The Styrian Grand Prix wasn’t quite as dramatic as the first part of Formula 1’s Red Bull Ring double-header but it had its moments. Another late Lando Norris charge. Two mega passes on the outside, one from Sergio Perez and one from Max Verstappen. Then there was the Ferrari implosion, too.
F1’s finally leaving Austria and it’s no great surprise that despite all of the change in the world, and everything that’s different about F1 because of it, Mercedes is still firmly on top.
Two wins, one for each driver, and comfortable advantages in both the drivers’ and constructors’ championship…if you’re feeling a bit depressed about that I don’t blame you.
There’s little point dwelling on Mercedes’ success in Austria. Lewis Hamilton’s pole lap in the wet for the Styrian Grand Prix was the best qualifying performance I’ve seen in F1 and will go down in history as one of the greatest ever. And Mercedes’ gearbox problems look absolutely fine after their new wiring looms were fixed for race two. These are the main takeaways that will impact the 2020 season and what we remember of it.
Behind Mercedes though, there will be all sorts of head-scratching. At Red Bull, they will hope that a broken front wing endplate on Max Verstappen’s car did more damage to his performance than he expected. Verstappen said the car was just “too slow”. But some minor wing damage, and that endplate then getting lodged in the bargeboards, may have been the culprit.
If not, it’s a big worry for Verstappen and Red Bull. Not only have they lost ground because of the race one retirement, but the performance just wasn’t quite good enough in race two. That’s not a good sign for their title hopes.
At least Verstappen produced one of the few moments of magic at the front, in his attempts to keep Valtteri Bottas behind. On older tyres and with a slower car, launching it round the outside of Bottas at Turn 4 after looking like he’s lost the place was something pretty special. As for Alex Albon…he needs to have a good weekend in Hungary because he was nowhere on Sunday and that kind of performance is what got Pierre Gasly dropped last year.
Red Bull’s in a much stronger position than Ferrari, though. The first-lap contact between the two drivers was clearly Charles Leclerc’s fault but the bigger problem for me is that Ferrari will probably find itself in that position again.
Sebastian Vettel and Leclerc have now both failed to get into Q3 this season, and starting 10th and 11th looked genuinely reflective of Ferrari’s performance. I don’t know what happened between Friday and Sunday, but all the optimism of its upgrades after FP2 vanished. Which surprised me, because when I dug into their FP2 performance it did seem a lot better than what we saw on the surface. Yet when it mattered, Ferrari was nowhere.
It’s pretty obvious now that Ferrari can’t hide behind its car having lots of drag. While that’s probably true, it doesn’t explain the misery Haas talked about with its qualifying performance: we now know with certainty Ferrari’s qualifying mode on its engine isn’t as good as last year. Maybe Ferrari’s rivals will consider that karma for refusing to disclose the confidential settlement Ferrari has made with the FIA to end the investigation into whether the 2019 engine was legal…
Anyway, the point is that Ferrari’s engine is weak in qualifying and it’s car’s not brilliant through the corners. If it was, if it had lots of downforce, it should have been good in the wet because the speed trap figures were so much lower. Ferrari was much more competitive on the straights in the wet because everyone’s going slower in those conditions, top speeds just aren’t as high.
Having both cars out of the race at the start because of Leclerc’s move was a huge blow for Ferrari because getting two race distances in with the upgrades would have been hugely beneficial. At least it would have given them something to show for the massive effort at Maranello to fast-track the upgrades.
Instead, Ferrari’s having a dreadful start to the season. To the point where McLaren and Racing Point look like they might even finish ahead in the championship unless there’s a dramatic change in performance and fortunes.
Norris did a great job to take advantage of the Lance Stroll/Daniel Ricciardo fight, plus Sergio Perez damaging his front wing trying to pass Albon, to turn eighth place into fifth. It’s those sorts of moments of magic that can make all the difference over a season.
And really, it’s quite amazing how much things have changed from last year – that it’s McLaren currently second place in the constructors’ championship. OK, Red Bull had a double DNF in round one. But McLaren’s probably F1’s third-best team at the moment, even if the Styrian GP showed it doesn’t necessarily have the third-fastest car in races.