Ice cool Bottas keeps calm amidst chaos to win Austrian GP opener as Hamilton only fourth

Valtteri Bottas drove a practically flawless race from pole to flag to win from Charles Leclerc and a scarcely believing Lando Norris, as Lewis Hamilton was slapped with a five second penalty for a late collision with Alexander Albon’s Red Bull.

In an opening race that was filled with incident aplenty, it looked set for another predictable Mercedes 1-2, but two late safety car periods led to a dramatic end to a dramatic race. It meant that Hamilton had to settle for fourth from the second McLaren of Carlos Sainz, Sergio Perez and Pierre Gasly as Esteban Ocon, Antonio Giovinazzi and Sebastian Vettel rounded off the points scoring finishers.

“There was quite a bit of pressure all through the race, and one safety car was still okay, but with the last safety car, it was like, ‘come on again!’ there was so many chances for Lewis to get to lead if I even made a small mistake and he was really quick today but I managed to keep it together and could control the race from my side, and no better way to start the season,” an ecstatic Bottas told former champion Jenson Button on Sky Sports afterward.

Having only started from seventh on the grid, a podium scarcely looked possible for Leclerc. But in a race that saw nine retirements, including that of Max Verstappen early on, Hamilton’s penalty and late passes on Perez and Norris got the job done.

“It’s a huge surprise, but a good one,” commented Leclerc. “I think we did everything perfect today, to be honest. We finished second, had a little bit of luck obviously with Lewis’ penalty, some crashes here and there and that was the goal to take every opportunity we had because we didn’t have the pace to finish where we were, I think. But P2 I’m extremely satisfied and there’ still a lot of work to do.”

Perhaps less of a surprise for a podium than the unfancied Ferrari was the podium of the popular Norris, who started fourth on the grid after a stellar qualifying performance. And the man who had kept motorsport fans entertained on his Twitch stream and various Esports platforms during lockdown could scarcely hide his delight at a first F1 podium.

“I’m speechless,” said Norris. “There were a few points in the race where I thought I had kind of fudged it up quite a bit. I dropped to fifth with a few laps to go, Carlos was almost getting past me but I didn’t give up and managed to get past Perez and I ended up on the podium! It was a long race but yeah, I kept going gave it all, in the last laps pushed as hard as I can but I’m so happy. So proud of the team. Considering where we were a few years ago, I’m proud to be part of it all.”

Having been pipped to pole position by teammate Bottas on Saturday, Hamilton was slapped by a three-place grid penalty only an hour before lights out after an appeal from Red Bull for failing to slow under yellow flags when Bottas went off on his final flying lap.

Harsh as the decision may have appeared, it only served to focus the mind of the six-time world champion even further, the Englishman passing compatriot Lando Norris into Turn 4 and setting about the fast-starting Albon.

As pole-sitter Bottas disappeared into the distance, it became an intriguing battle behind, Leclerc running wide off the circuit but recovering to his starting spot of 7th. Then disaster for Verstappen, who was the only driver in the top ten to start on the medium compound tyre, the Dutchman grinding to a halt on the straight into Turn 3, team boss Christian Horner confirming an electrical issue to blame.

That promoted Sergio Perez to fourth, but with much expected of the Racing Point duo, teammate Lance Stroll limped into retirement with a suspected engine problem on lap 22. It suddenly seemed like the good old days of F1 reliability issues had returned, Daniel Ricciardo also retiring before Kevin Magnussen lost control of his Haas with a right front brake disk failure at Turn 3.

It prompted a gaggle of pit-stops, Bottas first to pit on lap 27 with Hamilton coming in straight behind him, meaning it would now be a straight fight to the flag. And it was at this point where the controversial and ingenious DAS system seemed to come into its own, with both Mercedes drivers visibly using the system after the change of tyres, working heat into the new front tyres after the first stop.

The drama was far from over, and it seemed the stuff of a fantastical comic book writer that outgoing Ferrari driver Vettel would clash with his replacement, sending an overly ambitious move up the inside of Sainz and sending the hapless German into a spin.

Back at the front of the field, Hamilton had closed to within a second of his teammate. And it certainly seemed like team politics when both drivers were ordered to keep away from the kerbs due to ‘gearbox sensor issues’. Possibly code for maintain position and not resist a racing collision that could compromise the race 1-2. Only Mercedes will know.

“We had to manage the car quite a lot so we couldn’t really use all the kerbs,” elaborated Bottas. “At one point I was slightly worried that everything would be okay, but I’m glad both the cars managed to finish and in the team standings we’re leading so it’s a very good start.”

Then, another twist, as a Romain Grosjean off track excursion brought out a late safety car, George Russell also pulling off the circuit with a fuel pressure problem whilst running a promising P12. It prompted one last dash for the pits, almost all but the leaders donning a new set of fresh softs.

And still the drama wasn’t over, Kimi Raikkonen inexplicably losing a tyre under braking, just as Albon had made a move stick on Perez for third. Then, disaster for the Red Bull driver, an ambitious move on Hamilton under DRS resulting in Hamilton clipping the Red Bull and sending him spinning into the gravel. It resulted in a justified penalty for Hamilton, dropping him to fourth by the finish and with work now to do in what is a curtailed season.

“I don’t really feel anywhere right now,” said a philosophical Hamilton afterward. “The race is done, and I feel like moving forwards. “Of course, it’s not been a great weekend for me and yesterday was entirely my fault. It was a bit odd today, for sure, in the preparation towards the grid penalty but it didn’t destabilise me, it encouraged me to go out there and try and drive the best I could and I feel like I did.

“Obviously, I had great pace to catch up with Valtteri and then a really unfortunate scenario with Alex. I can’t believe we’ve come together again, and it really felt like a racing incident, but either way I will take whatever penalty they feel I deserve and move forwards.”

Bottas now holds the whip hand in a Mercedes that looks practically unbeatable, and although Hamilton may still be the title favourite in the eyes of many, it will take all of his experience to redress the balance from a Finn who seems to have a steely focus of a man determined to hammer home his advantage.

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.