's why I started with The Hamilton Commission. Will I take the knee? We haven't talked about it together yet. It wasn't my first thought and it's not my priority, but we'll see on Sunday. I think whatever we do we all have to do it together. We have to be united on this issue and then we can fight to end injustice. We are privileged and we have to make sure that we join forces. First of all the first race is on Sunday and I think as a team we have shown that we recognise the situation in our society. We will see what the other teams do but as drivers we will try to unite to do something meaningful".

 

Then, some thoughts on the race.

 

"Red Bull has always been strong on this track and they did well in testing too. I'm curious to see how things will go. I wasn't looking forward to it, but I'm happy to be here. It's been a period during which I've been able to reflect and focus on some very important things. The Red Bull Ring is a challenging track for us. In Austria the altitude and temperatures made it difficult for us, we never found the perfect window. We think we have improved, we will see on track".

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Red Bull is, once again, likely to be the second or third strongest car on track, capable of challenging Mercedes with good performances. The Austrian team reconfirms Dutch driver Max Verstappen, who has been with the team since 2016, flanked by 24-year-old Alex Albon, the first driver in Formula 1 history to race under the Thai flag.

 

"I’ve really missed racing: initially we tried to work on the simulator, but then it got boring. After that I did a few days on track, but not in a Formula 1 car, so I'm happy to be back here and be able to do what I like. Every year is different: what we've done in the last two years here has been great, but that doesn't mean we'll automatically do well this year. Right now it's hard to say if we can win every race".

 

Max, however, feels positive:

 

"We brought some updates here, including one to the engine. It will be interesting to see where we are after such a long break and after the winter tests, which are an unknown factor: rather than talking about it, we need to see what will happen on track tomorrow".

 

Verstappen's driving style will not change due to the number of races taking place:

 

"Nothing will change for me. I don't want to take crazy risks, if you make a mistake you pay for it. I want to do well in every race: if there are eight races then fine, if there are more then so much the better. My approach will be the same, I always want to get the best possible result".

 

Despite previous years showing that the seat next to Verstappen is difficult to keep, a solid season is expected from Albon, who was promoted from the Italian Toro Rosso team midway through the 2019 Championship. Racing Point is the real surprise this season and the loose cannon to watch out for. After finishing seventh in the previous season, the Silverstone-based team now has a very similar set-up to the Mercedes cars. The single-seater is quite fast and aerodynamic, managing to set excellent times during the days of testing. A considerable leap in quality, though the similarity with the Mercedes W10 has triggered a number of controversies. Director Andrew Green, however, wants to justify the decision to faithfully replicate the aerodynamic set-up of the Anglo-German team's car:

 

"The Mercedes was the fastest car in 2019 and we were inspired by the W10. Last year we had a single-seater that allowed us to fight for seventh place in the constructors' championship, and it's unlikely that continuing the project would have changed the results. It's a big risk, clearly. We trashed the 2019 project and started from scratch with a whole new philosophy. It's obvious that, if taking inspiration from someone, the ideal was to go with the team that worked best. If it goes well, that's great, but if it goes badly, I think we'll be fighting for the same positions as last year while waiting for the regulation change".

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After Robert Kubica’s departure, George Russel remains at Williams flanked by the team's new signing, Canadian Nicholas Latifi. The 25-year-old has been in the Williams world since the previous year, playing the role of third driver. The second place in the Formula 2 Championship has given him the final push for the big jump. After the first laps in the new FW43, the feedback already seems positive. George Russell comments as follows:

 

"I would say that the general handling of the car is definitely better. From the first lap I was sure I could push the car to the limit, while last year I didn't have a good feeling in the first few laps".

 

After being entered for the Australian Grand Prix as ROKiT Williams Racing, the team is now entered only as Williams Racing, due to the dissolution of the contract with the title sponsor over disagreements about the team's competitiveness. Toro Rosso has changed its name to Alpha Tauri. The headquarters remain in Faenza, as does the driver line-up, consisting of Frenchman Pierre Gasly and Russian Daniil Kvyat. The two have started the season well, setting some excellent times, among the best in the test days.

 

As for Haas, Alfa Romeo, McLaren and Renault, there are few surprises. Some cars suffer from technical problems but all in all they seem to be valid projects. It has to be said, however, that the cars we'll find on track at the start of this first Austrian Grand Prix won't be very different from those we'll see in the 2021 season, given that many parts will be frozen and the new budget cap will come into force.

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After Robert Kubica’s departure, George Russel remains at Williams flanked by the team's new signing, Canadian Nicholas Latifi. The 25-year-old has been in the Williams world since the previous year, playing the role of third driver. The second place in the Formula 2 Championship has given him the final push for the big jump. After the first laps in the new FW43, the feedback already seems positive. George Russell comments as follows:

 

"I would say that the general handling of the car is definitely better. From the first lap I was sure I could push the car to the limit, while last year I didn't have a good feeling in the first few laps".

 

After being entered for the Australian Grand Prix as ROKiT Williams Racing, the team is now entered only as Williams Racing, due to the dissolution of the contract with the title sponsor over disagreements about the team's competitiveness. Toro Rosso has changed its name to Alpha Tauri. The headquarters remain in Faenza, as does the driver line-up, consisting of Frenchman Pierre Gasly and Russian Daniil Kvyat. The two have started the season well, setting some excellent times, among the best in the test days.

 

As for Haas, Alfa Romeo, McLaren and Renault, there are few surprises. Some cars suffer from technical problems but all in all they seem to be valid projects. It has to be said, however, that the cars we'll find on track at the start of this first Austrian Grand Prix won't be very different from those we'll see in the 2021 season, given that many parts will be frozen and the new budget cap will come into force.

 

After the first ten races scheduled for the Championship were cancelled,. Honda, which supports Red Bull Racing and Scuderia AlphaTauri, brings an updated engine compared to the version presented at the Australian Grand Prix; Mercedes, which supports Racing Point and Williams in addition to its own team, does the same. Renault, which supplies its own team and McLaren, decides to confirm the specification already planned for the inaugural race in Australia, which did not take place. In this climate of novelty, the engines are restarted for the first race weekend on the Red Bull track, in Spielberg, Austria. A challenging track, especially for the Mercedes cars, who recognise the difficulties faced in previous years. When asked for thoughts on the race, Hamilton replies:

 

"Red Bull has always been strong on this track and they did well in testing too. I'm curious to see how things will go. The Red Bull Ring is a challenging track for us. In Austria the altitude and temperatures made it difficult for us, we never found the perfect window. We think we have improved, we will see on track".

 

Red Bull, on the other hand, is expected to be the protagonist of this race weekend, especially considering their double win streak in the last two years. Max Verstappen says he is calm and happy to be back on track:

 

"I’ve really missed racing: initially we tried to work on the simulator, but then it got boring. After that I did a few days on the track but not in a Formula 1 car, so I'm happy to be back here and to be able to do what I like. Every year is different: what we've done in the last two years here has been great, but it doesn't mean we'll automatically do well again this year. Right now it’s hard to say if we can win every race. The feeling, though, is positive: we brought some updates here, including one to the engine. It will be interesting to see where we are after such a long break and after the winter tests, which are an unknown factor: rather than talking about it, we need to see what happens on the track from tomorrow".

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The Maranello-based team is lacking upgrades after the tests, and the upgrades won't come until the third Hungarian Grand Prix. Furthermore, it’s almost like Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel are a separated couple still living in the same house. After the announcement of the non-renewal of Seb’s contract, the air is tense and uncertain at Ferrari.

 

Both sides say they are focused on the work ahead and determined to get it done, but the climate in which they will be doing so is far from relaxed. Despite this, Sebastian Vettel, thirty-three on 3 July 2020, the day of the virtual press conference for the Spielberg Grand Prix, is certainly not losing heart; he is confident about the future, but also fatalistic:

 

"I'm not in negotiations with anyone. I am very competitive and motivated, but I need the right package and the right people, I want to make the best choice. If the opportunity presents itself, I'll take it. If not, I'll do something else, knowing that if a door closes, you have to be ready for it to stay closed".

 

Truth be told, Ferrari had been considering a replacement for the German driver for several years, but the circumstances had never led to the decisive step for a number of reasons. This year, Ferrari is entered in the event only as Scuderia Ferrari, without Mission Winnow as its title sponsor, as it would be an indirect form of tobacco advertising. The #forzaAlex logo appears on the Ferrari cars, in support of former Formula 1 driver Alex Zanardi, victim of a road accident on a handbike. For this race, Pirelli, the sole supplier of tyres, brings C2, C3 and C4 compound tyres. Compared to previous editions, the bollards at turns 9 and 10 have been removed, and sensors have been placed in their stead to enforce the track limits.

 

Returning to the track should cheer up the Formula 1 environment, which is, however, pervaded by a series of fierce disputes – and not only sporting ones. Indeed, Red Bull has lodged a formal complaint with the FIA against DAS, to which Mercedes has responded by asserting its legitimacy. In addition, suspicions about the 2019 Ferrari engine have not diminished, as it was the subject of an investigation that was later closed with a secret agreement with the FIA. For the Prancing Horse, sharing the contents of the agreement would have meant violating the intellectual property of the power unit, but teams are still asking the FIA for further explanations. The Red Bull-Mercedes feud will come to an end a few hours before qualifying: as mentioned, the DAS will be judged legal, but only for the 2020 World Championship.

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On Friday 3 July, the engines are restarted to carry out the first free practice sessions. They immediately yield surprising results, not so much for the leading positions, but for the times set. In the first stint, Lewis Hamilton imposes himself on his opponents with a time of 1'04"816, while teammate Bottas marks the second-best time with a lap of 1'05"172. The first Friday session begins on a wet track, forcing the drivers to use intermediate tyres, but the situation improves as time goes by, allowing the drivers to switch to slick tyres.

 

Lewis Hamilton is quickest, three tenths ahead of Valtteri Bottas in the other Mercedes, and six tenths ahead of Max Verstappen in the Red Bull Racing car, despite the Anglo-Austrian car showing some difficulty in getting its tyres up to temperature. The McLarens finish with the fourth and sixth fastest times, separated in the standings by Racing Point’s Sergio Pérez. All the top drivers are using the softer compound, while the Ferraris, who finish tenth and twelfth, opt for the medium compound. The Italian cars’ race pace shows better competitiveness compared to the fast lap. Romain Grosjean, in the Haas, does not set a time on slicks due to a problem with his brake system, which is only resolved at the end of the session.

 

The second session isn't too different, with Mercedes seeming unstoppable: Hamilton and Bottas confirm their extraordinary times once again, partially thanks to the brand-new DAS, although the Finn does make a small mistake on his best lap and is then penalized by a gearbox problem. An excellent Racing Point achieves third position, with Sergio Perez six tenths behind, while the first of the Ferraris is fourth, with Sebastian Vettel just 657 thousandths behind. Charles Leclerc is ninth, nine tenths from the best Mercedes time, while Carlos Sainz for McLaren closes the top ten. Max Verstappen has to settle for eighth due to a front wing failure on his best lap, while the other Red Bull Racing driver, Albon, is fifteenth. Mercedes’ performance scares everyone, including Sebastian Vettel:

 

"Mercedes is on another level; Red Bull, on the other hand, is very difficult to judge at the moment. I don't think they have shown their full potential. Racing Point is a surprise, especially on the race pace and not just on the single lap. Then there's us, McLaren and Renault, it will be interesting to see where we place in qualifying. The others have more grip, at the moment our car is not so competitive. We're trying to get the most out of what we have available now, hopefully in Hungary the situation will improve with the new things that are being set up in Maranello. We're in a big, tight group and we need to make sure we're at least leading that group".

 

Lewis Hamilton can only be happy, as he enthusiastically comments on the first tests of the 2020 season:

 

"It's great to be back on track, it's been a long wait. Today the sensations were definitely different to those in Silverstone behind the wheel of the 2018 car. I feel like we've taken a step forward compared to the 2019 car and that's great. The track was slippery at the start and even though the grip gradually increased, the track didn't really improve at the end of the day. Everything went great today, but you can't trust free practice because you never know how hard the other guys were pushing and how much fuel they ran. I don't give any importance to today's results, tomorrow is the day that counts and we'll prepare ourselves to fight".

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These thoughts are shared by Valtteri Bottas:

 

"It was great to be able to get back in the car. I enjoyed every single lap. We managed to improve from turn to turn, overall the day was positive even though we had a small problem with my car at the end. The track had little grip, but I'm sure it will improve as the weekend progresses. It is not easy on this track to find the ideal set up for qualifying without sacrificing too much competitiveness on the race pace. I expect to see the times drop considerably".

 

Still, Toto Wolff is concerned by how close the Red Bulls are:

 

"It was a really good day, especially since we didn't have any problems. The only question is whether Friday's results can be translated into good results on Saturday and Sunday. So I am still a bit hesitant. We won't have a clear picture of what each team is capable of until tomorrow's qualifying. I assume that the Honda engine still has a lot of potential and that they will be able to gain a lot of lap time with the set-up. Today's results show that the direction we have taken is not completely wrong. But we can't draw any conclusions until Sunday evening, after the race".

 

On the other hand, Max Verstappen is promising to put up a fight:

 

"I think it was a good day. The lap times say nothing, in my fastest I damaged the front wing. I'm confident, we can improve in many ways. Overall it was a good Friday, I'm happy with the number of laps we did and I'm looking forward to tomorrow. It's true, maybe we were too aggressive and I made some mistakes, but nothing serious. The front wing doesn't like the yellow kerbs much, so we have to be careful. Anyway, it was nice to get back in the car and after a few laps you get back into a rhythm quite easily".

 

However, Alexander Albon warns his team, explaining what work still needs to be done:

 

"We need to work on both the single lap and the long-run. For tomorrow we still have the highest mapping to spend. It was easy to pick up the pace on a track like this, had we started racing in Hungary it would have been more difficult. We'll see where we are tomorrow, but we know what to do. The kerbs here are dangerous for the front wing, but overall I felt comfortable in the car and I'm looking forward to tomorrow. Looking at today, the drivers found confidence early on and we are all really close".

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The third free practice session ends as it began: Hamilton continues to hold on to the top spot, closely followed by Bottas and Verstappen. Charles Leclerc sets the fifth fastest time and Sebastian Vettel the seventh. But the real surprise is Sergio Pérez’s fourth place, with an extremely competitive Racing Point. The session is interrupted by a red flag: Nicholas Latifi loses control of his Williams at turn one, crashing into the barriers.

 

With practice over, the first qualifying of the season at 15:00 on Saturday 3 July is expected to reveal the true nature of the single-seaters for the 2020 Formula 1 World Championship season. The first cars on track in qualifying are the Alfa Romeo Racing cars, but they see their time soon beaten by Lance Stroll in the Racing Point. With Max Verstappen's arrival on track, the benchmark time drops to 1'04"326: the Dutchman overtakes Carlos Sainz Jr., Sergio Pérez, Lando Norris, Pierre Gasly and Alexander Albon; all of them are ahead of Stroll, with the margin between Verstappen and the Canadian being only 352 thousandths.

 

Mercedes’ first attempt does not change the leaderboard, with Valtteri Bottas in fourth and Lewis Hamilton only twelfth. In the following attempt the World Champion improves and finishes second. Stroll also improves, before being beaten by Verstappen and Bottas. The fight to get into Q2 is very close and Romain Grosjean comes out on top. The Frenchman's teammate Kevin Magnussen, the two Williams drivers and the two Alfa Romeo Racing drivers do not make it.

 

In Q2, the Mercedes cars opt for the soft tyres, with Hamilton setting a 1'03"325 and Bottas remaining two tenths behind. Max Verstappen goes for a lap with medium tyres but is only eighth, between the two Ferraris. Norris is third, ahead of the Racing Points. Albon’s Red Bull Racing car is outside the top 10, despite using soft tyres. Meanwhile Verstappen, still on medium tyres, climbs to sixth position.

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Esteban Ocon does not improve in the final phase of Q2, and remains fourteenth, while Bottas beats Hamilton and goes fastest (1'03"015). Alexander Albon moves up to third, pushing Sebastian Vettel out of the top ten, narrowly beaten by teammate Leclerc. It is the German’s first elimination from Q3 since the 2014 Russian Grand Prix. Daniel Ricciardo, the McLarens and the Racing Points lower their times, while Verstappen gives up on his last attempt, thus remaining the sole driver in the top ten to be able to mount medium compound tyres at the start of the race. In addition to Vettel, the two AlphaTauri, Ocon and Grosjean are also eliminated.

 

In Q3, Valtteri Bottas sets a new track record with a 1'02"939, but more importantly stays ahead of Lewis Hamilton, whose time was above one minute three seconds. Lando Norris gives up his attempt, while his McLaren teammate, Sainz Jr., is third, behind the two Mercedes. Behind the Spaniard is Sergio Pérez, followed by Charles Leclerc. Shortly after, the two Red Bull Racing cars come in between the two Anglo-German cars. Lance Stroll closes his first fast lap with the sixth fastest time. Leclerc snatches sixth on his second attempt, while Bottas makes a mistake, ruining his lap. Hamilton, however, is unable to beat his teammate by just twelve thousandths, meaning the Finn secures his twelfth pole position in the World Championship. Verstappen is third, ahead of Norris, who achieves fourth position with just a single fast lap.

 

At the end of the qualifying session, Lewis Hamilton is summoned by the stewards for allegedly failing to comply with yellow flags in Q3 and for exceeding the track limits at Turn 10. Initially he is not penalised, but is then summoned again by the stewards before the race following a request for review by Red Bull Racing. He receives a three-position penalty on the grid and two points on his Super Licence. The front row will therefore be occupied by Finn Valtteri Bottas, who takes the twelfth pole of his career by just twelve thousandths.

 

"I had a strange feeling before qualifying. Now it feels really special. I'm shaking. We pushed the car to the limit. We prepared well. The team did a fantastic job. The margin is very positive but it's only the first qualifying of the year. I thank everybody at the factory, they did a fantastic job. But tomorrow is the day that counts".

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Lewis Hamilton said the following about his qualifying:

 

"A great job by Valtteri. I mean this is a great start to the season. We show year-on-year that we continue to be the best team. I think that's because we are open-minded, we are current with the times, the guys that I work with, they’re never too stubborn to admit they might be wrong at some stages, and we’re constantly always learning from each other and always pushing the boundaries and there’s not really any politics within the team, so it’s a unit, a united team that we’ve pushed together. The yellow flag? I wasn't confused by it. I came around Turn Four and I think there was a big puff of dust and I didn’t know where the car was or anything like that but I managed to see that Valtteri was just about to come back on the track, and yeah, fortunately it didn’t really affect the lap, and he kept his position and so did I".

 

Max Verstappen, who still can't close the gap to the unreachable Mercedes, will start third:

 

"Medium tyre? I'm happy for the third position. Then yes, tomorrow the weather should be warmer, the start will be interesting. We'll see, it could be an advantage for us. We will see what we can do tomorrow, today Mercedes was on a totally different level from us unfortunately. We weren't very strong in qualifying last year and we expect to do better in the race this year. We are the only ones with different tyres in the top ten. We have nothing to lose, I can't wait. I will try to give the Mercedes a hard time as much as possible".

 

Lando Norris will start alongside him, followed by Alex Albon and Sergio Perez. The first of the Ferraris is instead only seventh, thanks to Charles Leclerc, while Sebastian Vettel does not make it to Q3. An unexpected result for the German, which hasn't occurred since 2014 with Red Bull:

 

"It was a surprise, we thought we had something more, but maybe the others were more conservative in free practice. I was not happy with the car, I had a lot of oversteer on corner entry, but the race configuration will be different".

 

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff comments on today's result with surprise:

 

"We knew we had a strong car, but we were expecting a surprise from Red Bull. I think the strategy of fitting medium tyres in Q2 was a smart one, because it might work with the high temperatures expected tomorrow. It is good to be back, this is not our favourite track, but our engine guys did a great job, also in terms of managing overheating. Everything worked and this good performance is a positive for the season, albeit a small one".

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And Sunday does indeed arrive and brings with it the enthusiasm of new beginnings. The first demonstration in support of the Black Lives Matter movement takes place just a few hours before the Grand Prix. A good number of drivers - fourteen in all - choose to take the knee, including the ever-present Lewis Hamilton, wearing a different shirt from all the others, Sebastian Vettel and Pierre Gasly. Mechanics from various teams also express their support. Some choose to support the movement in other ways, including Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen, who were harshly attacked on social media for their choice. Both drivers have a reason for their decision.

 

"I believe that what matters are facts and behaviours in our daily life rather than formal gestures that could be seen as controversial in some countries. I will not take the knee but this does not mean at all that I am less committed than others in the fight against racism".

 

These are the words Charles Leclerc posts on social media, while Verstappen continues in a similar way and states:

 

"I believe everyone has the right to express themselves at a time and in a way that suits them. I will not take the knee today but respect and support the personal choices every driver makes".

 

Having filed all the pre-race paperwork, we move on to a phase which requires particular focus. The pit lane begins to empty, the mechanics hurry to give the last instructions and the drivers get into their cars, ready to give everything they have. At 3:10 p.m., the engines start and the lights go out: against all odds, Formula 1 is officially back. Valtteri Bottas starts his race with an excellent initial sprint, immediately creating a considerable gap to the rest of the group.

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Just behind the Finn, Max Verstappen and Lando Norris are wheel to wheel, fighting for second position: the Dutchman manages to defend himself well from the attacks of the British driver. Next up is Alex Albon, fighting for fourth place alongside Lewis Hamilton: the Thai driver manages to hold off the Brit’s attacks, showing great strength. For the rest of the group, the race start seems to be quite calm, perhaps the excitement of being back on track has made the drivers more careful.

 

This continues until lap 9, when Lewis Hamilton takes advantage of the DRS zone to take fourth place with a clean overtake. Albon tries to retaliate but can do nothing as the Anglo-German car gets further and further away. A couple of laps later, the first shock: Max Verstappen suddenly loses power due to an electrical problem and is forced to retire. The Dutchman exits the scene, parking his Red Bull on the side of the team's home track.

 

The race continues with the Ferraris struggling. On lap 16, Sebastian Vettel starts the K1 plus, the power unit’s maximum boost, to try to move up from the ninth position, with poor results. Charles Leclerc, sixth, is also unable to get close to Sergio Perez. After twenty or so laps, Hamilton has now made up the time lost due to his penalty and is second, closing the gap on his teammate and setting the fastest lap. Ricciardo's car has suffered from overheating problems, forcing him to retire on lap 17.

 

On lap 20, as Hamilton moves closer and closer to Bottas, Lance Stroll's race comes to a premature end due to engine problems, while four laps later Kevin Magnussen suffers a brake failure. Hamilton and Bottas, however, don’t believe what their engineers are telling them and continue to push their cars to the limit, making it obvious to everyone that the Mercedes are unreachable this season. The World Championship, which has just begun, already seems to be a one-way street: the rest of the group remains behind with a significant gap.

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The safety car is called in by race management in order to move the crashed Haas, giving everyone a chance to make a pit stop before the race is halfway through. During the safety car, however, Perez and Vettel almost make contact while exiting the pits, and in the meantime Hamilton complains over the radio about the team's tyre choice.

 

On lap 30, just after the safety car has come in, Sainz approaches Leclerc to steal his position, but Vettel has the same idea, and risks a crash with the Spaniard while trying to find a gap for himself. The German driver tries to avoid contact but isn’t fully able to, and the left front wheel of his FS1000 is then hit by the Spaniard's car, ending up in 15th position. The incident is noticed by the stewards, but no penalties follow.

 

A few laps later, Sergio Perez overtakes Norris to take fourth place. Meanwhile, Lewis Hamilton is relentless. He wants first place and is now only half a second behind his teammate. A series of fast laps by the Briton follow, with Bottas trying to push as hard as he can to keep up with the British driver. Just as in every race, there is a moment in which everything changes and anything can happen.

 

This time it happens on lap 40, when the Mercedes engineers begin to see clear signs of failure in the mechanical parts of both cars. The two drivers from Brackley are showered with messages, such as heating problems, tyre problems, kerb problems, etc., with the intention of slowing down the race to preserve the result. A situation which had been bordering on embarrassing for the other teams is overturned in a matter of seconds.

 

As Bottas tries to increase the gap between himself and his teammate, the race is once again levelled on lap 49 after George Russel's Williams suffers a fuel pressure issue, forcing him to retire. Some teams call their drivers into the pits while others chose not to, such as Sergio Perez who remains third. Alexander Albon, Lando Norris and Charles Leclerc are among the first to stop: the Thai driver switches to soft tyres, while the Brit and the Monegasque choose mediums. On the following lap Sainz Jr. also stops to switch to medium tyres.

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The safety car comes in on lap 55 on and the race restarts, but only apparently; on lap 55 Kimi Raikkonen's Alfa Romeo has to retire after losing its front right tyre. The safety car comes out for another five laps, levelling the field once again with 11 laps to go. In the meantime, the drivers pass inside the pit lane to avoid the debris left by the Finn's car. While under safety car conditions, Perez gives up his position to Albon, since the Mexican has overtaken the Red Bull driver after the safety car sign appeared.

 

Just a few moments more and the unthinkable happens: at the restart of the race, Albon attempts an overtake on Lewis Hamilton to steal P2, but the British driver unceremoniously drives him off the track. No damage done to Hamilton, now one and a half seconds behind Bottas, while Albon is forced to retire on lap 67. Race management decides to open an investigation.

 

With 7 laps to go, Charles Leclerc surprisingly overtakes Lando Norris, taking fourth place and setting the fastest lap, before also overtaking Sergio Perez on lap 66. At the same time, a five-second penalty is announced for Hamilton for his collision with Albon, making Leclerc virtually second. Perez is also given a five-second penalty for exceeding the speed limit in the pit lane. While Albon retires, Norris takes advantage of the confusion and the penalty imposed on the Mexican driver to overtake him on lap 69. The Racing Point driver is having trouble with his tyres, having made just one pit stop. The McLaren driver is now fourth and is pushing hard to get within five seconds of Lewis Hamilton, to take an unexpected third place.

 

The end of this first Grand Prix is sensational: on lap 77, the rear left tyre of Daniil Kvyat's AlphaTauri gives out and he goes off the track, but nevertheless the race is not neutralised and Valtteri Bottas, helped by his teammate's penalty, wins the opening race. Leclerc manages to finish second, while Norris takes third place thanks to a fast last lap and the advice of his engineer, who showed him how to steer the car. Reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton is only fourth, followed by Carlos Sainz Jr, Sergio Perez, Pierre Gasly, Esteban Ocon, Antonio Giovinazzi and Sebastian Vettel. Valtteri Bottas is delighted with his eighth win, which he deserves because of his tenacity throughout the race and partly because of a little bit of luck.

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After the race, Valtteri Bottas is beaming because of his victory:

 

"There was definitely quite a bit of pressure. One safety car was OK but by the last I was like: Come on - again? There were so many opportunities for Lewis to take the lead if I made a small mistake and he was really quick today. But I managed to keep it together, could really control the race from my side, and there’s obviously no better way to start the season. They told us from the pits not to take advantage of the kerbs because of the problems with the car. I was also worried but I'm happy that we got to the finish with both cars. We are leading the constructors' championship, which is a very good sign".

 

Ferrari driver Leclerc does not disappoint: the second step of the podium is all his, after two textbook overtakes and a bit of luck thanks to Lewis Hamilton's penalty. Happy but also surprised, the Monegasque comments on the result, saying:

 

"I did not expect this result. It is a huge surprise, but fortunately a positive one. We did everything perfectly today to finish second. We were also lucky, with Lewis' problem and accidents here and there. The race was very eventful but that was the goal: to take every opportunity that presented itself, even though we didn't have the pace to take this position, I think. I am extremely satisfied with this second place. We still have a lot of work to do. We are too far away. We are not where we wanted to be, but everything is possible. We have to be strong mentally, work together and I think we will get back to where we want to be, but it will take time. I wanted to be aggressive. I was struggling from Turn 1 to Turn 3 but I knew that if there was a mistake by somebody the possibility could be created. Lando slowed down fighting with Sergio and I took advantage of that moment. It was tough but I enjoyed it".

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However, Lando Norris is the true revelation of this early season. Such a competitive McLaren was not expected, and even more so such a competitive Norris. The Brit, however, is humble and still incredulous about his first career podium:

 

"I'm speechless. At certain points during the race I thought I had missed my chance. I got up to fifth place, then Carlos almost overtook me, but I pushed, showed my teeth, passed Perez and even ended up on the podium at the end. It was a long race but I kept pushing, trying to give everything. I tried to push as hard as I could without giving myself a rest. The result is important for the team, thinking about where we were a few years ago. I am proud to be part of this team, with such great quality. The last three laps I heard about Lewis' penalty but I didn't really understand the situation. It was a bit tiring when I was behind the others, I felt more vulnerable. Then with Lewis' penalty I decided to push the engine a bit harder and gave it everything. We had some locking problems in the last laps, but in the end we made it and I'm very happy".

 

This is how the first Grand Prix of the season ends, and it is now time to draw some conclusions. For Mercedes, who achieved a first and fourth place, an overall positive but not excellent balance. In fact, the much-hoped one-two did not arrive because of the British driver’s penalty, along with several technical problems that worried team prinicpal Toto Wolff throughout the whole race:

 

"We risked seeing both our drivers retire. At the start of the Grand Prix, Bottas' car started to have some problems and then it was Hamilton's turn. We didn't understand what it was, but it was definitely related to the car’s vibrations".

 

The team principal also talks about a special arrangement made within the team:

 

"The situation was quite serious after a few laps from the start. The first car to raise the alarm was Bottas', then Hamilton's car had the same kind of problem. At any moment we could have had a double retirement. That's why we tried to warn the drivers in every way possible to bring the cars home safely. The Red Bull Ring is one of the most trying circuits for these components because of the vibrations triggered by the type of kerbs. The track is very fast and pushes the drivers to widen their lines, taking advantage of every centimetre of asphalt and more, but this can lead to problems. However, we already have several ideas to give our guys a little more margin by strengthening the gearbox".

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Bottas, in particular, was able to lead the entire race with consistency and precision, despite a few difficult moments due to tyre wear before the pit stop. His victory is intriguing and opens the way to a promising season, in which perhaps we will finally be able to truly appreciate the value of the Finn. Lewis Hamilton admits with great honesty:

 

"I don't have a particular feeling at the moment. The race has just ended and I just want to think about the next one. Of course it’s not been a great weekend for me, and yesterday was entirely my fault. It was a bit odd today, to all of a sudden get the penalty but that didn’t destabilise me, it just encouraged me to go out and drive as best I could - and I feel like I did. Obviously I had great pace to catch up with Valtteri and then a really unfortunate situation with Alex. I can’t believe we came together again. It really felt like a racing incident. But either way I’ll take whatever penalty they feel I deserve and move forward".

 

However, the end of this Grand Prix is bitter for Lewis Hamilton: two penalties in one weekend are not to be underestimated, and Mercedes will inevitably need to figure out where the almost perfect combination has gone wrong. Ferrari is the miracle team of the day: it's unclear how Charles Leclerc managed to achieve a second place with a car which is a full second slower than the Mercedes, but he has. This second place is both thrilling and surprising, especially since the Monegasque was not intimidated and managed to reach the second step of the podium despite starting from seventh position.

 

However, it's not enough to make the SF1000's poor performance go away: under normal conditions, Ferrari would never have been on the podium. The issues are the constant lack of top speed, caused by an engine whose flowmetre benefits have been eliminated, and a car designed to develop downforce which is forced to make up for a lack of speed with set-ups that do not guarantee its stability on track. Furthermore, the flexing of the car's underbody created obvious issues and caused instability problems in all driving conditions. Ferrari's team principal knows this well enough to admit it openly:

 

"We definitely lost engine performance. There have been so many clarifications, technical directives, I think they have affected everyone a little. Without looking back at last year, we have to think about this year. Even looking at qualifying, we lost a second compared to pole and seven or eight tenths in the straights, so only two or three in the corners. We said this car has aerodynamic problems that need to be corrected. We will improve in the corners. If we are two or three tenths behind today, we can quickly be where we need to be. Then there remains the problem of the straights. We have to understand why the difference is so much, too much. We have to improve as soon as possible".

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While Sebastian Vettel, still disappointed over the contract non-renewal, does not miss an opportunity to seek a little revenge against the press and the Ferrari team principal:

 

"I'm glad I only spun once, because today was really difficult. Carlos and I got very close, he moved to the inside and I was right on the limit because I wanted to get as close as possible, I lost the rear but I lost it at least a couple more times today. As I said, I'm glad I only spun once. The car was difficult to drive today, I gave it my all. The Safety Car helped us a little bit, the Grand Prix was fun at the end but the result is not what I wanted".

 

The difficulties of this strange single-seater are confirmed by Sebastian Vettel, who places tenth and gains only one point, partly because of the disappointment for the non-renewal. The opening weekend of the Championship is one to forget for Red Bull: zero points at their home race, with both drivers having retired due to technical problems. From the start, the Austrian-English team seemed to be the only one capable of challenging the Mercedes domination, but the team needs a perfectly reliable engine to do so, and at the moment Red Bull does not seem to have one. Team principal Christian Horner is furious after this performance, to the point that he demands an apology from Britain's Lewis Hamilton:

 

"Albon had done what he had to do, he had completed the overtake. He had to use his grip advantage and he did. It was a misjudgement by Lewis, who should apologise. To come away with zero points, when we had opportunities to win with both Max and then Alex, is a pretty brutal feeling. When Mercedes used less power from their engines after the first pit stop, they matched our straight-line speed. On the plus side, we were able to put on a competitive race. For next week we need to find some more pace and we will come back stronger".

 

McLaren is celebrating, thanks to young Lando Norris’ third place and the first podium of his career. The driver has seen a surprising growth at McLaren, and the team deserves credit for creating the right environment for the 20-year-old British driver to express his talent. Lando showed nerve and determination in taking initiative when needed and in resisting his teammate's attacks. Carlos Sainz did well too, taking fifth place. What more can we say? The team looks set to bring some big surprises to this World Championship.

 

Both drivers took advantage of the fortunate circumstances of the race, but the car was still reliable and competitive, second only to Mercedes and Red Bull in terms of performance. Racing Point’s drivers faced opposed fates: Sergio Perez achieved a sixth place, while Lance Stroll retired. The team did not live up to the expectations. It has potential, as shown by Sergio Perez's race pace, but it must be fully taken advantage of. Above all, the car must be reliable. Lance Stroll knows this well: he was forced to retire and is therefore looking for redemption. The Mexican, however, does not lose faith and says:

 

"We fought a lot today, we had a great pace. Sixth place is a good way to start the season but we could have done even better. We were unlucky with the safety cars, but it's easy to talk about strategy after the race. In the last laps I had to defend myself from drivers with fresher tyres, it was a good challenge but anyway this race was useful to know the car and our performance better. The most positive thing is that we have a positive package and I think we can do better next week".

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Renault end their first race weekend with many questions. Esteban Ocon's eighth place finish is unsatisfactory, and Daniel Ricciardo's technical issue raises a number of concerns. The team is ranked as sixth strongest, and with no updates planned for the power unit, there is little hope of major improvements in the recent future. This is the Frenchman's comment:

 

"It was very nice to race again. It was a typical first race of the season, with a lot going on and some possible high rewards for those who complete the entire race distance. We didn't quite manage it because of Daniel's retirement".

 

Renault's team principal Cyril Abiteboul has good things to say about his driver:

 

"Esteban did a great job and it was a solid return to racing for him, bringing us our first points in Austria since the team returned to Formula 1. The other positive aspect of the weekend is our performance on a track where we have been very weak in the past".

 

In addition to this, Abiteboul says that the team will have to prioritise resolving the reliability issue that has plagued them all weekend before they return to the track the following weekend for the Styrian Grand Prix. AlphaTauri has been silent for the whole weekend but has done what it had to do and has done it well: they finished the race with more points than Red Bull Racing, despite Daniil Kvyat's retirement. The car proved to be reliable, and ready to take advantage of any opportunity. Alfa Romeo, on the other hand, spent most of the race at the bottom of the standings: nonetheless, while Kimi Raikkonen suffered a tyre problem due to a poorly executed pit stop, Antonio Giovinazzi brought home two points that still represented a good starting point. Therefore, Frederc Vasseur, Alfa Romeo team principal, is happy for this result:

 

"Earning points in the opening race of the season is always a good thing, but there are several positive aspects in addition to the result obtained. Our race pace was much better than in qualifying. As a team, we stayed focused on what was happening on track and I think ninth place is the right reward for the work we did. It's disappointing for Kimi but we'll look at the problem and try to put both cars in the top ten next Sunday".

 

Vasseur said this despite the FIA fining Alfa Romeo Racing €5.000 for incorrectly replacing Kimi Räikkönen’s right front wheel, which he then lost, forcing him to retire. Haas is disturbingly anonymous; but then again team principal Gunther Steiner had said on the Grand Prix’s eve that he was not very confident about the possibility of good results in the race. Furthermore, both drivers suffered from brake problems, a fact that raises many concerns about the car's reliability. And finally, Williams: minimal results, but still progress compared to last year.

 

Though at the bottom of the standings, Russell was able to truly fight for the first time and had an excellent race, up until his retirement. Nicholas Latifi’s debut was underwhelming; he didn't stand out but nevertheless finished his first Grand Prix without any major problems. After this first race, the Circus closes its doors but does not leave, as the second round of the Formula 1 World Championship is set to take place on 12 July 2020, once again at the Spielberg circuit, where the Styrian Grand Prix will be held.

 

Desirée Palombelli

 

Translated by Livia Alegi

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