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2020 Styrian GP: Efficiency Can Lead To Boring F1 Races

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Armed with over 800 kms of data, Formula 1 teams got faster and more efficient for the inaugural 2020 Styrian GP. The race was proof that efficiency in Formula 1 doesn’t always lead to exciting races. 

Sunday’s Race Day of Formula 1’s first-ever Styrian GP can be classified as a thriller, for at least the first and last two laps. On the opening lap, Charles Leclerc’s overambitious move in his Ferrari led to instant race-ending damage for his team-mate Sebastian Vettel. In the last two laps, it was the mid-field that offered wheel-to-wheel entertainment as Lando Norris overtook three cars – Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo and the Racing Point cars of Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll, the latter being favourites to finish the race somewhere below the 6th spot according to Sports Betting Dime. As for the 68 laps in the middle, they helped confirm the pecking order – Mercedes and Max Verstappen followed by everyone else.

The Red Bull Ring became the first circuit to host back-to-back races in Formula 1’s history. Armed with over 800 kms of data from last weekend’s race, Formula 1 teams got faster and more efficient for the second race – a fact we pointed out in our preseason column on technical and strategic insights for the 2020 Formula 1 season. However, efficiency in Formula 1 doesn’t always lead to exciting races, as was evident with the 2020 Styrian GP – one that we would otherwise classify as ‘borderline boring’. A polar opposite to the 2020 Austrian GP that was held only seven days ago at the same venue. Although we’re a bit bummed to see Formula 1 not use fake fans and fake crowd noise for broadcast purposes!

In a race where Mercedes was rarely challenged, the German marquee finished 1-2, Lewis Hamilton leading Valtteri Bottas – also registering their first 1-2 of the season. Verstappen finished third in his Red Bull Racing car followed by team-mate Alexander Albon – the two fastest teams capping off the top-4 positions. Mclaren’s Lando Norris finished fifth and was followed by Perez, Stroll and Ricciardo. The other Mclaren driver, Carlos Sainz Jr., finished ninth and registered the fastest lap of the race while Alpha Tauri’s Daniil Kvyat claimed the last available point in tenth place.

Hamilton’s wet weather masterclass

One wouldn’t be alone in assuming that the wet-weather qualifying session of the 2020 Styrian GP was far more interesting than the race itself. The 60 minutes long session offered a hotly contested duel between Hamilton and Verstappen, arguably the best wet-weather drivers. At the end of the hour, it was Hamilton who claimed pole position – his 89th career pole, after clocking a time that was a mammoth 1.2 seconds ahead of his rivals, Verstappen included. “I mean honestly, it was a fantastic lap, the last one,” confessed Hamilton.

The other stars of the qualifying hour were Mclaren’s Sainz (3rd – career best), Renault’s Esteban Ocon – who out-qualified Ricciardo and Williams’ George Russell who made it to Q2 for the first time in his career and missed a slot in Q3 by less than two tenths.

Verstappen in a Mercedes sandwich

After the opening lap chaos, the lead pack settled in this order – Hamilton, Verstappen and Bottas. There were two factors that could have challenged a Mercedes victory. First: Reliability. Given the issues Mercedes faced with their sensors at last week’s race. However, Mercedes had instructed their drivers to stay off the kerbs to avoid a repeat scenario. Second: An alternate tyre strategy by Red Bull Racing for Verstappen, one that they actually attempted. Verstappen surprised everyone when he pitted on Lap 24 for medium tyres – an earlier than expected stop.

Red Bull Racing had two reasons to stop early. First, to force Mercedes into an early stop for Hamilton, which they succeeded. The second was to be prepared in case strategy opened up with a mid-race Safety Car period – one that never came. However, their early stop didn’t impede Hamilton’s progress and in fact the strategy backfired after Verstappen ran out of tyre life when he was overtaken by Bottas for second place later in the race. The Verstappen-Bottas battle was short lived but offered yet another glimpse of Verstappen’s wheel-to-wheel abilities, one that was robbed from the fans after his early retirement in the race last week. Bottas’ second place reduced his points loss in the Drivers’ Championship to Hamilton. Based on the current form, it does seem like the two Mercedes drivers will be title rivals for yet another season.

In his post-race media briefing Verstappen explained, “I tried but we’re just a bit too slow, so I pushed as hard as I could and also when Valtteri was trying to pass me I tried to make it a bit difficult. I knew he was going to get by one lap later but it was at least fun because the rest of the race was pretty boring. A podium is good but still a lot of work to do.”

Manic mid-field

It might be a critical assessment but Red Bull Racing’s Albon was the highest placed mid-field finisher in the race. It was the first time we saw this large a finishing gap between Albon and Verstappen (11 seconds) and the number would have been around 30 seconds had it not been for Verstappen’s second pit-stop. For Albon, the two races at the Red Bull Ring delivered contrasting fortunes. Last week, he was one of the stars of the race who could have won. This week, he was adding to Red Bull’s existing ‘second driver’ problem.

Ferrari, a surprise entry into the Formula 1 mid-field, faced another embarrassing weekend. Despite accelerating upgrades to the SF1000 by one race (they were initially expected in Hungary next week), Ferrari failed to finish in the top-8 in any of the official sessions of the 2020 Styrian GP. For yet another race, a double retirement for the team was triggered by one of their drivers – this time the blame falling on Leclerc. “It is painful, very painful, to see both our cars back in the garage after just a couple of laps. Incidents like this can always happen when you start in the middle of the pack and it’s pointless to apportion blame. It’s the worst possible end to a weekend that was already very disappointing,” said Mattia Binotto, Ferrari’s Team Principal.

Ferrari Overlooked Ricciardo Because He’s Fast And Ambitious

It was the Renault, Racing Point and Mclaren drivers that made the mid-field battle exciting. Sainz, who started third, was quick in the opening laps but was impacted by a slow pit-stop. Towards the end, Sainz allowed Norris to go past – a gesture that helped Norris charge up to fifth place and deliver yet another last lap classic! Renault weren’t as forthcoming with their team orders though. Ricciardo, who started on the medium tyre to attempt the reverse strategy, was held up in the early laps by Ocon. Unfortunately for Ocon, reliability gremlins forced a mid-race retirement.

Perez’s Charge

For Racing Point, Perez’s magic lit up the action mid-race. The Mexican veteran used his tyre management skills to good effect to deliver the longest stint on the soft tyre among all drivers – a mammoth 38 laps. Of course, he was aided by Racing Point’s straight-line speed advantage as he sliced through the mid-field pack. Perez’s car was fastest in the speed traps of Sectors 1 & 3. Unfortunately for Perez, he damaged his front wing while battling Albon for fourth place. “I think it was a great recovery, great pace from the car. I think the team did a fantastic strategy. We were all the way to P5, nearly P4 at the end,” summed up Perez.

Lance Stroll in the other Racing Point had a decent weekend, too. The Canadian drove well in the wet-weather qualifying session to out-qualify Perez. In the race, Stroll was overshadowed by Perez’s brilliance but his attack on Ricciardo on the penultimate lap made for good viewing action even though it cost both drivers a position to Norris. Thankfully the FIA Stewards deemed this a racing incident and ordered no further action. (Read: Our Interview With Racing Point’s Andrew Green)

Renault Protest Against RP20

However, it was the other protest that the Stewards deemed admissible after Renault protested against the ‘legality’ of Racing Point’s RP20 after the race. Earlier in the season, the RP20’s uncanny resemblance to Mercedes’ W10 (2019 car) raised a few eyebrows with the paddock jokingly calling the RP20 the ‘Pink Mercedes’. Back then, the FIA had cleared the RP20’s designs so Renault’s protest could indicate that the team might have definite proof to submit in favour of their argument. Surprisingly, despite being vocal earlier in the season, no other rivals joined Renault in their protest (yet). The FIA impounded the front and rear brake ducts of the RP20 and ordered Mercedes to provide the same components of the W10 for further inspection. A further date of hearing will be set once all required evidence has been gathered.

As we head to Hungary to complete the first of the triple header races, Bottas leads Hamilton by six points in the Drivers’ Championship. Norris is in an unexpected third place, eight points ahead of Leclerc while Verstappen is 6th with 15 points – more than a race win away from his Mercedes title rivals. In the Constructors’ Championship, Mercedes (80 points) are already more than twice the number of points than Mclaren (39 points) in second place. Ferrari’s 5th place with only 19 points is an accurate reflection of their poor start to the 2020 Formula 1 season.

This post has been modified for this blog and was first published on Firstpost.

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