Valtteri Bottas stayed calm in a stormy race on Sunday to claim a measured victory for Mercedes as Formula One returned with a bang in a belated, dramatic and incident-strewn 2020 season-opening Austrian Grand Prix.
Seven months after the final race of 2019, the Finn, who had started from the 12th pole position of his career, led from start to finish to come home ahead on the road of team-mate six-time champion Lewis Hamilton.
The Briton, however, had been given a five-second penalty during the race and was demoted to fourth behind Charles Leclerc, who brought his Ferrari home second and Briton Lando Norris who claimed his maiden podium for McLaren.
Hamilton, hit with a late pre-race grid penalty that dropped him from second to fifth, had clashed with Red Bull’s Alex Albon in the final laps, forcing him into a spin off track.”
“There was definitely quite a bit of pressure on me there,” said Bottas, speaking through a face mask afterwards.
“One Safety Car was ok, but I was like ‘another one? And come on?’ Lewis was quick, but I was able to control it.”
Leclerc admitted the result was a surprise after Ferrari’s dismal form in practice and qualifying.
“I did not expect this – it’s a huge surprise, but a good one. We did everything perfectly to finish second.”
Norris said: “I’m speechless – there were a few points where I thought I had fudged it. I am so proud of the team for coming back from where we were a couple of years ago.”
In a race of three Safety Car interventions, run behind closed doors at the Red Bull Ring, Ferrari-bound Carlos Sainz finished fifth in the second McLaren ahead of Sergio Perez of Racing Point.
Pierre Gasly was sixth for Alpha Tauri and Esteban Ocon eighth on his return to racing with Renault ahead of Antonio Giovinazzi of Alfa Romeo and Sebastian Vettel, the four-time champion in his final season at Ferrari, finishing 10th.
Before the race even started, there was drama when six of the 20 drivers opted against taking a knee to protest against racism.
Hamilton wore a Black Lives Matter t-shirt, while other drivers, who all lined up with him at the front of the grid, sported black tops saying “End Racism”.
– Six drivers opt not to take knee –
Leclerc and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen had confirmed a split among F1 drivers when they said they would not take a knee on the grid, but that they remained committed to fighting racism.
Carlos Sainz of McLaren, Danil Kvyat of Alpha Tauri, Antonio Giovinazzi and Alfa Romeo team-mate Kimi Raikkonen also chose to stay on their feet.
On a very warm day in the Styrian Alps and following a late Red Bull protest that pushed Hamilton to fifth from second on the grid, Bottas was coolness personified.
At lights out, he pulled clear to open a gap ahead of the battling duo of Verstappen and Norris behind him.
Hamilton, fired by his penalty for ignoring yellow flags in Q3 on Saturday, was soon in a rhythm and by lap ten was up to third, 10 seconds behind Bottas and seven off Verstappen.
Within a lap, he was second when Verstappen slowed, his engine spluttering, gifting the champion a pass to pursue the leader as the ‘black arrows’ took control.
“I’m not quite sure what happened yet,” said Verstappen after his retirement.
“I think it would have been an easy podium and third would have been a decent start.”
A full 217 days after the last race, many teams struggled for reliability and it was clearly a battle of attrition led, almost inevitably, after their practice domination, by Mercedes until lap 25 when Kevin Magnussen went off at Turn Three in his Haas following brake problems.
This brought out a Safety Car. On resumption, the luckless Vettel tangled with his future replacement at Ferrari, Sainz, at Turn Three.
The four-time champion spun after hitting the McLaren and fell to 15th while Sainz retained seventh.
At the front, Bottas led, but Hamilton closed up.
On lap 52, Mercedes’ meander was rudely interrupted when Haas’ Romain Grosjean went off and George Russell stopped in his Williams and a second Safety Car was deployed.
With 17 laps to go, Mercedes stayed out as their rivals pitted, Albon taking softs for a late charge, but another crash when Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo lost its front right wheel at the final corner, brought a third Safety Car.
With 10 laps left, Bottas led and Albon attacked Hamilton, but, as in Brazil last year, the pair clashed and Albon spun into the gravel, rejoining in 13th.
The stewards handed Hamilton a five-second penalty, followed by an identical penalty for Perez, for speeding in the pit lane.
“It’s still quite fresh so I’ve got to be careful what I say but there’s nothing to add apart from how frustrating that is,” admitted Albon.