‘New normal’, same old story as Mercedes dominates Friday practice for Austrian GP

Almost four months after the paddock packed up and thousands of disappointed fans traipsed their way home from Albert Park after the cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix, Formula One returned to the Styrian Mountains for the first practice sessions for the Austrian Grand Prix.

As was the case on a bizarre Friday afternoon in Australia, there were again no fans in the stands in Austria with new social distancing measures and protocols in place to keep everyone safe from the COVID-19 pandemic that has affected the world.

But some things never seem to change, and after their dominant display in pre-season testing in Barcelona, Mercedes achieved what everyone thought they might, Lewis Hamilton heading teammate Valtteri Bottas in the lap times after both sessions in their striking new Mercedes livery aimed at promoting diversity in the sport.

“It’s great to be back, it’s been a long time coming,” Hamilton told official television broadcaster Sky Sports. “It’s definitely looking good out there but you can never take too much from practice. A couple of other guys might be down a fuel mode. We’ll take it with a pinch of salt.”

Another pre-season prediction was that the ‘Pink Mercedes’ in the shape of Racing Point would also impress after their Barcelona pace, and that too came to pass, Sergio Perez finishing third quickest, +0.641s behind Hamilton and marginally ahead of fourth-placed Sebastian Vettel, who will surely be fired up to prove a point in the wake of his controversial departure from Ferrari. Daniel Ricciardo was an encouraging fifth fastest for Renault, ahead of his McLaren teammate for 2021 Lando Norris, as Lance Stroll, Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz rounded off the top ten.

For all fans of the sport, it was certainly great to see the cars back on track. And those eagle-eyed fans of the technical side of this most technical of sports will have noticed teams bringing several upgrades from the Barcelona days that now seem a lifetime ago – McLaren running a new front wing, Renault also a new front wing and aesthetically beautiful bargeboards and Mercedes also making improvements that seemed effective, all illustrated by Motorsport Tech columnist Craig Scarborough.

Mercedes’ pursuit of excellence and an unprecedented seventh successive constructors’ title is not without controversy and its detractors, with talk around the paddock revolving around a possible appeal from Red Bull about the legality of the team’s innovative DAS system, which was used in both practice sessions.

The third free practice session for the Austrian Grand Prix gets underway at 12.00 EST with the all-important qualifying session at 14.00 EST.

The session was also not without its fair share of controversy, several drivers, including Hamilton, having their lap times erased after running wide into Turn 10 past the allowed margin. And there were also a few spins as drivers searched to find the limits of the track and also no doubt themselves after such a long period away out of the cockpit of their beloved machines.

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.

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