The 2020 F1 Austrian Grand Prix was held at the Red Bull Ring in the beautiful city of Spielberg, Styria, Austria. This was the 34th running of the Austrian GP and 33rd as part of the F1 world championship series. The race was held behind closed doors, no spectators allowed. The season was due to start in March in Australia but just like in the rest of the world, Covid-19 struck Formula 1 hard.
The teams had to shut down the factories for a record 62 days, but finally, the season started in Austria. It is the first time since 1966 for Europe to host the season opener. Mercedes dominated the whole weekend from start to finish, and Valtteri Bottas (Finland) bagged the season opener ahead of Charles Leclerc of Ferrari and Lando Norris of McLaren.
For the first time in the history of Formula 1, the podium was shared by Mercedes, Ferrari and McLaren. Lando Norris took the honours of being the 3rd ever youngest podium sitter in the history of the F1.
The pre-season testing was held at the Circuit De Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain. F1 and the teams agreed on the cost-cutting measures and as a result, only 8 days of pre-season testing is allowed. Therefore, two pre-season tests of 4 days each were conducted in February and March this year.
It was clear from the test rounds that Mercedes was again the benchmark for the 2020 season. Red Bull Racing appeared to be the closest challenger to the Silver Arrows. Behind them, there was an apparent shuffle in the pecking order with Force India appearing to have leapfrogged McLaren and Renault to be 3rd on the list.
The team, which was fastest at times during the 2019 season and won many races and took eight pole positions to the Mercedes' ten, was nowhere. Ferrari changed the aerodynamics concept of the SF 1000 (Ferrari 2020 car name) from low drag to maximum downforce concept. As a result, they won’t be fastest in a straight line but quick through the corners allowing for a wider car setup window. The team also reached an engine settlement with FIA in private.
At the end of the testing, it became evident that Scuderia Ferrari is way down the pecking order. Overall, the teams are now much closer to the front-running Mercedes than they were in the previous years.
Impact of Covid-19 on the 2020 F1 Season
The F1 season was due to start in Australia but, unfortunately on Thursday before the first Friday practice session, two members of the McLaren F1 team tested positive for Covid-19. Later, McLaren announced that they would not take part in the season opener in Melbourne. This initiated a chain reaction, resulting in the postponement of the 2020 F1 Australian Grand Prix.
The following week, the Bahrain GP was postponed due to the threat of the coronavirus, and later practically the whole of Europe went into the lockdown. The F1 season was on hold, and as a result, the FIA announced the closure of the F1 team's factories which lasted for 62 days.
During these three months from April to June, F1 made some critical decisions for the future of the sport. The new generation of F1 cars rules was delayed from 2021 to 2022, and the current 2020 cars chassis are frozen for the 2021 season to control the costs. McLaren was allowed to change chassis under special relaxation from FIA because they are switching to a Mercedes engine in 2021. A cost cap of US$ 145 million was agreed starting in the 2022 season and reduced to $135 million by 2025.
Many grands prix are postponed and might get rescheduled for later in the season, but the 2020 Australian GP, Monaco GP, French GP, Azerbaijan GP, Singapore GP and Japanese GP are cancelled and will not be held this year. F1 is hopeful of conducting 10-15 races this year with the season probably ending in December.
Ferrari decided that they no longer needed the services of Sebastian Vettel beyond the 2020 season. The drivers got very busy during the shutdown days. Scuderia replaced Vettel with Carlos Sainz of McLaren on a two-year deal starting in 2021. McLaren announced the signing of their long-term target Aussie Daniel Ricciardo to replace the Spanish racer. Renault is expected to announce the signing of their former employee and two-time world champion Fernando Alonso before the Styrian Grand Prix (Styrian what? More on this later!).
Pre-Race Preparations Thursday
The weather outlook for the first race of the season was dry and warm conditions throughout the race weekend. Most of the teams did not bring any major upgrade packages for the first race of the season. Teams brought small updates to the cars to refine the aerodynamic packages they tested during the pre-season testing.
Red Bull racing showed intention to protest against the Mercedes DAS (Dual Axis Steering) system, which Mercedes revealed during the pre-season testing. The DAS used to change the toe angle of the front wheels. The driver, while driving the car, pulls out the steering wheel slightly to change the front wheels’ toe angle on the straights and pushes the steering wheel back in to bring the tyres back to original settings.
Mercedes finished both the practice sessions on top and with both cars in the top 2 positions. Scuderia Ferrari appeared to be the second-fastest team on single-lap pace but some 0.4 sec/lap slower. Racing Point a surprise 3rd with the gap to Mercedes 0.5sec/lap on a single lap. Renault 4th, McLaren 5th, Red Bull 6th and Williams 7th on the list. Alpha Tauri (Toro Rosso’s new name). Alfa Romeo and Haas were all a disappointing 1.9 sec/lap slower than the benchmark set by Mercedes.
Friday’s long-run pace analysis showed a different pecking order except Mercedes. Racing Point again looked like the closest team to Mercedes on the race pace with a gap of 0.4sec/lap on the long run. Red Bull was 3rd 0.5sec/lap slower than Mercedes, while Ferrari was further two tenths behind the Bulls. Alfa Romeo 5th, Haas 6th and Renault 7th on the long run pace chart. McLaren looked quite slow on the long-run pace, but nobody knows what the engine modes and fuel loads the teams are running.
The Saturday morning practice session was no different from Friday. Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes was fastest ahead of his teammate. Max Verstappen in the Red Bull showed some pace and was third fastest behind the Mercs. Sergio Perez was 4th quickest, ahead of Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari. The whole session went by pretty smoothly for everybody except Williams’ new boy Nicholas Latifi who crashed heavily during the practice session.
The first qualifying started with Max Verstappen taking the surprise first position on top of the leaderboard ahead of the two Mercedes drivers Bottas and Hamilton. The elimination in Q1 included the pair of Alfa Romeo and Williams drivers along with Haas’ Kevin Magnussen.
In Q2, Mercedes regained the top spots with Lewis Hamilton in the lead. Behind them, Max Verstappen went for a different strategy and qualified on a set of medium tyres to run longer in the first stint during the race. Sebastian Vettel was the big name to miss out on qualifying for the final session, but his teammate only finished P10 in Q2 confirming the real pace of the SF1000. Both the Alpha Tauri drivers, Esteban Ocon (Renault) and Roman Grosjean were also eliminated.
Q3 saw Valterri Bottas put everything together and set the fastest time at the end of the first run. On the final runs, while pushing to extend his lead, he ran a little wide at turn 3 and went into the gravel and did not improve his time. But his first timed effort was good enough to take the first pole position of the 2020 season. He set a time of 1:02.939 to take pole position.
Lewis Hamilton finished second with less than half a tenth separating the two teammates. Max Verstappen finished 3rd, and Lando Norris in an MCL35 finished a brilliant 4th on the grid and his best-ever qualifying grid position. Alexander Albon was 5th, Sergio Perez 6th, Charles Leclerc 7th, Carlos Sainz 8th, Lance Stroll 9th and Daniel Ricciardo 10th.
Hamilton Starts Race Day with a Penalty
Sunday started badly for Lewis Hamilton after Red Bull protested that during qualifying, he left the track and gained an advantage. As a result, he received a 3-place grid drop penalty and started the race in 5th position. The first race of the season got away with Bottas making a good start and leading into the first corner followed by Verstappen and Norris.
Red Bull Loses Chance for a 3rd Home Race Win in a Row
The opening few laps were pretty standard until lap 10 when things started to kick in. Max Verstappen retired from the race with an engine problem, and Red Bull missed the chance to take the 3rd consecutive race win at the Red Bull’s home race. On lap 18, Ricciardo, who was running in the top 10, retired with an engine problem as well.
Lance Stroll also retired the car on lap 22 with a suspected engine gremlin. Kevin Magnussen of Haas luckily avoided a big crash after front brakes failed at turn 1 and that brought out the first SAFETY CAR of the session. Everybody dived into the pits to take on new tyres, and the running order remained the same, thanks to the safety car.
Lap 51, Safety Car number, thanks to Williams’ George Russell who also stopped on the track due to an engine problem. Albon, Norris, Leclerc and Sainz all pitted for fresh tyres, while Sergio Perez was the only front runner who did not pit under the safety car and take advantage of it.
Lap 54, Safety Car in, racing resumed but only lasted half a lap when it had to be deployed again on the 55th lap. This time Kimi Raikkonen lost the front right tyre and was stranded on the main straight.
Lap 60, the race resumed once more, and Albon on fresh soft tyres sat after the two Mercedes but failed to get the job done. While trying to pass Hamilton around the outside of turn 3, his rear tyre touched with Hamilton’s front left tyre and went spinning onto the gravel trap, reminiscent of Brazil 2019.
Bottas Wins the First Round
Bottas did not put a foot wrong throughout the race and went on to win the race. Lewis Hamilton received a 5-second time penalty for a collision with Albon and finished 4th. Charles Leclerc took a brilliant second.
First Podium for Norris, Fastest Lap too
Lando Norris had to put in the best performance of his life to claim the first-ever podium of his F1 career. He set the fastest lap on the last lap of the race and finished 4.8 sec behind Hamilton, who finished 3rd as a result of his penalty.
Carlos Sainz made it two McLarens in the top 5, Sergio Perez 6th after being penalised for speeding in the pit lane. Alpha Tauri's Pierre Gasly 7th, Ocon 8th, Giovinazzi 9th, and Vettel for the final driver's championship point.
Styrian Grand Prix Coming Up!
Next up, we are not going anywhere and will stay at the same circuit and race again for round two in Austria. However, it will be the Styrian Grand Prix. Per F1 rules, there can’t be two Grands Prix with the same name. Stay tuned at CarPart for the rest of the season!