The triple header has taken away the chance for fans to sit back and applaud Kimi Raikkonen’s aggressive opening lap in Austria. When last was he this aggressive at the start and not taken out by a competitor?
It was at the 2018 Canadian Grand Prix where Lewis Hamilton bemoaned Mercedes’ decision to delay the update to their championship-winning power units. But of course, in Canada, Sebastian Vettel romped to victory comfortably ahead of Valtteri Bottas while Hamilton scored his season’s worst finish yet – fifth. Did this result pressurise Mercedes into releasing an update for the Grands Prix that followed – France and Austria?
Mercedes: Compromising reliability?
Force India’s (a Mercedes power unit customer) Sergio Perez suffered from a water pressure problem in France. Back then, we raised the question if Mercedes’ update was stable enough for race release, but because it wasn’t one of the Mercedes works team drivers who suffered this ill-fate, the failure didn’t make headlines enough. In Austria, Bottas suffered a gearbox issue while Hamilton had to retire his car due to fuel pressure problems. In their attempt to take the fight to and beat Ferrari every fortnight (or in the case of this triple header, every weekend), did Mercedes push the limits of their reliability a little too much? The team clearly denies so, but then again, if you were engaged in an intense battle with your arch rivals, would you ever admit to such a failure?
However, details about the Ferrari vs Mercedes battle in Austria can wait. The 2018 Austrian Grand Prix needs to be celebrated for two drivers who badly needed a solid resultÂ – Max Verstappen and Romain Grosjean. The Red Bull Racing prodigy claimed his first win of the 2018 Formula 1 Season at Red Bull’s home venue in front of Dietrich Mateschitz (owner of Red Bull) and thousands of travelling Dutch fans. After coming under much (and deserved) criticism in the early part of the season, Verstappen’s win means thatÂ the nine races contested this season have been won byÂ four different drivers.
Red Bull’s masterstroke For Max Verstappen
After muscling his way past Kimi Raikkonen on the opening lap to claim third, Verstappen’s race was aided by a masterstroke of tyre strategy under the Virtual Safety Car period by the Red Bull Racing pit-wall. The team chose to double stack their drivers, as did Ferrari; while Mercedes chose to leave out HamiltonÂ – an error they publicly apologised to Hamilton for multiple times on their team radio.
Like some of the previous races of the season, it was the timing of the Virtual Safety Car period that shook up the racing order. Hamilton, who was in the fastest car and should have comfortably won, had to then pit under normal racing conditionsÂ – a decision that cost him 10-12 seconds on track, also the difference between first and fourth places. An audibly upset Hamilton did try his best to salvage his team’s error, but blistering tyres and car issues saw him score nought and lose the Drivers’ Championship lead to title-rival, Vettel. Mercedes’ reluctance to gamble under the Virtual Safety Car period yet again (they failed to do so in Australia too) is surprising.
However, Red Bull’s snatching of a win from Mercedes proves yet again that despite not having the fastest package to fight consistently at the front, Red Bull Racing are making do with all their tools and more to pounce on Ferrari and Mercedes at even the slightest of errors. This was the first Red Bull Racing win at the home venue since its addition to the calendar in 2014. Mercedes have claimed all victories since then.
After clinching 1-2 in qualifying on Saturday, most expected it to be a walk-in-the-park for MercedesÂ with some even believing that Bottas could challenge Hamilton for win. Bottas, who scored his second pole position in Austria, is arguably the unluckiest driver on the grid currentlyÂ – a tag he may want to return to Fernando Alonso.
Haas’ highest points haul ever
Grosjean, Haas’ senior driver, had much to rejoice after he finally managed to string together a perfect weekend for himself and the team (it took himÂ nine races to do so). The French driver finished fourth and led the team to their highest points haul from a race ever. Kevin Magnussen drove a fine race to claim fifth and is now seventh in the Drivers’ ChampionshipÂ – the coveted ‘Best of the Rest’ position after the top sixÂ drivers. Haas jumped Force India and McLaren in the Constructors’ Championship and are now fifth behind Renault.
The 2018 Austrian Grand Prix reminded us of some of the races from the 1990s and 2000s, where attrition levels were high and just finishing the race could mean scoring points (although back then, topÂ six finishers were awarded points). After four potential top 10 finishers retired from the race, the chances for minnows to score points only became higher. Marcus Ericsson did well to finish 10th and join his much-acclaimed rookie team-mate Charles Leclerc (9th) to score double points for Sauber. In the case of McLaren, Alonso used a 2017-spec front wing to start from the pit-lane, fight in the mid-field and finishÂ eighth to score McLaren’s first points scoring finish in the lastÂ four races. No, it wasn’t a case of McLaren running out money to make new front wings, it was simply due to McLaren’s drivers damaging front wings during practice thanks to the new kerbs to enforce track limits being used in Austria.
Force India too managed double points – Esteban Ocon (6th) finish ahead of Sergio Perez (7th) after the team ordered their drivers to swap and swap-back positions – a tactic that isn’t new to Formula 1. Force India ordered Ocon to let Perez though, who was on fresher tyres thanks to a longer first sting through. This was with the intention to allow Perez to use his new rubber to chase down and hopefully overtake Haas’ Magnussen. However, on the last lap of the race, Force India ordered Perez to swap-back position with Ocon since Magnussen was impossible to catch up with. Perez rightfully protested against this decision because he could’ve overtaken Ocon on track and claimed position.
But this is how situations are managed when you are racing for a mid-field team. The teams’ ambitions to score points and increase their potential to earn more money in the Constructors’ Championship always weigh more than the Drivers’ Championship. One could argue that with the team claiming 6th and 7th places, the order of their drivers’ finishing wouldn’t matter too much. But then again, this could be down to the team’s internal agreements, one that we saw Red Bull Racing discuss too during Saturday’s qualifying session.
Ferrari respects Kimi Raikkonen
The one team that most fans expected to order a swap in the race was Ferrari. In fact, it was at the infamous 2002 Austrian Grand Prix where Ferrari’s orders to swap positions between Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher became a global controversy – one that cost Ferrari a few thousands of dollars in penalty and prompted the sport to ban team orders. Vettel’s qualifying penalty meant that Raikkonen ran ahead of his team-mate in the race – this is after a brilliant start that saw him almost claim the lead of the race from the Mercedes cars. In fact, we can’t remember when last was Raikkonen this aggressive on an opening lap and not taken out by a competitor!
After both the Mercedes’ and Daniel Ricciardo retired due to car issues, Ferrari found their drivers in 2nd (Raikkonen) and 3rd (Vettel) positions. With Hamilton scoring zero points, almost everyone would have bet on Ferrari ordering Raikkonen to let Vettel finish 2nd and score 3 extra points in the Drivers’ Championship. However, this was pleasantly not the case. A rare display of respect towards Raikkonen’s ambitions – who scored his fifth podium of the season and is only 45 points adrift (in 3rd) in the Drivers’ Championship behind Vettel. It must also be remembered that in last weekend’s French Grand Prix, Raikkonen on fresher tyres was allowed to overtake and finish ahead of Vettel!
Ironically, even though a Renault-powered car (Verstappen’s) claimed victory, the French team and power unit manufacturer had a race to forget. Carlos Sainz Jr finished 12th and outside of the points while two of Renault’s power units blew up mid-race – for Nico Hulkenberg and Ricciardo. While cars powered by all four power unit manufacturers scored points, all Ferrari-powered teams scored double point-finishes! But could Ferrari and Vettel have won the 2018 Austrian Grand Prix?
Vettel vs Hamilton: They actually battled on-track
Hamilton claimed that despite his unexpected retirement, his Mercedes was the class of the field in Austria and it would be tough to debunk his claim. However, the warmer temperatures on Sunday saw the Mercedes and Red Bulls suffer from blisters that compromised their race pace; in Hamilton’s case, he even needed to pit a second time. On the other hand, the Ferraris seemed comfortable in these conditions and definitely managed their tyres better. Had the race run normally, we could have seen a swap of fortunes from Spain thanks to tyres for Mercedes and Ferrari. And then of course, the three DRS zones made overtaking possible and Vettel did pull off a spectacular move on Hamilton – a rare on-track fight between the two protagonists!
Mercedes’ double retirement due to mechanical reasons was probably their first since the 1955 Italian Grand Prix. This was also the first time in a nearly decade that Ferrari took the lead in both the Constructors’ and Drivers’ Championships.
The 2018 Austrian Grand Prix will go down in the history books as a race that was chaotic and much fun (thanks to the Virtual Safety Car?). The short lap and the circuit design added to the drivers’ challenges. Up next is the 2018 British Grand Prix at the iconic Silverstone circuit – one that we often introduce as what ‘Lord’s is to Cricket, Silverstone is to Formula 1’. Vettel leads Hamilton in the championship standings by one solitary point – and both drivers will be looking for a strong result at Silverstone. For plenty of teams and for Hamilton, the British Grand Prix would be a home race, and trust the British fans to celebrate a Formula 1 Grand Prix weekend like no other.
This post was first published on Firstpost