Mercedes may have proved they have the edge over Ferrari for Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix but for the first time this season it was Valtteri Bottas who steered them to pole. His two flawless laps could not be matched by his championship-leading teammate, Lewis Hamilton, who was second, nor by Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel in third. However, crucially, the German’s hopes were dealt a further blow when he was given a three-place grid penalty after qualifying.
Bottas absolutely deserved the pole and Hamilton accepted he had been well beaten at the Red Bull Ring but had earlier also issued another strident critique of the state of Formula One.
Qualifying in Spielberg was closely contested at the sharp end, Hamilton ultimately just less than two‑hundredths of a second back from his teammate, with both Mercedes drivers three-tenths up on Vettel, with Kimi Räikkönen in the other Ferrari in fourth. But Vettel, who trails Hamilton by 14 points, was adjudged to have impeded Renault’s Carlos Sainz during Q2 and was subsequently penalised by the stewards. He will start from sixth. It is a potentially major setback given that overtaking is expected to be difficult at the Red Bull Ring, although Ferrari have the right to appeal.
Vettel insisted it had not been deliberate. “I couldn’t see him,” he said. “I wasn’t told on the radio, so I can only apologise to him. Obviously, there was no intention.” The stewards, however, concluded that regardless of being unaware of Sainz, Vettel “should not have been so slow on the racing line during a slowdown lap”.
Bottas, meanwhile, was jubilant. “I knew I could improve on the first run and I managed to find it. Apparently I needed it,” he said. “I just need a good clean start; no need to be a hero into turn one. I can guarantee I am more hungry for the win than anyone on the grid.”
The team need Bottas to execute an error-free race, claim his first victory of the season and ensure he denies Ferrari the maximum number of points, especially with Vettel now under the cosh from the start. After heartbreak in Baku, when a puncture denied him the win in the final laps, and being hit by Vettel at the last round in France, the Finn has come back strongly.
Hamilton conceded he could not match him. “Congratulations to Valtteri, he did a fantastic job and ultimately he deserved the pole,” he said. “I made a mistake on the first run and when you don’t have your first lap as a banker you’re kind of building from scratch for the second one.”
Hamilton also told the Spanish newspaper AS that, off the track, fundamental problems in F1 remain and that he hoped they would be addressed when the new contract with the teams is agreed for 2021. “I hope that when they do the new concorde agreement that it’s better for the young teams so they can have a better platform for younger drivers,” he said. “It shouldn’t just be wealthy drivers coming through. It’s not just Formula One; it’s all the categories. You’ve got only rich kids coming through now. It should be people with talent.”
Hamilton has previously criticised the lack of diversity within the sport and his belief that its governance needs to be addressed, feelings he reiterated. “I would probably look at the structure of Formula One and how it’s run, how it’s governed, and probably remove a lot of individuals that are in place,” he said.
“If you look at big corporate companies, if the CEO or individuals high up, executives or whatever, aren’t doing their job, they get fired. If the racing drivers are not doing their job, they go. But it’s not necessarily the same within this sport.”
Change at that level, however, comes slowly in F1, in contrast to the fearsome development fight at the front of the grid. One in which Mercedes now have a slight advantage over Ferrari. The team brought their first major aero upgrade to the Red Bull Ring and it looks to have been successful.
To have taken the initiative on a track where Ferrari might have expected to hold a slight advantage has put the Scuderia under pressure, further increased by what will be considered Vettel’s second unforced error in two races after hitting Bottas at Paul Ricard. If tiny margins are to decide the title, these are the moments that may prove crucial.
Red Bull, who had been hoping for more from the Renault engine’s new qualifying mode, were to be disappointed, with the Haas of Romain Grosjean getting in between Max Verstappen in fifth and Daniel Ricciardo in seventh. The two Red Bull drivers also had a falling-out at the team’s home race over who was running in front during the final laps, with Ricciardo dissatisfied that he had to go first across for all three runs. However it is a long-standing arrangement within the team to alternate which driver punches the hole through the air at each race and Verstappen had taken his turn in France so he refused to deviate from the procedure.
Kevin Magnussen was in eighth for Haas, with the two Renaults of Sainz and Nico Hülkenberg in ninth and 10th.