Saturday, June 19, 2021
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Mercedes miles ahead in Austria where they have struggled in past | Giles Richards

Mercedes march on

Valtteri Bottas’s win in Austria might have been nail-biting for the team, given they feared his car was very close to a shutdown because of a gearbox sensor problem, but after the weekend as a whole Mercedes emerged ominously strong. Their car is comfortably once more at the front of the field, with their form bearing the hallmarks of one of those relentless Metallica riffs that churns on and on and on. Half a second up in qualifying their nearest competitor, Red Bull, had to opt for an alternate tyre strategy just to give Max Verstappen a shot in the race. Mercedes’ engine power on the straights was three-tenths up on last year and the chassis is quick and balanced. An incident-packed race only helped camouflage what is once more the pick of the field by some margin. Worryingly for the opposition, all this on a circuit where Mercedes have struggled in recent years.

Ferrari flounder

IFerrari were flattered by the drama that helped Charles Leclerc secured second place. It was a mighty drive from seventh on the grid and his pace, competitive instinct and determination over the final 15 laps once more confirmed just how good he can be. But Ferrari’s car is far from podium material. They have admitted taking the wrong direction with aero – a fault they hope to rectify with upgrades in Hungary – but there will be no magic bullet. They have gone for more downforce and Leclerc said the car is better through the corners but with that has come drag, allied to a power deficit. The fifth fastest team in qualifying, Leclerc was nine-tenths down on his own pole time from last year. The team principal, Mattia Binotto, admitted Ferrari were losing seven-tenths on the straights on power, and aero adjustments are not going to bridge that gap.

F1 on road to change

Astonishing as it may seem, Lewis Hamilton was attracting abuse and criticism for his public stand in support of Black Lives Matter and diversity in F1 throughout the week in Austria. Some, it seems, still object to the sport’s only black driver having an opinion on racism, insisting on the childish, nonsensical and intellectually bankrupt premise that politics has no place in sport. Hamilton’s recent anti-racist stance kick-started F1 to make public avowals of its commitments to ending racism and its efforts to improve diversity. There was much debate in Austria over whether drivers would take a knee. Hamilton and 13 others did; six did not. All wore anti-racist T-shirts. Hamilton denied media reports he was demanding drivers take a knee and stressed it was a personal choice for them but nonetheless all did support the message, just as F1 disavowed Bernie Ecclestone’s recent ill-thought through comments on race. The sport was rightly as one on this.

Norris steps up

An image that perhaps defines F1’s new reality was that of Lando Norris in tears after his first ever podium finish but still standing apart from his team as they prepared for their photograph. That they would have been raising him aloft pre-pandemic is assured. Norris qualified and drove a magnificent race – he put McLaren in fourth on the grid and then produced a sterling run to stay in the mix of the very competitive leading midfield runners. His final laps were exceptional. He muscled aggressively past Sergio Pérez, doubtless with a smile after being so angry with himself at not defending hard enough and losing a place against the Mexican on the final lap of the final race last season. Norris’s last-lap charge after Hamilton, when he took eight-tenths out of the world champion to close to under two-tenths – the gap he needed to secure third – was the eyes-on-stalks commitment the sport is clamouring for.

Going Covid clear

With the season battered by coronavirus there were no guarantees that racing would begin at all. F1 had to plan a complex and difficult operational system just toput a race on safely. In Austria they proved to have got it right to such an extent that governments considering giving permission for future races will be taking note. The closed biosphere system of teams in bubbles and bubbles of personnel within them, the masks, social distancing and a rigorous test programme ensured there were no positive cases from over 4,000 tests administered by Saturday. Both the FIA and F1 made what had appeared untenable three months ago function, and function well. Apart from the absence of fans, the weekend went ahead as smoothly as it might have done pre-pandemic. It has not been easy or cheap but as a global sport F1 may consider itself a role model for others looking to follow suit.

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