That was a very ‘old school’ race and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Great wheel-to-wheel action (even a wheel falling off), lots of unpredictability and jeopardy, poor reliability with only 11 of the 20 starters seeing the chequered flag, and action and uncertainty all the way to the finish.
Helped along by real safety cars regrouping the pack rather than virtual ones, which only serve to put the race into a slightly confusing suspended animation with no-brainer ‘free’ pit stops.
While it’s a mere shadow of its former self from the ‘80s, and only containing 10 official corners of which, in the dry, an F1 car only really acknowledges seven of them, this Red Bull Ring has teeth. Mostly in the form of red and white kerbs which generate such a load and frequency as to dismantle the finest F1 cars and their systems.
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Mercedes carried forward their February testing superiority onto the front row of the grid and, especially when Max Verstappen dropped out with electrical issues, appeared to be heading for a dominant one-two.
Lewis had quite the weekend on and off track.
I did a sit-down interview with him on Thursday for Sky F1 regarding his further energised passion and mission regarding racism and diversity, not least in F1. It’s my fourth sit-down with him this year on various topics and he’s always eloquent and thoughtful, and clearly has a very high work ethic at and away from the track.
But through it all he managed to attract three penalties from the stewards, and even four penalty points on his licence. His first qualy lap in Q3 was disallowed for breaching track limits, he was penalised three grid spots for not lifting the throttle for yellow flags on his second lap in the final session, and then was given a five-second penalty for turning Alex Albon around in the race.
Valtteri Bottas grabbed pole, and then went off track on his second run thereby spoiling many drivers’ laps and, of course, generating the eventual penalty for Lewis. It had a whiff of Nico Rosberg in Monaco about it but I cannot imagine Valtteri would fancy a long trip across the grass in his race car in order to achieve that uncertain outcome.
Max was on a counter strategy in his Red Bull by starting on medium compound tyres.
Frankly the only way to possibly beat Mercedes was to do whatever they didn’t, as Red Bull would try again with Albon in the closing stages. Both Red Bulls would drop out with electrical issues.
The early stage of the race was about teams who were not quite showing the pace we expected, such as McLaren, Racing Point and Ferrari. In fact, all three Ferrari-engined teams had a difficult weekend including Haas and Alfa Romeo.
When it all settled down though, Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz put in great drives for McLaren, Sergio Perez was his usual relentless self in the Racing Point, and Charles Leclerc outperformed his Ferrari, including a brilliant overtake on Perez, to claim second place.
Other than the safety car deployments closing the pack, what brought the race alive was an apparent gearbox issue on both Mercedes, with ever more urgent calls from the pit wall to stay off the kerbs. Even a further message to remind them this included the red and white heavily serrated car breakers. I’m always slightly sceptical of Mercedes doom and gloom calls to their drivers when they are running one-two as they often coast to the finish line just fine, as they would have done on this day in history.
Except that, for the second time in three races, Hamilton spun out Albon. It was a really unfortunate situation for both of them.
Albon was on fresh soft tyres and Hamilton on well-used hard tyres. Albon could smell victory let alone a podium with only two Mercs in front of him on harder tyres and ailing gearboxes.
Albon felt he had to get the passes done while he had a big tyre advantage and lunged around the outside of T4. Hamilton was ahead on the way in, he had fended off the Red Bull for now, which then flashed quickly past on the outside.
Hamilton did not open his steering wheel, but on throttle application he understeered wide on the off-camber downhill corner, and around went the Red Bull. It was a relatively high-risk manoeuvre from Albon, especially given Hamilton was bound to be grip limited.
Some patience would have yielded a better opportunity on a straight with DRS assistance, but Albon is a racer and he wanted after Bottas and glory, if his car kept going. Lewis attracted a five-second penalty which was fair enough, and suddenly opened the door to Leclerc, Perez and Norris for a podium.
After a slightly lumpy pass on Perez, Norris found himself in clear air for the final tour and needed to be within five seconds of Lewis to steal his podium.
His McLaren pitwall spotted it too and talked him through power settings to also steal fastest lap of the race for one extra championship point, and a thoroughly well-deserved podium after a very strong weekend. In fact, Norris’ fastest lap was almost four seconds slower than his qualifying time, albeit on used mediums instead of fresh soft tyres.
McLaren’s second podium in three races, opportunistically grabbed due to a penalty for Hamilton after spinning Albon out on both occasions. But they all count, and you have to be right there in order to pick up any crumbs Mercedes may offer.
Seb Vettel had a miserable weekend, qualifying his Ferrari only 11th, and via a clumsy spin up against Sainz’s McLaren he finished only 10th after fighting oversteer the whole race, seemingly convinced his car had changed since Friday.
It’s probably just as well it’s going to be a short farewell season time-wise between Ferrari and Vettel because that has all the hallmarks of an uncomfortable and even acrimonious parting of ways.
I feared a possible ‘cut and paste’ scenario with two consecutive weekends on the same track, so if we have the same race again then great, but assuming Mercedes, Red Bull and others can fix their reliability woes we could see a very different outcome.
This article was originally published by Sky Sports and was reproduced with permission.