Qualifying had a familiar air as Formula One got back on track for the opening race of the delayed season at the Austrian Grand Prix. Mercedes locked out the front row, with Valtteri Bottas edging out his team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, to pole.
Britain’s reigning world champion was happy with his performance but less so with the lack of a united front in support of the anti-racism cause he has been vigorously pursuing of late. After qualifying, Hamilton revealed his disappointment at what he described as “complicit silence” from some of his fellow drivers.
Hamilton has been vocal and active in his support of Black Lives Matter and discussion has raged at the Red Bull Ring over whether drivers will take the knee on the grid before the race.
Some may choose to do so, although it is understood there are misgivings about making the gesture because of the political nature of the movement. After a meeting of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association on Friday it was agreed all 20 would wear “End Racism” t-shirts, but Hamilton revealed he had hoped more drivers would speak out.
“In the meeting I said thank you to those who have said something on social media because they have a great voice, a great platform and encouraging the others that haven’t to say something,” he said. “I described the scenario that silence is generally complicit. There still is some silence in some cases. But it is part of a dialogue of people trying to understand. There are still people who don’t fully understand what is happening and the reasons for these protests.”
Hamilton insisted he had not made any decision on whether he would take the knee but when asked if the grid were united behind him he made plain his hope for more than just gestures from his fellow drivers. “We know there is an issue there,” he said. “We don’t need an experience like tomorrow to prove there is an issue.”
Bottas took pole with a mighty run in F1’s first competitive session of 2020, behind closed doors. In Q3, Bottas strung together a beautiful lap of 1min 02.939sec, but he went wide into the gravel on his second quick run. His first was enough, however. 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. He has been summoned to the stewards over an alleged failure to slow for yellow flags and for leaving the track at Turn 10.
Max Verstappen was in third for Red Bull and may yet be able to upset the Mercedes as he will be only driver to start on the medium tyres. 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 seventh place on the grid.
Mercedes have made an ominously strong start. 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 past two meetings. Mercedes had run with their innovative dual-axis steering (DAS) system after Red Bull’s protest on Friday night was rejected by the FIA in the early hours of Saturday.
Ferrari, in contrast, faced a struggle in Austria from the off. The team admitted earlier this week that they had taken the wrong direction with their aero design and have had to revaluate it during the lockdown. Leclerc’s disbelief at their performance was palpable and with the season already truncated they have precious little time to close the gap. Upgrades will not be available until the third round in Hungary. That they were so far off the pace will be a shock and indicative of how far they have to go.
For F1, their efforts be 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 they had carried out 4,032 tests on drivers, team members and personnel between Friday 26 June and Thursday 2 July and had zero positive results.
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.
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 Romeo’s of Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Raikkonen. Kevin Magnussen was in 16th for Haas with the second Williams of Nicholas Latifi in 20th.