Valtteri Bottas survived reliability worries to win an incident-packed Austrian Grand Prix as Lewis Hamilton took fourth after a penalty.
Four months after the scheduled first race, called off because of the coronavirus crisis, Mercedes’ win was anything but the cruise that had been expected.
Gearbox concerns slowed the cars and Hamilton was penalised five seconds for a collision with Red Bull’s Alex Albon.
Charles Leclerc came second after a stirring drive in the uncompetitive Ferrari while McLaren’s Lando Norris took his first podium finish, just holding off Hamilton.
The world champion appeared to be the fastest car on track but the safety car periods threw multiple curve balls into the mix and the race came alive in a chaotic final 16 laps.
And the harem-scarem action took place after a moment’s silence on the grid to reflect the fight against racism. All the drivers wore T-shirts saying ‘end racism’, but six of them – including Leclerc and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen – chose not to join their 14 colleagues in taking the knee alongside Hamilton.
Safety cars provoke action
Until two late safety cars in quick succession in the closing stages, Bottas and Hamilton were cruising to a relatively comfortable one-two in the delayed first race of the season, despite nursing their cars.
But when George Russell’s Williams retired with an engine problem and the second safety car of the day was deployed, everything changed.
Mercedes kept their cars out, while a number of cars came in for fresh tyres, among them Albon, Leclerc and Norris.
Albon now had fresh soft tyres on which to attack the Mercedes in front of him, and after a second safety car, this time caused by a wheel falling off Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo, the Anglo-Thai did just that.
Albon went for a move around the outside of Hamilton at Turn Four on lap 60, with 11 to go, and appeared to have it done, only for Hamilton’s front left wheel to tag the Red Bull’s rear right and send him spinning into the gravel trap.
It was the second time in three races the two had collided. Hamilton’s reckless lunge in Brazil last November deprived Albon of his first podium, and also earned a penalty, and now he has done it again.
Albon said: “I am a bit depressed right now so I have to be careful what I say. I really felt like I could have won the race. Mercedes had the outright pace but the guys did a great job with the strategy.
“There is always the risk of overtaking on the outside but I gave it as much space as I could. I was right on the edge, if I gave him all the space I could give him, it is up to him if he wants to crash or not.”
Hamilton said he felt it was a “racing incident”.
Hamilton was penalised five seconds for the incident and now it was a question of whether he could make up enough ground on Leclerc and Norris to keep second place.
Leclerc had progressed with daring and clinical overtaking moves on Racing Point’s Sergio Perez and then Norris, to take a second place that few would have predicted after a dismal qualifying for Ferrari.
Norris recognised the threat from Hamilton and put it all on the line on the final lap, setting the fastest lap of the race to hold off Hamilton by just 0.2secs for his first career F1 podium.
A bad day for Hamilton
Hamilton’s day started badly when a three-place grid penalty was imposed on him less than an hour before the race after stewards reviewed an incident in qualifying when he had not slowed for yellow caution flags.
But he was up to second by lap 10, following the retirement of Max Verstappen with an engine problem, and began to close in on Bottas.
Hamilton had closed to within three seconds of his team-mate by lap 25, and was much faster, when the first safety car halted his attack in its tracks.
Mercedes stacked their cars in the pits and refused Hamilton’s request for softer tyres than Bottas was given.
At the restart, Hamilton made it clear he was determined to attack for the lead, but soon Mercedes were radioing their drivers to say they had problems.
After being told they had sensor issues, they were still allowed to fight, but then chief strategist James Vowles – who only comes on the radio when it is an urgent request – warned them of “critical” gearbox issues.
That looked to be the end of the battle – but it proved to be just the start of a thrilling climax to the race.
And it means Hamilton starts his quest for a record-equalling seventh world title with a 13-point deficit to the only man who seems to have a chance of beating him, given the apparent superiority of the Mercedes car.
Driver of the day
What happens next?
Another race in Austria next weekend – the Steiermark (or Styrian) Grand Prix. If it’s anything like this, it is a prospect to savour.
What they said
Valtteri Bottas: “That was definitely quite a bit of pressure. One safety car was still OK, with the last one I was like ‘come on’ – there were so many chances for Lewis to come through if made a small mistake. I managed to keep it together and control the race from my side and it’s a good start to the season.”
Charles Leclerc: “It was a huge surprise but a good one. We did everything perfect today, had a bit of luck with Lewis’ penalty and a few crashes here and there but that’s part of the race too. We just wanted to to take every opportunity to find the pace to finish where we were. There’s still a lot of work to do but anything is possible. We will work as a team and we can come back strong.”
Lando Norris: “There’s a few moments where I thought I fudged it. I dropped to fifth with a few laps to go and Carlos [Sainz] nearly passed me and I managed to get back past Checo and I ended up on the podium. It was a good race, a hard last few laps to push as hard as I can. I’m so happy for the team to achieve what we have given where we were a few years ago.”