The Austrian Grand Prix was a resounding success. While saturated with history in Formula One, the lack of a Grand Prix for the past 11 years in the mountainous country gave the Austrian race a like-new quality. It didn’t possess quite the thrilling quality of perhaps the Canadian Grand Prix, but it was still thoroughly enjoyable. With the Williams duo locking out the front row and Lewis Hamilton mired back in the lower reaches of the top-10 in qualifying, Sunday’s race promised a great result.
Mercedes seemed to have had their often substantial advantage slashed in the Austrian mountainside, the short and fast Red Bull Ring providing other teams a good opportunity to seize any chances made by mistakes from Mercedes. When Valtteri Bottas topped the final free practice session on Saturday morning, we knew we were in for a thrilling qualifying session, and that’s just what we got.
With Felipe Massa and Bottas locking out the front row and Lewis Hamilton ruining both his attempts at setting a lap in Q3, a brilliant race was just waiting to unfold.
Massa’s characteristically lively starts were out in force as he stormed away from a slower-starting Bottas and and opportunistic Rosberg. Lewis Hamilton shot passed Raikkonen, Kvyat, Magnussen and Alonso to join the trio up front within the first couple of laps.
The race for the win was always going to be between four cars, and luckily they were all out in front, providing the nearly 100,000 fans a glimpse at the first real race between two different teams this whole season.
Because Massa, Bottas, – who, by the second corner, had re-taken second place, the Williams’ straight-line speed above the rest of the field – Rosberg and Hamilton all started the race on the supersoft tires, their strategies would be more or less identical, only differing slightly according to which drivers came in first.
Bottas and Massa did a good job to keep the Silver Arrows behind them, quickly building a couple-second gap to Rosberg in third. In hindsight, this was more or less the work of the Mercedes duo slowing down to get out of the dirty air of the Williams rather than a pure pace advantage on the part of Massa and Bottas, but it nonetheless provided an interesting glimpse into how both teams were approaching the race.
These two approaches were somewhat of a mystery going into the race. Some at Mercedes, possibly a bit peeved after missing out on pole, suggested Williams had only concentrated on one-lap pace because they were closer to the Mercedes duo than usual, thus compromising race pace. Rob Smedley of Williams was quick to point out that Williams had not changed their approach to the race in their successful bid to lock out the front row. The truth would emerge soon enough.
Nico Rosberg was the first of the frontrunners to pit. This sent an ominous sign to Williams, for the Mercedes surely had pace in hand to do a spectacular in- and out-lap. Sure enough, Nico was out of the pits and circulating amongst the midfielders.
Lewis Hamilton pitted next, this time on lap 13. This was an even more worrying sign, for Williams would have known that it was time to switch to the prime tires. Rosberg was circulating two seconds per lap faster on his new rubber and would undoubtedly assume the lead of the race should the Williams duo wait any longer. Hamilton’s pitstop was less than perfect, though he assured himself he would jump at least one of the leading Williams cars.
Felipe Massa finally came in a lap later, emerging from the pits behind Lewis Hamilton. Bottas was in on lap 15, but was able to emerge in second place thanks to a wickedly fast pitstop – a lightning 2.1 seconds!
This was the first mistake on Williams’ part, for even though Bottas and Massa would have slightly fresher rubber at the end of the race by pitting later, the Mercedes duo still had enough of a pace advantage to make up for it.
While this was happening, the Force India of Sergio Perez was circulating in the lead. Having been penalized for his accident with Massa during the Canadian Grand Prix, Perez started the Austrian Grand Prix in 16th. This meant he could once again utilize his amazing ability to conserve his tires. Starting on the soft, prime tire, Perez held station at the front of the pack while Rosberg, Bottas, Hamilton and Massa gave chase.
Surprisingly, Perez was able to keep his pace in sync with the leaders on his older prime tires. While some of this was down to the nature of the track and the challenges is brings to overtaking, it was still an impressive display of what has become one of the Mexican racer’s finest attributes.
However, on lap 26 Perez could no longer keep the leaders behind him. Rosberg and Bottas shuffled their way past, followed soon my Hamilton. Perez pitted before Massa could get by, thereby creating a gap between him and Hamilton that he would have to make up for on track.
The order stayed: Rosberg, Bottas, Hamilton, Massa until the next round of stops. Once again, Williams’ sound logic sealed their fate when the car didn’t have the pace in hand to make up for a late stop.
This didn’t mean the Mercedes duo was out of the woods yet, however. Rosberg and Hamilton especially were being told over the radio to conserve their brakes by deploying the common lift-and-coast method. This compromised their straight-line speed massively, making the task of overtaking very difficult. Hamilton was especially compromised because he was still behind Bottas in the second stint, unable to get by, while his team-mate was in the lead. Bottas had a few looks at Rosberg’s lead, but was unable to make anything stick.
Hamilton was in on lap 39 with Rosberg in the lap after that. Hamilton had another iffy pitstop, but was able to recover thanks to Bottas and Massa’s late stops. When the two Williams cars emerged from their second stops, they were out of the fight for the win. Rosberg and Hamilton were out in the lead and could stretch their cars’ legs for the first time in the race.
With the Williams duo effectively fighting for the final podium position, Fernando Alonso started to come into play. The Spaniard’s epic middle stint on the soft tires allowed him to push hard in the closing stages, eventually coming to within a second of Massa’s Williams in fourth place.
There was little drama in the closing stages of the race at the front of the field, apart from a small lock-up from Rosberg on the final lap, allowing Hamilton a bit of a look at the lead. But when the end of the 71st lap came around, it was Rosberg who emerged victorious over Hamilton, taking his third win of the season and extending his lead over his team-mate to 29 points – a crucial milestone as it is now greater than a race win, giving the German a valuable cushion should he run into any bad luck next race.
Further down the field, Sergio Perez came home sixth after a short final stint on the supersoft tires, beating out McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen. Nico Hulkenberg kept his string of points finishes going with ninth place, after being overtaken by Ricciardo on the last lap.
Speaking of Red Bull, it was a miserable day for the drinks company at their home Grand Prix. Sebastian Vettel had a torrid day after losing drive early on in the race. He regained it, but only after losing a lap and driving aimlessly around the track. He retired very frustrated and with Hulkenberg and Bottas breathing down his neck in the championship standings.
The Toro Rossos of Kvyat and Vergne also failed to see the checkered flag. The former, after having started a career-best seventh, was knocked out when his right rear suspension broke, cutting his tire and forcing him to stop. The latter retired mysteriously, with the team unable to pinpoint the exact cause of the car’s failure.
The Austrian Grand Prix proved two things: Mercedes’ advantage may be starting to dwindle and that it is only dwindling ever so slightly because they still finished a comfortable 1-2. As the F1 circus heads to Silverstone in two weeks’ time, teams will be furiously searching for solutions and ideas in their bit to catch the Silver Arrows. One gets the feeling, though, that the British Grand Prix will only re-tell the same story we have seen unfold at every race so far this season.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic