Formula 1 may have gone more than 200 days between race weekends, but based on first practice at the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix, absence has done nothing to shake up the competitive order. Picking up where it left off, Mercedes dominated the laptimes.
Lewis Hamilton showed little sign of post-shutdown rustiness, topping the time sheet with a fastest lap of 1m04.816s, 0.356s ahead of teammate Valtteri Bottas.
Max Verstappen, P3, fulfilled predictions that Red Bull Racing would be Mercedes’s closest challenger, but the 2019 Austrian Grand Prix winner’s best time was more than 0.6s off the Briton’s benchmark pace.
Intriguingly, Red Bull Racing intimated during the session it would seek clarification from the stewards regarding the legality of the Mercedes car pertaining to the dual-axis steering solution revealed during pre-season testing that enables the driver to modify toe angle from the cockpit.
Carlos Sainz and Sergio Perez completed the top five for McLaren and Racing Point respectively less than 0.1s behind the Dutchman. Lando Norris followed in the second McLaren, beating Red Bull Racing’s Alex Albon to sixth, while Daniel Ricciardo and Kevin Magnussen were closely matched in eighth and ninth for Renault and Haas.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, 2019 pole man at the Red Bull Ring, was worryingly adrift of the leaders. He finished the morning 10th and more than 1.1s behind Hamilton, while Sebastian Vettel in the sister car was a further 0.1s in deficit.
Despite early greasy conditions as rain dampened the circuit, morning practice lacked much of the drama forecast by some as drivers returned to the cockpit for their first official timed session since December, the notable exception being a Daniil Kvyat spin at the final corner at the beginning of a flying lap that almost collected George Russell at the end of his.
In fact it was the cars rather than the drivers that threw up the greater number of problems.
Sergio Perez caused early concerns for his Racing Point team when smoke began billowing from his exhaust early in the session. Mechanics were surely haunted by memories of the Mercedes power unit’s chronic unreliability as the Mexican returned his car to the garage, but inspections revealed only excess oil on the exhaust. Perez returned to the circuit in short order and set the fifth-quickest time, 0.696s off the pace.
Esteban Ocon, returning as a full-time driver for the first time since 2018, also triggered some consternation inside his Renault team when his RS20 shed a bargeboard element on a flying lap. He returned to the pits for inspection while a virtual safety car facilitated marshal collection of the errant part.
Romain Grosjean encountered far worse problems in his Haas. On only his fourth installation lap, having not set a time, he overshot the hairpin at Turn 3 and crawled back to the pits with failing brakes. His mechanics worked on his car for almost the duration of the session, sending the Frenchman back out with only half a minute to spare, bringing his lap total to six.