Valtteri Bottas took pole for the Austrian Grand Prix with a dominant lap of the Red Bull Ring in Formula One’s first qualifying session of the season. Finally going racing, albeit behind closed doors, Bottas launched 2020 with a mighty run in his Mercedes, beating his teammate Lewis Hamilton into second. Max Verstappen was in third for Red Bull but Ferrari were left floundering at a circuit where Charles Leclerc took pole last year. Sebastian Vettel was knocked out in Q2 in 11th and Leclerc managed only seventh.
On the first hot runs in Q3 Bottas strung together a beautiful lap with a time of 1min 02.939sec but he went wide into the gravel on his second quick run. His first was enough, however, as he had pushed perfectly to the edge of the kerb at turn one and on the final double right-hander swept through with inch-perfect precision. Hamilton charged but was able to close only to within one-hundredth of a second on his final hot lap.
Verstappen was quickest in the first session, with Bottas in front in Q2. Lando Norris was an impressive fourth for McLaren and Alexander Albon took fifth for Red Bull. Racing Point’s car, modelled on last year’s Mercedes, proved quick as expected, with Sergio Pérez in sixth and Lance Stroll in ninth. Carlos Sainz was eighth for McLaren with Daniel Ricciardo in 10th for Renault.
Bottas’s 12th career pole position is his third at the Austrian Grand Prix, where he won in 2017. His last pole was at the US GP last year, which he converted to a victory. The Finn, whose contract is yet to be renewed, has to start strongly if he is to challenge Hamilton.
With F1 having most recently raced last December in Abu Dhabi, there was concern drivers would prove a little ring-rusty. Bottas however had clearly come up to speed with aplomb.
It was an ominously strong start for Mercedes. The team have previously struggled in the altitude and high temperatures of the short, tight circuit in the Styrian mountains, with Verstappen winning at the last two meetings. That Mercedes had the advantage here suggests there is even more to come when they reach Silverstone, Barcelona, Monza and Spa.
Ferrari faced a struggle from the off. The team admitted earlier this week that they had taken the wrong direction with their aerodynamic design and have had to revaluate it during the lockdown. Changes, however, will not be available until the third round in Hungary. Leclerc acknowledged they would initially be struggling more than last year, when they were soundly beaten by Mercedes. That they were so far off the pace will be a shock, however, and indicative of how far they have to go.
Mercedes were able to run with their innovative dual-axis steering (DAS) system after a protest on Friday night by Red Bull was rejected by the FIA in the early hours of Saturday morning. The system enables drivers to push the steering wheel forward or back to manually adjust the toe-angle of the front wheels, to improve cornering and straight performance through tyre temperature particularly on out laps.
Mercedes had been on top all weekend, with Hamilton and Bottas taking a one-two in all three practice sessions. Hamilton was three-tenths up on Verstappen in final practice on Saturday. Before practice the world champion had dismissed reports that he had demanded a £40m salary as part of his contract negotiations for 2021 and that Mercedes had rejected it, offering only £20m. “So the media keep writing about contract and me making demands but I haven’t even spoken with Toto [Wolff] about it yet,” he said on Instagram. “No demands, the conversation hasn’t even begun. So please stop making shit up.”
A win is far from guaranteed but Bottas will be confident that he will prove to be even quicker in race pace. Long runs in practice suggested that once more Mercedes have the better car for the Sunday. If he can lead from the front of the grid he will be in every position to dictate the race to the flag.
Red Bull have enjoyed an advantage at their home circuit in the past and had looked to be the closest challengers to Mercedes in testing and practice. Their Honda engine has now narrowed the gap to their rivals such that Verstappen was able to push Hamilton and Bottas.
Romain Grosjean was in 15th for Haas, with AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly and Daniil Kvyat in 12th and 13th, in front of the Renault of Esteban Ocon.
The Williams of George Russell showed positive steps forward. Russell claimed 17th in front of the Alfa Romeos of Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Räikkönen. Kevin Magnussen was in 16th for Haas, with the second Williams of Nicholas Latifi in 20th.
The 20 drivers on the grid will wear T-shirts saying “End Racism” before the race on Sunday. After a meeting of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association they agreed to show unanimous support for anti-racism and diversity in motorsport. Some may choose additionally to take the knee, although it is understood some drivers have misgivings about making the gesture because of the political nature of the Black Lives Matter movement.
For F1, its efforts to go racing again safely during the coronavirus pandemic have thus far proved a success. They instituted a comprehensive Covid-19 testing regime and an enclosed biosphere at the circuit. On Saturday they announced that they had tested 4,032 drivers, team members and personnel between Friday 26 June and Thursday 2 July and had zero positive results.