Lewis Hamilton delivered notice with pole position for the Styrian Grand Prix that he remains a talent that must be savoured. In atrocious conditions in Austria this was vintage Hamilton. Rain is Formula One’s great equaliser, putting a driver’s touch and feel at a premium and the world champion claimed the top spot with what he described as an almost perfect lap.
As qualifying took place at the Red Bull Ring, where two drivers were investigated for breaching Covid-19 protocols last week, the Hungarian government issued a warning, threatening to imprison or impose a €15,000 fine on any personnel from the UK not obeying the restrictions in place for next week’s race in Budapest.
After the Austrian GP Valtteri Bottas and Charles Leclerc were investigated by the FIA for potentially breaking the sport’s Covid-19 protocols when they returned to their homes in Monaco.
Bottas remained in his social bubble and was cleared but Leclerc was given a warning. Similar actions will not be tolerated in Hungary. All UK personnel and anyone from non-EU countries must stay at the track or in their accommodation at all times. Seven of the F1 teams are UK-based.
Back on the track, looming grey clouds, heavy rain and thunderstorms had bombarded the circuit almost all morning and qualifying was in doubt and it began 45 minutes late. When conditions were at their worst in the final session, Hamilton shrugged off the deluge.
Max Verstappen set the initial pace in Q3 for Red Bull but Hamilton swiftly matched and bettered him as did his Mercedes teammate, Bottas. The three were trading places as the tyres warmed, the grip improved and the clock counted down.
It was gripping stuff but Hamilton, as so often in the past, had the finest of touches. His final lap of 1m 19.273sec was sublime in the circumstances, as Verstappen proved how close to the edge they were driving, losing the back of his car through the final corner. Hamilton finished more than a full second in front of Verstappen in second. Bottas, fourth in an identical Mercedes, was almost a second and a half back from his teammate.
Ferrari endured another poor qualifying with Sebastian Vettel scraping in to Q3 and finishing in 10th, while Leclerc was eliminated in Q2 in 11th and was then given a three place grid penalty for impeding Daniil Kvyat and will start from 14th. Carlos Sainz was very impressive in third for McLaren and his teammate, Lando Norris, was in sixth, but will take a three-place grid penalty for overtaking under yellow flags in practice.
Alexander Albon was in seventh for Red Bull. Renault’s Esteban Ocon was in fifth with his teammate Daniel Ricciardo in ninth. AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly was in eighth.
George Russell did superbly for Williams to put his car in Q2, the first time the team have featured in it since 2018. He finished in 12th place. Lance Stroll was in 13th for Racing Point in front of the AlphaTauri of Kvyat and the Haas of Kevin Magnussen.
The Alfa Romeos of Kimi Räikkönen and Antonio Giovinazzi went out in 16th and 19th. Sergio Pérez was in 17th for Racing Point in front of the Williams of Nicholas Latifi. Romain Grosjean did not set a time for Haas in 20th.
Hamilton rightly compared it to one of his other virtuoso performances in the wet. “That last lap was as close to perfect as I could get it in those conditions,” he said. “It takes me back to times like Silverstone 2008 when you are at one with the car and not fazed at all, where you have to be dynamic with your driving style from corner to corner.”
There was a suggestion Hamilton, a six-times world champion, is aware that at times he is operating on a higher plane than his rivals. “It’s difficult for an athlete to explain why they are good at something,” he said. “I know how good I am.
“That is a belief you have to have inside, that is the same for every athlete. It’s down to focus, to how you study the track, your innate ability to be dynamic and manage the trickiest of conditions with the pressure on you. That is what the best athletes in the world do.”
The heavy rain meant there was no running in the final practice session and when qualifying began all the drivers went out on full wet tyres, with Hamilton setting the best time in both Q1 and Q2. Dry conditions are expected for Sunday’s race.