After the chaos and controversy of Baku, the 2017 Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring may have felt like a damp squib. But don’t be fooled by a mid-race slump, this year’s race in Spielberg may prove to be a pivotal chapter in the 2017 story…
In what must have felt like a case of déjà vu, Valtteri Bottas fended off a late-race charge from Sebastian Vettel to score his second career victory in identical style to his first, back in the Russian Grand Prix earlier this year.
In claiming the victory, does 2017 have a third title contender in Bottas? Right now, you’d have to say yes.
The Finn has come under plenty of pressure this year, his first with the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team, as he sets out to prove himself against Formula One’s elite. But it was his lightning start in Austria that came under the most scrutiny as many, not least Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo, considered Bottas’s getaway illegal.
So, was it a jump-start or simply the perfect launch? Well, a bit of both, it would seem; the pole-position man’s launch was investigated by race stewards but he was ultimately cleared of jumping the start because any movement his car made before the lights went out was within tolerance limits allowed.
Cue mass confusion from fans on social media with television footage widely circulated online suggesting Bottas’s front wheels were moving while the lights were on.
The FIA has explained, however, that some movement before the lights go out is allowed because of the occasional need for drivers to make adjustments to their clutch in the seconds before the start.
“In today’s instance, Valtteri Bottas did not exceed this (very small) limit before the start was given,” a spokesman told Autosport.
“Simply put: he made an exceptionally accurate and fortuitous judgement call, anticipating the moment the lights went out with great precision. Any movement prior to the moment the lights went out was within the tolerances allowed.”
So there you have it, Bottas’s start was perfectly legal. But the question mark over it may have been the reason behind Vettel’s apparent lack of pace when compared to the Finn during the opening stages.
Even after the race, Vettel suggested Bottas jumped the gun and perhaps anticipating a penalty for Bottas led to Vettel not pressing too hard during the opening race stint, allowing Bottas to amass a substantial lead.
Severely blistered tyres on the Mercedes allowed Vettel to close to within 0.7seconds of Bottas come the end of the race to again raise questions over just who has the best car in race trim; Scuderia Ferrari or Mercedes. We’re yet to see a definitive answer that lasts longer than a handful of laps.
Vettel extends his lead in the world title race to 20 points and Bottas closes to with 15 of Lewis Hamilton as the three-time champ’s season appears to…not unravel but certainly fray at the edges somewhat.
The headrest failure in Azerbaijan cost Hamilton a certain victory and a gearbox change in Austria – resulting in a 5-place grid penalty – cost him any chance of victory. Worse still for the Brit, an on-form Daniel Ricciardo kept him off the podium.
But a 20-point deficit with 11 races to go is by no means a disaster. The tricky situation comes as Bottas emerges as a title contender in his own right and will show less and less willingness to aid Hamilton’s cause, a contrasting situation to Ferrari who showed once again in Austria that they will use Kimi Raikkonen whenever possible to aid Vettel’s title chances.
Further afield of the intensifying title fight was once again a notable absentee from the action as Max Verstappen posted his fifth DNF from the last seven races, much to the dismay of the legion of Dutch fans who made their way to the Austrian hills.
Ultimately, a poor start put him in a position to be collected in the turn 1 clash between the Scuderia Toro Rosso of the at-fault Daniil Kvyat and the McLaren-Honda of Fernando Alonso. A broken bearing within the clutch then put the final nail in the coffin of Verstappen’s race.
The real loser in Austria – and Bahrain, Spain, Canada and Azerbaijan – when it comes to Verstappen’s multitude of retirements is surely us fans. We know how much excitement the young Dutchman can provide from behind the wheel of an F1 car, but it’s no good if that car is sat in the garage going nowhere. Verstappen’s ill fortune can’t last much longer, can it?
Elsewhere, there was a victory in ‘Grand Prix 2’ for the Haas F1 Team as Romain Grosjean maintained his sixth place from the start of the race to the finish, and more good points for Sahara Force India whose drivers, Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, managed to avoid crashing into each other this time. But it was the race-day comeback of Williams Martini Racing that impressed in the mid-field.
Off the back of a stunning podium in Baku, Williams slumped in qualifying in Austria, managing a dismal penultimate row lock out. Come Sunday however, both Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll avoided the turn one commotion, ran a steady and relatively uneventful race to claim the final two spots in the points come the checkered flag.
Williams go to their home event next, the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, scene of the team’s first ever victory, and in their 40th anniversary year, how much would they love a repeat of Stroll’s podium in Azerbaijan? It’s a big ask and the team would have to overcome their recent, inconsistent qualifying woes as well as get the better of their mid-field rivals.
More than Williams though, perhaps more than anyone, one driver will be looking to impress at Silverstone following encouraging signs in Austria. Jolyon Palmer altered his driving style in Spielberg, opting to drive “towards more how Nico [Hulkenberg]’s driving”, and it proved somewhat successful with the Brit finishing a season’s best 11th, some 25-seconds ahead of his team-mate.
Can Palmer finally break through and score his first points of the season next time out? Who knows? At Silverstone, anything can happen. One thing that is certain is that the battle at the front between main title rivals Vettel, Hamilton and Bottas will be as hot as the July weather.