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11 Jul 2020

Matt 'Trumpets' Ragsdale retells the events that unfolded in the first race of the season in his own inimitable style.
Ambient 24° Track 49° Humidity 34.9% Wind 1.4 m/s

Prelude

Brutal heat radiated off the track as the relentless Styrian sun rained down on the paddock, but it was Red Bull who brought the real thunder, appealing the yellow flag decision that cleared Hamilton yesterday and gaining a 3 place penalty for the reigning world champion. Now the grid will feature Bottas with the soft tyre on pole, Verstappen P2 on the medium tyre and a remarkable P3 start for Lando Norris, who has shown a certain flair at race starts for not letting the leaders disappear into the distance. Hamilton will start P5, from which he will surely recover quickly, however, Mercedes Plan A of having the trailing driver create a buffer for the leading driver (c'mon you have to admit that's ALWAYS the plan when they lockout the front row) has been circular filed and if Max can hang on till his tyres come up to temperature in his pointy and challenging to driver car, then perhaps there will be a multi-manufacturer race for the top spot after all. Add to that fact that Mercedes' troubles last year all stemmed from cooling issues and it will be even hotter today than yesterday and you have all the ingredients for a potentially entertaining race.

Brutal stat for Ferrari yesterday in that they were nearly a second slower than last year, which is a truly Williams' level of performance. The double whammy of losing their totally not cheating but most certainly illegal if it could be proved PU along with a lately discovered correlation issue with their wind tunnel has really put them behind the eight ball. That said, Mercedes' race pace was nearly 6 seconds off it's quali pace, and with their high levels of DF, it may be that Ferrari will be kinder to their tyres in the high temps and less bothered by the power deficit if other teams are more limited by their tyres. So an opening may exist, though Lord knows it will require their strategy department to get it right, always a risky gambit if one is a fan of the Scuderia.

Of course the biggest fight is likely to be Renault/Racing Point/McLaren and it will certainly be the hope for Macca fans that the fight behind springs Norris on those opening laps and gives him a gap, as the general consensus of the race pace analysts was that Racing Point had a slight edge. And worth considering that of all the midfield drivers, Perez has that magical touch with tyre degradation. And in a surprise to no one, P11 on down all rocked up to the grid on the Mediums as the first race of the year made it's last, frantic preparation before the lights went on...

Summary

Lights Out!!!! Great Start by Verstappen, but Bottas held the place as it was Norris, hammering Verstappen over P2 as Hamilton had a go at Albon. Up the hill they went and it was Hamilton, again on the outside, into T4 being taken wide and very nearly losing a place to the Racing point of Perez behind. All said, a remarkably composed start without the usual crashy bits. Into the final turn it was Leclerc, putting the pressure on Perez, who with a robust defense, managed for the moment to keep the Ferrari behind.

By the start of the second lap, Verstappen's tyres had come up to temperature and he was beginning to gap Norris and make inroads into the 2.5 seconds Bottas had earned on the first lap. Norris, meanwhile, looked to have been a bit ambitious and possibly overheated his tyres, as first Albon and then Hamilton easily rocked by him. Verstappen purpled his lap and as the race began to unfold it was Hamilton and Verstappen looking to be fastest as Albon, still ahead of the Mercedes of Lewis, was looking to become a mobile chicane and buy Verstappen some time and space.

By lap 7 all the midfield save Perez were into the 1:10s, and yes, Ferrari fans, that includes Ferrari. The Racing Point of Perez, continued to billow smoke out the back at random intervals, to the great irritation of the drivers behind. Verstappen looked to have backed off and within the next 2 laps had dropped back to 3.3 seconds as Albon, job done, finally yielded to Hamilton, but only after putting the Mercedes nearly 7.5 seconds off the lead.

Slightly farther back, Perez had finally crept into DRS range on Norris. Disaster!!! The Red Bull of Verstappen suddenly slowed and he rolled to a halt at the exit of turn 3, shouting for a new setting as the race left him behind on lap 11. There was a setting he said he was unable to change and he complained that it was kicking him into anti-stall. Down to 17th and into the pits, likely done for...the team changed the tyres annndddd out of the car he went. Day done. Ooooof.

So now the final podium spot fell to Albon, who had now had 57 laps to manage for his first time to ascend the steps. During the drama, Norris continued to successfully defend against Perez and on lap 15 the gap had gone out to 1.5 seconds as Sergio looked to have settled back and Racing Point likely going for the undercut, which he was well placed to employ. Further back, it was Vettel and Ricciardo, up a position and the pair of them stuck in a Stroll train, as Lance complained of a lack of power. Ricciardo's teammate was making 0.6 seconds a lap on the HAAS of Magnussen and then it was Renault's turn for tragedy, as Ricky Danny appeared to suffer a PU failure and out he went. Stroll's issues continued and Vettel sailed by as Lance dropped down the order. Ocon was into DRS on Magnussen as lap 20 rolled into the books and back at the front, Hamilton had nibbled the gap down to 6.5 seconds, roughly 0.1-0.3 seconds a lap faster, but not likely to get close enough in his first stint to make things interesting.

Lap 21 and Grosjean had a bit of a an off to remain on brand as the Ocon/Magnussen batttle remained the most interesting thing on track. Grosjean was in for a set of the Hards at the end of that lap and another second disappeared at the front as it looked like Bottas had finally cooked his tyres. Stroll was in as well, but it was day done for the Racing Point driver.

By lap 25 Hamilton was within 4 seconds of Bottas and both cars had run long enough to switch to the Hard and run to the end of the race. Ocon finally got round Magnussen and that indignity came with a big helping of spin for the HAAS, possibly indicative of brake problems on the car. Grosjean had already suffered a brake issue in free practice and Kmag was being coached about them on the team radio. This brought out the safety car and it was time for pickup sticks with the strategy.

Double stack for the Mercs and a tight release for Racing Point as they tried to get their driver out just ahead of Norris. Ooooh and it was a juicy one, though the commentariat was disagreeing about whether the release was unsafe. Slow stop for Macca, rear tyre, caused the situation, and perhaps the most interesting thing was Perez onto the Medium tyre, whilst Norris opted for the Hard, a big advantage at the start but a potential liability in the higher temps near the end of the race. Grosjean elected to stay out, with his tyres only a few laps old, and on replay it was a clear failure of the brakes that put K-mag out of the race.

With the Safety Car still out on lap 29, Mercedes were told to use DAS to help maintain and it was cooling issues that put Ricciardo out. The following lap, and the Safety Car was coming in and it was a thoroughly average restart for Bottas, and the door was open for Hamilton. Further back it was Sainz all over Leclerc, pushing hard to gain an advantage over the Ferrari. Vettel had a spin then, attacking Sainz after he was rebuffed, painfully on brand after an ill though out look up the inside and once again the inside of the apex claimed him. Sainz claimed a touch from the Ferrari, but regardless it was an amateur effort at best. Ahhh on replay it was clear he got the braking all wrong into the turn and was lucky to keep from ending Sainz' race.

All this distracted from the fact that Norris was indeed able to defend from Perez, who had the tyre advantage. But not for long as lap 34 Perez rode his tyre advantage neatly around Norris and left him in the clutches of a surging Leclerc. At the front, it was Mercedes stage managing their drivers, as first, they rebuffed Hamilton's call for the Mediums, ala Perez, and then after he requested to use more engine, he was told that they would be turning down the engine mode soon. This did not please Hamilton, who was going to take advantage of whatever tools he had and he continued to rock around well inside DRS on Bottas and running fastest laps as he pursued the first win of the season.

The next chase was Perez, in the Racing Point, doing his best to haul in Albon, 5 seconds up the road while his Medium tyres were still in good shape. Ocon, now in the top 10, was in DRS on Kvyat and as lap 39 rolled on, it was a train behind the Alpha Tauri driver. Norris continued to hold at 1.5 seconds ahead of Leclerc as Mercedes was quick to clarify, that their drivers were able to fight, but would do so at reduced engine modes. Perez was making no inroads into Albon as Bottas was told to urgently chassis default, and both Mercs were warned to stay off the kerbs...

Lap 43 and it was a renewed push from Lewis inside half a second oh so close into Turn 4 but Valterri eeking ahead. Told to mind the kerbs due to sensor issues, Lewis replied that it was not him using lots of kerb. Well, looking further back, Russell was properly on pace and maybe looking at a point if things fell his way. Lap 45 and Hamilton had let the gap go, back to 1.5 seconds as it was the gearbox sensor that was causing all the trouble. Bottas being told they were in worse shape than Hamilton's car and in all the radio craziness, Perez, who looked to have been done, had quietly closed the gap to Albon, and was 2.2 seconds back of the sole remaining Red Bull.

Lap 50 and Russell was the next one done, as Grosjean again found himself on the escape road and the Williams pulled off at Turn 4 and once again, the Safety Car was called into service... So a 12ish lap sprint to the end and Albon was first into the pits and out with a set of Softs. Leclerc was onto the Mediums whilst Perez chose track position.... IDK but that may have been a strategic miscue, unless Racing Point were out of Softs.

And considering the gaps collapsed by the Safety Car, the Mercs having to stay off the kerbs due to gearbox issues and suddenly the race was on. Sainz stopped a lap late for a set of Mediums and dropped to P9, behind Ocon and Gasly who stayed out. Kvyat was in for a set of Softs and down to P11 and oh my, life was getting busy in the strategy department.

And they were off, Bottas doing just enough to stay ahead of Hamilton as Albon was all over the gearbox of Perez but into Turn 3 Sergio locked it up and by Albon went by as the wheels, well wheel, of Raikkonen came off (he'd been in for a set of Softs) and sent him right into the wall as he headed down the main straight. On replay, the tyre came off between the last 2 turns and there was no tether visible, indicating the wheel was never properly attached. Scary stuff for Vettel, directly behind, and then the only issue was whether Albon was by Perez before the Safety Car was deployed as just 13 cars remained. Wow... bit of rust after all as with 7 retirements it was a match for last year's Hockenheim in terms of retirements. More fiddling with the order as Sainz was now wondering if he had completed his overtake of Ocon before the Safety Car was out and the FIA was duly being consulted. Lap 59 and an 11 lap sprint loomed. The entire field had been through the pits with the latest Safety Car as Albon was told he had earned the position and swapped with Perez just before the Safety Car was in.

Restart and Albon was all over Hamilton. Into Turn 4 and as Hamilton had taken the inside, with Albon going round the outside and it was Hamilton, just a bit wide and putting Albon into the gravel trap, tapping his right rear as Albon was all but done with the move. On replay it very much looked that it was on Hamilton and the incident was spirited away to the stewards even as Albon had been demoted to the end of the race...

Hamilton was told he had the gearbox issue as well and the fight was now Norris v Perez until Leclerc took advantage of a minor lockup by Norris and whisked by, a sniff of the podium all that was necessary for the Monagasque to drag his Ferrari forward with remarkable speed, given their odious quali pace.

Lap 65 and Hamilton was over 2 seconds back. Leclerc made very short work of Perez and then word came down, 5 second penalty for Hamilton which put him net P6 on the road. And then Perez got dinged for speeding in the pitlane, another 5 second penalty as Albon's PU gave up the ghost, luckily able to make the pitlane with his issue. Lap 69 and Norris smashed by Perez, with Norris complaining that Perez turned in on him, as there was contact as the pass was made. Oh no, and then it was the Alpha Tauri of Kvyat off with a puncture, thankfully in a safe place so no Safety Car.

And it was onto the final lap, and as they crossed the line, it was Bottas, Hamilton and Leclerc, followed by Norris and Sainz. And with the 5 second penalty applied, it was Norris, by a mere 0.2 seconds, promoted to P3 and a podium for McLaren, along with another point for fastest lap. Whooo. That's a lot to umpack but here we go.

Not the best of days for Mercedes, despite the race win, as with Kallenius, the big boss in attendance, not only did they have major reliability issues, but only 66% of their engines were able to complete a race distance, even though it was presumably a sensor issue and perhaps solvable for next week's effort. Add in the clumsy penalty for Hamilton and it would be a stretch to call the day a success for the Silver Arrows, though no doubt Bottas appreciated his lead in the WDC over his nearest rival just that little extra bit. Remarkable result for Ferrari, well, Leclerc, given all of their issues, however with only 11 finishers, it was hard to deny a stupid amount of luck was necessary in order for them to have a podium finish. The real star of the show, however, had to be McLaren, with a well earned podium for Norris, who, not only had to make the pass on Perez but also had to run the fastest lap of the race. And with Sainz in P5 it was a huge boost in the WCC, as with Stroll out of the race Macca is now sitting pretty on a nice lead, never mind having given both their drivers podiums in the last year. Norris also the 3rd youngest podium finisher, so there's that, too...

Lot's of 50/50 results with Gasly P7, but Alpha Tauri losing Kvyat in the very last laps of the race, and of course, Vettel finishing P10 after his error is cold comfort at best, and perhaps makes Ferrari's move look a bit more justified, unfortunately for the 4 time world champion. Renault were cheered by the race pace of Ocon, but Ricciardo's retirement and Ocon's poor quali kept the weekend from being celebrated, though at least they walked away with some points in their inaugural effort. Williams losing Russell hurt, though Latifi did hang on for a P11. Unattached wheel for Alfa Romeo but a P9 for Giovinazzi continued the string of glass half full/empty results...

Full moan for Red Bull, losing Verstappen early and Albon late, and looking likely to win the race. Racing Point also fully failed to convert their promise, with the speeding penalty for Perez salt in the proverbial wound after Stroll's retirement, though P6 is hardly chopped liver, relative to the podium they might have had it had to have left a bitter taste. HAAS as well, with massive brake issues ruining their day, couldn't be happy with a double retirement after an early and reasonable showing for Magnussen...
The good news is redemption lies less than a week away for all the afflicted and with dubious reliability across the board, we are unlikely to witness a carbon copy of this race...


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