The hills are alive with the sound of … roaring F1 cars racing through the Styrian mountains. For the first time in F1 history races were held on consecutive weekends at the same racetrack. To provide a differentiator the second Austrian GP on Sunday gave its name to the local area that is, in my opinion, the most picturesque on the circuit.
Some of the most desperate action came off the track as Sebastien Vettel tried his hardest to woo Red Bull for a seat in their car next season. Max Verstappen was clearly not impressed, stating how happy the team are with Alex Albon, who races under the flag of Thailand, while Helmut Marko, team advisor pointed out to the watching media that the owning company is itself majority Thai owned!
Despite it being the same venue, variations in track condition, temperature and wind made it a different race. As if proof were needed, near-monsoon conditions in qualifying mixed up the starting grid. It also allowed Lewis Hamilton to demonstrate his exceptional driving ability by beating Max Verstappen into second by a margin exceeding 1.2 seconds, a performance team principle Toto Woolf likened to ‘seeing a unicorn’!
Comfortably leading up at the front, Hamilton was able to blast away his woes from last weekend with a commanding victory from pole to flag (the 51st of his career). In becoming the first ever winner (and probably only) of the Styrian GP, he has now won a race in every one of his 14 years racing in F1.
Mercedes solved the gearbox problems that had caused them to slow last week. Inevitably, Bottas finished second enabling the team to secure their first 1-2 in Austria since 2015, although not without a tremendous battle with the Dutchman towards the end.
Having lost position Verstappen changed for fresh rubber in an attempt to secure the bonus point for the fastest lap, although Sainz had the same plan! His lap record meant that Bahrain-backed McLaren had secured the fastest lap at both of the first two races of the season and would have been some small consolation for a 9th place finish.
Drive of the day was awarded to Sergio Perez for finishing 6th having started in 17th on the grid, although yet again McLaren’s Lando Norris demonstrated his talent, most remarkably, for the second week running, in the 71st and final lap of the race.
Firstly, he took advantage of a tussle between Ricciardo and Stroll to ease past the “honey badger” before making strudel out of Stroll. Remarkably the Racing Point of Perez was limping home ahead of him thanks to a “coming together” with Albon at the same point as Hamilton last week. He proved no match allowing Norris to claim fifth and stay third overall in the championship standings and move McLaren to second in the constructors! A photo on the line was required to retain Perez’s position over his teammate.
With 15 of the 20 drivers having secured points, F1 moves to Hungary, which has much stricter corona rules. Charles Leclerc must pay heed having been warned for a breach in returning to Monaco between the first two races.
The Hungaroring places greater emphasis on downforce, which has been a recent strength of the Mercedes. Last year saw them win a classic strategic battle over Red Bull, although it’s unlikely to be as close this year.
Ferrari’s poor performance meant that they rushed through upgrades to the front wing and floor. Team boss Mattio Binotto warned that these were no “magic bullet” and so it proved, although the collision between their drivers on the first lap in Austria meant they were unable to gain much data. Their season is already being written-off by some. However, over the winter tests they did focus on sticking their machine to the floor and so next week will be an intriguing test. GPS data in Austria suggests they are as quick as many through the corners.
Ferrari engines are slower on the straights than last year, which many believe is a result of rule clarifications that eliminated several improvements. Several teams privately questioned why there were no official sanctions imposed; the FIA instead chose to reach “an agreement”. Surely there needs to be greater transparency?
Mercedes look to have a clear advantage, followed by Red Bull, although Albon has shown some inconsistency, understandable in his rookie year. Behind them an intriguing scrap is developing. Currently Ferrari is in this mix, along with McLaren, Renault and Racing Point.
There is some fantastic racing, demonstrating the attraction of narrowing the performance spread of the field. With teams so close that variations in tyre wear and strategy making such a big difference, pressure will tell and that is a wonderful advertisement for the sport.
One of the best indicators of driver performance is said to be how they compare to their teammate. Given the driver transfers for next season that have already occurred there are also racers showing new teams they made the right decision. That showed with some monumental battles behind the leaders.
In addition to Vettel and Leclerc (who also catastrophically collided in Brazil last season), Ricciardo and Ocon ran close too often, which ultimately cost the Australian (who will replace Sainz at McLaren) track position at the end. There are others further down the grid too.
One change observers hope they do make in Hungary is to the robot that presented Hamilton with his trophy. At a time when health risks are to be carefully managed the concept is to be applauded. However, in a race series that thrives on innovation and cutting edge technology the “robot” looked like a section of the podium that was sliding down the hill.
A final alteration that McLaren should also request is for the 70 lap race to be extended by one – for Norris’s sake!
Norris, speaking to reporters after the race, said: "I'm still third? I'm retiring!
"An awesome first two weekends. We didn't dream it would go this well so we're now looking forward to next weekend."