Valtteri Bottas won a dramatic season-opening Austrian Grand Prix in which only 11 drivers made it to the checkered flag after three safety car interventions.
Bottas led from lights to flag, but his impression of a serene grand prix victory belied the difficulty Mercedes had keeping both its cars in working order and the chaos that unfolded behind Bottas and teammate Lewis Hamilton, as the midfield attempted to capitalize on their machines. But the Finn perfectly judged all three restarts and faultlessly absorbed his teammate’s pressure to start his fourth Mercedes season with 25 points.
“One safety car was OK, but the last safety car, I was like, ‘Come on, again?’,” Bottas said. “There were so many chances for Lewis to get the lead if I made even a small mistake — he was really quick today — but I managed to keep it together and really could control the race from my side.”
While Bottas was always in the box seat to claim victory, the battle to decide his podium companions ran to the final lap.
His closest challenger should have been Max Verstappen, but the Dutchman’s race lasted only 11 laps before it was halted by an electronics issue. The 2019 Austrian Grand Prix winner limped back to the pits, and when a steering wheel switch failed to cure the problem, Red Bull Racing was forced to retire the car.
It was a convenient development for Hamilton, who was recovering from fifth on the grid after a three-place penalty for ignoring yellow flags during qualifying. The reigning champion had made short work of Lando Norris for fourth place and had little trouble passing Alex Albon with DRS into Turn 4 for third place by Lap 9. Verstappen’s retirement pushed Hamilton to second, and the Briton immediately began reeling in his leading teammate.
Further down the field Sebastian Vettel was bottled up behind Lance Stroll, whose Mercedes-equipped Racing Point was struggling for power. Their reduced pace brought Daniel Ricciardo into the fight, and the Australian began pressuring the German to surrender ninth place.
But unreliability was about to lend Vettel a helping hand. On Lap 18 Ricciardo pulled to the side of the road, his campaign ended by overheating, and shortly afterwards Stroll returned to his garage with an incurable engine problem, clearing the way for Vettel to rise to eighth.
The unreliability trend continued on Lap 26 when Kevin Magnussen suffered a brake failure in battle with Esteban Ocon. The Dane ran straight on into Turn 3 and spun around to bring his Haas to stop, but his precarious positioning required a safety car intervention. The field’s remaining drivers took the opportunity to make their first pit stops.
Vettel was a beneficiary of the caution at the Lap 31 resumption, which him brought back into touch with the loftier runners of the top 10, but he undermined his own race with a botched overtaking attempt on Carlos Sainz for seventh at Turn 3.
The Ferrari driver came from a long way back, locking up on his way to the apex and knocking into the side of the McLaren. The orange car continued unhindered, but Vettel tumbled down the order with damaged machinery.
Hamilton was another safety car winner, resuming immediately behind Bottas on identical rubber, but against equal machinery the Briton couldn’t get close enough to make a pass,
Worse, after 15 laps of battle both he and Bottas were warned about a critical gearbox problem that necessitated moderated pace and avoidance of the curbs. They held station and manage their 10-second buffer to the field.
But Mercedes problems were becoming a theme. On Lap 51 George Russell parked his Williams on the side of the road with a fuel pressure problem, triggering a second safety car. The caution lasted until Lap 55, but racing ensued for barely three corners before Kimi Raikkonen crashed into the pit wall. His Alfa Romeo car careened off the road at the last corner missing its front-left tire, the wheel apparently having been incorrectly fixed during a rushed pit stop behind the safety car.
A third intervention ensured to recover the stricken Alfa, and racing resumed for a final time on Lap 61.
The three corners of racing had been just enough for Albon to pass Perez for third, and the Thai driver, equipped with fresh soft rubber, began bearing down on Lewis Hamilton for second. He ambitiously ran around the Briton’s outside at Turn 4 but the pair made contact, sending the RB16 sliding through the gravel and tumbling down to second last.
It was contact reminiscent of their coming-together in a scrap for the podium at last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix. Now, as then, stewards found Hamilton was in the wrong, penalizing him five seconds.
Further down the order Charles Leclerc was a man on the move with a new set of medium tires. The Monegasque started from seventh on the grid and had spent most of the race trailing Lando Norris, but with the advantage of DRS he glided around the outside of the McLaren at Turn 4 to relieve him of fourth on Lap 64.
Perez was next up the road, but the Mexican was struggling on old rubber, unchanged since the first safety car. He could put up little resistance, surrendering third on the road — which became second for Leclerc after Hamilton’s penalty was applied.
“I did not expect it!” Leclerc said. ” I think we did everything perfectly today, to be honest. That was the goal — to take every opportunity we had even though we didn’t have the pace to finish where we were.
“I’m extremely satisfied. There’s still a lot of work to do … everything is possible. We need to keep mentally strong.”
Perez tried to cling to fourth, but he was quickly muscled past by Norris and Sainz, relegating him to sixth on the road. Norris subsequently set the fastest lap of the race, putting him within five second of Hamilton and turning his fourth position into the final podium place.
“I think there were a few points in the race where I thought I’d fudged it up quite a bit,” Norris admitted. “It was a long race, but I kept going, giving it my all.
“I’m proud of the team. Considering where we were a few years ago, to last year to now I think is a pretty good achievement.”
Sainz finished fifth ahead of Perez, who held sixth despite a five-second penalty of his own for speeding in the pit lane.
Pierre Gasly took the flag seventh for AlphaTauri, holding off Renault’s Esteban Ocon by just 0.774s.
Antonio Giovinazzi finished ninth ahead of Sebastian Vettel, who benefited from field attrition in his recovery from his collision with Sainz to score the final point of the race.
Debutant Nicholas Latifi was the final driver to take the checker in 11th, while Daniil Kvyat and Alex Albon were both classified finishers despite stopping on track before the end of the race, the former with a loss of power and the latter with a rear tire delamination.