Competition restored

Following the painfully uneventful Canadian Grand Prix, the worry of the F1 fan world going into Austria was a repeat of much of the same; but the recently restored Spielberg track brought some long-awaited excitement as early as lap one and the event continued to deliver somewhat more entertainment than its 2015 predecessors.

Photo by Hoch Zwei:Corbis

Photo by Hoch Zwei:Corbis

Just like in Montreal two weeks earlier, the qualifying for Austria brought some surprising results, such as Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari not making it out of Q1, which was followed by a reshuffle of the grid due to a number of technical penalties imposed by the stewards. The two Red Bull were both hit with 10-place demotion for installing their fifth engine this season – which was nothing compared to the 25-place penalty to the McLaren drivers for a package of changes on both cars. Because there are currently only 20 competitors on the grid, and in line with their respective package changes, additional penalties were imposed: Jenson Button faced a 10sec stop-and-go in the pits, while Fernando Alonso was to serve a drive-through penalty in the first three laps of the race.

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Except, the Spaniard did not get that far, but of no fault of his car this time. Following a good start in which the two-time champion gained some grid places on the first corner, he found himself close to Raikkonen, who struggled with his Ferrari’s balance – eventually resulting in the Finn loosing control of his rear and crashing in a dramatic fashion into the McLaren who tried to overtake him on the left. The two ended up in the barriers, narrowly avoiding injury from one car pilled onto the other.

This cut short Ferrari’s expectations of Raikkonen’s recovery and a positive event in the end on a track that was said to favour the Prancing Horses’ outright pace – and more disappointment came from the performance of their second driver. Despite having qualified third Sebastian Vettel crossed the line one place behind with only 0.608sec disadvantage – but, like in Alonso’s case, the fault was not his. The ex-Red Bull champion’s routine tyre change turned into a seemingly endless process when a stuck wheel nut complicated an otherwise swift operation.

The benefactor from Vettel’s misfortune was Felipe Massa, who took his first podium of the season and joined his team-mate Valtteri Bottas, both Ferrari and Mercedes as the only podium finishers this year.

“We made the most of the slower Ferrari pitstop and took all the opportunities that came to us to achieve my first podium of the year,” Massa said after the race.

“The team were pushing me a lot throughout the final stages of the race and I was doing my best to keep Vettel behind. I knew it was not the time to make mistakes and it was amazing to bring it home.”

This was a well-needed boost for the Brazilian who has recently been consistently outperformed by Bottas as the Finn is building his reputation of a champion in the making – but in Austria the young star finished 5.

A brilliant start led to a truly deserved win for Rosberg.  Photo by Reuters.

A brilliant start led to a truly deserved win for Rosberg.
Photo by Reuters.

Another man who would like to see himself crowned with the title is Nico Rosberg, who – like Massa – seemed to be disappearing in his team-mate’s shadows, despite two recent wins: a perfect weekend in Spain and a lucky snatch in Monaco. Although looking good on Friday and Saturday in Spielberg, the German lost the spark in qualifying, even though the title defender Lewis Hamilton spun off the track in the final session, creating a perfect opportunity for Rosberg to do one better – if he hadn’t come off track himself just seconds later.

But suddenly, out of nowhere, Sunday was a different story. The German performed a faultless start off the line catching Hamilton out unawares. He then defended through the corners as the Brit pursued his lost spot; but their efforts were quickly ended with the appearance of the safety car following the Raikkonen-Alonso crash.

Once the race restarted on lap 6/7, Rosberg quickly pulled away from Hamilton to a reasonable, yet not perfectly safe distance. It was obvious the pitstop strategy was crucial in determining how the event would end; and with the race leader having the first call into the Mercedes pits, the German went for it, giving Hamilton some breathing space to try and shed a few seconds’ off Rosberg’s advantafe before his own tyre change. While Rosberg’s stop ran faultlessly, Hamilton did little to reduce the original gap on track; then he lost another 0.3sec in the pits in comparison to his team-mate’s workover time; and he completed the blotched picture by overrunning the white safety lines on the exit from the pits and earning himself a 5sec penalty, added post-race.

At this stage – any technical issues or collisions aside – it was pretty clear that the Brit had lost his Austrian win; and although tyre degradation chipped away some of Rosberg’s confidence in the last couple of laps of the race by sending vibrations into his car, sure enough the German crossed the line first to claim his second consecutive Spielberg trophy.

“After I passed Lewis I was able to control the lead quite comfortably. Towards the end I felt some vibrations on the right front tyre but I was able to manage it to the flag. Big thanks to the team for a great car and a perfect race. Now I’m really looking forward to Silverstone, where I have good memories with the pole last year and the win in 2013.”

There were other success stories from the Austrian GP 2015; Force India, for instance, claimed strong double points by seeing their drivers Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez finish 6. and 8. respectively, despite the latter’s start from 13. More notably Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo fought his way from the back of the grid to claim the last place in the top 10; his team-mate Daniil Kvyat finished not far off, in 12., which was still an acceptable result considering the Russian’s first-lap stop for a nose change following contact at the start.

It was a similar story for Red Bull’s junior outfit Toro Rosso whose young star Max Verstappen finished in 8, but the four points was all the team was getting after Carlos Sainz retired with loss of power, after gaining a 5sec penalty for speeding in the pitlane.

Hamilton and Rosberg keep trading wins and no one seems to be able to disrupt this order. Photo by Mercedes AMG Petronas

Hamilton and Rosberg keep trading wins and no one seems to be able to disrupt this order.
Photo by Mercedes AMG Petronas

In fact, it was a pretty long list of DNFs (did not finish) in Austria: starting from the crash victims Raikkonen and Alonso (the Spaniard only completed two races this season); followed by Will Stevens, whose Manor suffered major damage after picking up crash debris on lap one; shortly after joined by Jenson Button’s precautionary retirement not to damage the new engine unnecessarily; and finishing with Romain Grosjean, who developed a gearbox problem after running onto the grass in the second half of the race.

But one name that was not on that list for a second event running was that of Pastor Maldonado, who, in fact, impressed with skilful management of his Lotus, when he nearly lost control on the start-finish straight in a duel with Verstappen – but eventually went on to snatch the Dutchman’s position and crossed the line in 7.

“It was a big moment fighting with Max. The super soft tyres were very hot so losing their grip and you lose a lot of downforce close to the car ahead, but everything was under control! I wanted to get the position and I think we deserved it. It seems like we’re coming into a good time of the season for us so we’ll all keep working hard to continue scoring points.”

From here the circus moves to the UK – the home to the majority of the constructors whose bases (with all the vital spare parts) surround the historic Silverstone track. With this also being the home race of the championship leader Hamilton, and keeping in mind his 2014 win, the Brit stands in good stead to once again deliver a crowd pleaser and extend the points gap to Rosberg, now curtailed to mere 10 point.

But with the changing fortunes in Formula 1 – albeit few and far between noted this season – no one can really predict how the next event will pan out.

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