Formula 1 2020, Austrian GP: Lando Norris' solid performance to Ferrari's struggle, talking points from race

Mithila Mehta and Kunal Shah

Formula 1 fans couldn't have asked for more from the sport's return to racing as it delivered a classic Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring in Austria. Protests - sporting and political, inconsistent penalties, attrition, wheel-to-wheel hits and misses, safety car periods, a surprise winner and an even more surprising podium trio - the 2020 Austrian Grand Prix had all the ingredients that make a classic. Returning after months of a forced hiatus, the 2020 Austrian Grand Prix was a brilliant advertisement for Formula 1's comeback.

Before digging deeper into the weekend race, one needs to acknowledge and applaud the meticulous planning and efforts of the FIA and Formula 1 to host the race in a safe manner despite the on-going threat from the COVID-19 virus. Let's hope that this model can be replicated at other venues and Formula 1 is able to deliver a 15-18 race calendar for 2020.

Coming back to the race, there were several narratives in play through the 71 laps especially for drivers chasing victory. Was Mercedes controlling the finishing order of their drivers - Valtteri Bottas followed by Lewis Hamilton? Did Mercedes make two strategic errors in the race - first, by opting to not pit for newer rubber in the late-race safety car period and second, by not swapping their drivers to secure a 1-2 finish? Could Alexander Albon have beaten the Mercedes duo for victory? We bring to you the biggest talking points from the race.

Bottas 3.0

Valtteri Bottas clinched his 12th career pole after narrowly edging out Lewis Hamilton in Saturday's qualifying session. Mercedes' dominant start in 2020 was reaffirmed after their drivers qualified half a second ahead of their rivals. For Mercedes, the only threat that emerged from qualifying was Max Verstappen who would start the race in P3 on a set of medium tyres - the only driver in the top-10 to opt for this alternate strategy. The threat from Ferrari was insignificant as both drivers Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel were more than a second away in qualifying.

After a clean start, Bottas led the field and opened up a sizable gap in the opening few laps as other shuffled positions behind him. The Mclarens were in the mix with Hamilton and the Red Bull drivers in the early part of the race. Verstappen's early retirement meant that we were robbed of the chance to see how he could have challenged the Mercedes duo with his alternate strategy. After the exchange of positions early in the race, the Mercedes drivers settled down in 1-2 formation, Bottas leading Hamilton.

Mercedes used team orders?

Mercedes seemed unmatched in their race pace, too. However, the going was far from easy as the team radioed their drivers on a regular basis reporting sensor issues that could threaten retirement from the race. Mercedes were understandably concerned because at this same race two years ago, the team suffered from a rare double retirement and it wasn't smooth sailing last year either. Bottas was issued a 'chassis two one' setting at one stage - a radio message that Mercedes confirmed wasn't a veiled team order of sorts.

However, were Mercedes controlling the finishing order of their drivers by refusing Hamilton a softer compound in the first round of pit-stops followed by a further refusal to use different power unit modes? "This (radio message) has nothing to do with 'multi 21'. We have never played that unless there was a problem on the car and we would never interfere in a fight in the first few races of a season. They were completely free to race each other. What we did, that we always on both cars, we gave them the same recommendations to stay off the kerbs and we switched the engine, because there was no competitor basically at a certain stage, we switched the engines to low mode to protect the power unit. But that was no, zero team orders. No hidden, no subtle and no direct," confirmed Toto Wolff.

A troubled start for Hamilton

The reigning World Champion had a troubled start to his title defence. After being denied pole position on Saturday, Hamilton received a 3-place grid penalty minutes before the start of the race. On Saturday, Hamilton was cleared of any wrong while he completed his final lap in Q3 under yellow flags (ironically triggered by Bottas). However, Red Bull Racing re-appealed the FIA Stewards with fresh evidence - one that led to the FIA overturning their previous decision. As a result, Hamilton was relegated to 5th place on the start grid.

In the race, Hamilton followed Bottas closely to try to pressure him into a mistake. However, it was Hamilton who was found to be at fault after a tangle with Albon - a move that cost Albon a possible win and earned the Mercedes driver a five-second time penalty that eventually cost him a podium finish. It was for the second time in three races that Hamilton spun around Albon, denying him a podium finish. In our view, Hamilton's penalty was harsh and should have been declared as a racing incident. However, with the penalty applied, could Mercedes have swapped Bottas-Hamilton and ordered Hamilton to win the race with a four second margin?

Such a thought might be easier to pursue in theory but with the Mercedes cars under attack in the latter stages of the race, the team may have found this risky to attempt. Also, the repeated safety cars had wiped out their otherwise comfortable lead. Either way, Mercedes may have missed a trick by opting to not pit their drivers in the two safety car periods that occurred late in the race. Their rivals, most notably Albon, used this opportunity to bolt fresher (and softer) rubber that eventually got them back in contention towards the end of the race.

Ferrari - Out of place and pace

It was evident from the free practice sessions and during qualifying that Ferrari were lacking pace. Their current package and form has relegated them to the mid-field, forcing them to compete against the likes of Mclaren, Renault and Racing Point instead of their top-tier rivals Mercedes and Red Bull. However, Charles Leclerc drove a blistering fast closing stint of the race to overtake Sergio Perez and Lando Norris to claim second place on the podium - a position that can be considered out of place given Ferrari's struggles through the weekend.

While Leclerc was able to drag his Ferrari to the podium, Sebastian Vettel could score a 10th place finish in a race that had 11 finishers only! Vettel spun all by himself mid-race after trying to chase down Mclaren's Carlos Sainz Jr. - the driver who will take his place at Ferrari in 2021. Vettel's spin was embarrassing and proof as to why Ferrari chose to not extend his contract for next season. "To be honest, I'm happy that I spun only once. It was very difficult. It got very tight. I think Carlos, one of the McLarens turned in and I was just on the edge because I wanted to be as close as possible and lost the rear. But to be honest, I lost the rear a couple of times today. So as I said I'm happy that it happened only once," confessed an honest Vettel.

Norris' maiden podium

Mclaren's Lando Norris scored his first-ever podium in Formula 1 after delivering solid performance through the weekend. This was also Mclaren's second podium in three races after Sainz Jr. scored a surprise podium in Brazil last year. For Mclaren, the 2020 Austrian Grand Prix was further proof of the team's attempts to regain lost form and glory in the sport. Norris' consistent out-pacing of Sainz would've brought further joy to the team.

The podium opportunity was presented after both Red Bull drivers were out of contention and thanks to Hamilton and Perez's in-race time penalty. However, Norris made the moves on track instead of relying on the penalties for his promotion. He pulled off a bold overtake on Perez and followed it up with a surprise fastest lap of the race on the last lap to claim the third step of the podium from Hamilton by two tenths.

Pink arrows

Finally, the Racing Point cars (or Pink Arrows) were quick, too - a confirmation of the design philosophy the team has pursued for 2020. After both their drivers made it through to Q3, they raced in points scoring positions before Lance Stroll had to retire due to power unit issues. Sergio Perez's race came alive in the latter stages but his eventual result was affected by a time penalty for speeding in the pit-lane. Of the nine non-finishers, Kimi Raikkonen and Daniil Kvyat had failures on their car due to riding of the infamous kerbs of the Red Bull Ring.

From the ten teams, seven scored points in the opening round - Haas, Red Bull and Williams being the only ones failing to score. In the Drivers' Championship, Bottas has twice the points of his nearest rival (Hamilton) and a full race win (25 points) ahead of Verstappen. With nearly 800 kms worth of data around the Red Bull Ring, let's see how much faster and efficient the teams will be when they race again at the same circuit the coming weekend. But above all else, the 2020 Austrian Grand Prix proved that to finish first, you need to first finish!

Also See: Formula 1 2020: Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas wins season-opening Austrian GP, Lewis Hamilton finishes fourth

Formula 1 2020: Valtteri Bottas shows he can handle pressure in winning Austrian Grand Prix

Formula 1 2020: Sebastian Vettel could walk away from sport for good without right offer

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