Under pressure Hamilton goes fourth
Less than an hour before the start, Lewis Hamilton found himself docked three grid spots following a stewards’ review, triggered by Red Bull, confirmed via new footage that he had transgressed yellow flag rules on his final qualifying lap on Saturday, when Bottas had inadvertently confirmed his own pole position after running off into the gravel at Turn 4. Instead of from the front row, Hamilton would now start fifth.
His face didn’t flicker in the pre-race formalities when six of his colleagues, including Verstappen and Charles Leclerc, chose not to take the knee as the drivers lined up in T-shirts that read ‘End Racism’. Even here, Hamilton went his own way, being the only one to wear a ‘Black Lives Matter’ shirt instead. Strong willed, independently minded and stubborn, these racing drivers.
The grid penalty was old news by lap nine, once Hamilton swept past Alex Albon’s Red Bull and chased after Bottas ahead of him, the duo lapping at a rate that confirmed Mercedes once again have a clear pace advantage over their opposition. A first safety car period, as Kevin Magnussen’s brakes failed at Turn 3, only briefly interrupted their flow – until alarming messages from the pitwall flagged up a “critical” gearbox issue for both cars. A new tension crept in as both were told to stay off the kerbs, and although a typically feisty Hamilton appeared marginally quicker than Bottas, the reliability fears suggested some race ‘management’ might be required to ensure a one-two in front of Mercedes’ big cheese and CEO, Ola Källenius.
It wasn’t to be. Two back-to-back safety car periods, the first for George Russell’s retirement and the second for Kimi Räikkönen’s alarming loss of a front wheel, brought Albon into contention. As Christian Horner put it, switching the Thai on to soft tyres compared to the Merc duo’s aging hards was “worth a punt” – and the gamble paid off brilliantly, as Albon swept around Hamilton’s outside at Turn 4 after the second resumption. Then Lewis’s front-left wheel tagged the Red Bull’s rear right and Albon’s first F1 podium hopes – and even a possible race win – turned to dust. Hamilton’s subsequent five-second penalty would drop him to fourth right at the flag as Bottas swept to an accomplished lights-to-flag victory.
At the start of last season, The Finn won with similar verve at the first race in Australia, but his season then faded into disappointment. This time, can he maintain this momentum and repeat what Nico Rosberg managed in 2016? The victory certainly ramps up the pressure on Hamilton for the Styrian GP this coming weekend, held at the same circuit and on which Bottas clearly excels. In a shortened season, the world champion can’t afford another relatively duff weekend – especially if the wind stays with his team-mate.