After what was, by their incredibly high standards, a disastrous Canadian grand prix, Mercedes were looking to reassert their authority in Austria. The omens weren’t all that positive, however. Having been beaten by Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo in Montreal they now had to visit the Milton Keynes based team’s ‘home’ track; the old A1 ring which, under the new ownership of Dietrich Mateschitz has now been renamed the Red Bull Ring.
Add to that the fact that Mercedes didn’t have qualifying their own way and fans could have been forgiven for thinking that their domination might have been on the slide. For the first time this season Mercedes were not on pole position. Indeed, neither championship leader Nico Rosberg nor his team-mate Lewis Hamilton were even on the front row following Saturday qualifying. Instead, it was Williams who locked out the front row of the grid. Rosberg at least managed third, but Hamilton had a disaster, failing to set a time after making two mistakes in Q3 and starting down in ninth place, despite looking like he had the ultimate pace.
Going into the race it was clear that Mercedes were not going to have things all their own way. The Williams cars, using the Mercedes power units, were extremely fast in a straight line. On a track that is all about straight-line speed passing them would be a challenge, and with Hamilton starting in the middle of the pack his chances didn’t look all that promising.
Hamilton soon put his starting disadvantage behind him, though. The Briton made a lightning start and made up a hatful of positions on the opening lap. By the time that he overtook Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari into turn eight he was fourth, just a place behind Rosberg. The German, despite passing Valtteri Bottas off the line was immediately re-passed by the Finn on the run down to turn two, again highlighting the straight-line speed advantage of the Martini liveried Williams cars.
As we have seen so often in modern formula 1 the race hinged on the pit stops. Williams didn’t seem to make the right calls, allowing Mercedes to gain an advantage by stopping first and not reacting to those pit stops immediately. Rosberg was able to jump ahead of both Williams at the first stop and while Hamilton only managed to pass pole-sitter Felipe Massa, he was able to get the job done on Bottas at the second round of pit stops as Williams again fell victim to the undercut.
While Hamilton secured the advantage over the Williams cars through the pit stops, though, he lost out badly to his team-mate. The 2008 world drivers’ champion’s pit stops were a total of 1.9 seconds slower than Rosberg’s. Considering that Rosberg won the race by exactly 1.9 seconds, and that Hamilton backed off in the last couple of corners after being just half a second behind his team-mate earlier on the final lap, those slower pit stops proved to be the difference between a win and second place.
Truth be told, Hamilton was the faster of the two Mercedes drivers this weekend. Despite his stunning start to the race, he was never able to recover from the mistakes in the final part of qualifying, though. Those mistakes ultimately cost him the pole position he almost certainly would have secured. He was a huge four tenths of a second faster than Bottas after two sectors of his first run, and given that Massa only beat his team-mate’s time by under a tenth of a second you can see for yourself who had the true pace.
Instead, of pole and a likely victory Hamilton instead had to watch his team-mate win and extend his lead in the world drivers’ championship to 29 points; the biggest that it’s been all season. Even a win for Hamilton at his home race in two week’s time and a first DNF of the season for Rosberg would not be enough for the former to overhaul the latter in the standings. Hamilton certainly has his work cut out for him.
Perhaps not as much as Red Bull Racing, however. The world constructors’ champions headed to their home race on a high after Ricciardo’s opportunistic win in Canada, but they were quite simply nowhere in Austria. Sebastian Vettel didn’t even make it into the pole position shoot out in qualifying, and although Ricciardo did, he could only manage fifth on the grid, nearly three-quarters of a second slower than Massa’s pace-setting Williams.
Things went from bad to worse for the Austrian owned team in the race. Vettel, starting down in 12th place, suddenly slowed on the opening lap reporting to his team on the radio that he “lost drive”. Although the German was able to get back up to speed again, he lost a lap. Vettel continued, but then retired his car on lap 35 saying “We stopped because we wanted to save some mileage. We were hoping to get a safety car but it didn’t happen and there is no point continuing when you are a lap behind…I just hope Daniel [Ricciardo] can keep moving through the field and get some points.”
As it happened, Ricciardo did score points, but only a paltry four after finishing eighth thanks to a stunning last lap move on the Force India of Nico Hulkenberg. The highly-rated German is being outshone by his team-mate Sergio Perez at the moment. Despite starting 16th thanks to a five place grid penalty for his collision with Massa at the last race, Perez showed great pace and led the race at one point after running a very long first stint of the race on the harder prime tyres. The Mexican eventually finished sixth to Hulkenberg’s ninth, but still trails his team-mate by just over 30 championship points.
There doesn’t seem to be any catching the Mercedes cars, though. Yes, Bottas finished just 8.1 seconds behind Rosberg in his Williams, but I don’t think that’s truly representative of the actual speed of Mercedes and Williams. Don’t forget that both Mercedes cars were held up by the Williams cars at various stages of the race. Had the Silver Arrows showed their true pace in qualifying, the gap to the rest may well have been a mammoth one.
As it was, Mercedes will be happy with a smaller margin of victory. They have reasserted themselves at the front of the pack, and with Red Bull faltering and Mercedes engines occupying the first four positions in Spielberg, and seven of the top ten places, the team are justifying the investment of the board in Stuttgart.