F1 serves up an instant classic on long-awaited return to action

What a race! The Austrian Grand Prix was the perfect way for F1 to return after the long hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

What at one point looked like being a fairly routine fight for victory between the Mercedes drivers exploded into life in the second stint. It was unlike any F1 race we had ever seen before, with a new-look podium ceremony and a circuit without any spectators at what is usually one of the most colourful venues on the calendar.

Here’s a look at the best and worst of F1’s first race since December 2019.

A fitting return to action

When Max Verstappen’s Red Bull gave up after 11 laps, it was fair to think the Austrian Grand Prix was simply going to be a fight between the two Mercedes drivers out in front. Considering it was the first race since the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Dec. 1 last year, that wouldn’t have felt like a fitting return to action.

Luckily, the F1 gods had other ideas and decided to flip this one on its head several times to produce a wild finish. A Safety Car deployed for George Russell’s Williams proved to be the catalyst for drama, helping the likes of Alexander Albon and Charles Leclerc put on fresh, softer tyres for the final race.

The drama seemed to cascade as the race went on, with just 11 of the 20 cars making it to the finish. The final two retirements were quite spectacular — Kimi Raikkonen’s front right tyre somehow came loose from his Alfa Romeo ahead of a Safety Car restart (prompting the Safety Car to come straight back out), and then Daniil Kvyat was cruelly denied a points finish when his rear suspension failed on the penultimate lap after contact with Esteban Ocon.

Up at the front, it was hard to keep up with what was unfolding. Albon’s hopes of a win were thwarted by Lewis Hamilton (more on that later), but we were not denied seeing a first-timer on the podium, with McLaren’s Lando Norris getting the job done in fine style in the final laps.

Lando tastes the champagne

It is almost impossible to dislike Lando Norris, something evidenced in how popular his podium finish was on Sunday.

The sophomore driver, 2019’s rookie of the year, snatched a podium away from Lewis Hamilton in dramatic fashion on the final lap. With Hamilton set to serve a five-second penalty for his clumsy collision with Alex Albon, fourth-placed Norris knew he had to finish within five seconds of the world champion to inherit third position.

Norris did so in style, setting the fastest lap of the race to inch ahead of Hamilton and gain the bonus point on offer for his efforts.

Amusingly, Norris did not seem to know exactly how to celebrate on a socially distanced podium, deciding eventually to simply pour his champagne over his own head. By the time he got to the news conference room shortly afterwards, he was asking for a new protective mask.

“I need to get another one of these,” he said, laughing. “It’s full with champagne, which I’m very happy to say, but it’s like a suction, like I’m breathing it!”

He was quickly given a fresh, champagne-free mask to wear for the rest of the news conference.

His on-track performance also included a thrilling move on Sergio Perez that saw him barge past the Racing Point driver at Turn 3. Norris was proud of how he laid it all on the line in the closing stages to secure the result.

“I was fairly aggressive with my overtake [on Perez], but I had to be at that point. Then Lewis had a five-second penalty and I only got him on the last lap of the race. I think it was 5.8s [gap] or something onto the final lap, and I got it down to 4.8 … if I didn’t put in the fastest lap of the race, which I’m very proud of, I wouldn’t be here.”

McLaren gave Norris all the engine power he needed to push at the end.

“I think it was with three laps to go that I got told Lewis had the five-second penalty and we used the rest of our engine modes and obviously I pushed it a little bit more in terms of track limits and using the kerbs. It’s quite harsh on the car and when you can and don’t need to take the risks, then you maybe back it off a little bit. But we didn’t really have any concerns, so I was told I could get on with it and really push it.”

Ferrari salvages its weekend

While it would have been brave to bet on a McLaren podium, seeing a Ferrari driver up there also seemed far-fetched on Sunday morning. The narrative around Ferrari leading into the race was bleak — on Thursday, Sebastian Vettel revealed he had not even been offered a new contract and Charles Leclerc said he was 99% sure the 2020 car was a step back on its predecessor.

All those fears about the car seemed well founded on Friday and Saturday. In qualifying, Vettel was eliminated from the second qualifying session, and Leclerc only barely scraped through to Q3, where he had qualified seventh.

Ferrari looked fourth or fifth quickest, and its drivers hardly made inroads during the race, with Leclerc and Vettel mixing it with Racing Point and McLaren for most of it. A clumsy Vettel spin after a collision with Carlos Sainz, the man replacing him in 2021, took the four-time world champion out of contention.

Enter Leclerc, the man who is clearly the future of the Italian team, to do his thing in the closing laps. Like Albon, Leclerc was propelled into contention thanks to the opportunity to pit for fresh tyres provided by the late Safety Car periods. Credit where it’s due, Ferrari reacted perfectly — we haven’t been able to say that much in recent seasons, but on this occasion they nailed Leclerc’s strategy perfectly.

After the race, Leclerc just seemed grateful to be on the podium: “It’s a huge surprise, but a good one.

“I think we did everything perfect today — we had a bit of luck, but it’s part of the race too. That was the goal, to take every opportunity”

Ferrari’s overall pace suggests it will be on the back foot again next weekend — F1 races at the same venue on July 12 — but Leclerc’s performance at least gave the tifosi a reason to smile ahead of what might unfortunately be something of a long and frustrating campaign.

Curiously, the three teams that took a step back were those powered by Ferrari, further heightening intrigue about the Ferrari-FIA engine settlement at the start of the year and just how much the Italian manufacturer has lost in any subsequent changes it had to make to an engine its rivals suspected was illegal in 2019.

Déjà vu for Albon

Albon must be wondering whether he’ll ever pass Hamilton on a racetrack. A collision between the two cost Albon his first podium finish at the Brazilian Grand Prix last year, something Hamilton accepted full blame for at the time.

It appeared Albon was about to have the perfect shot at redemption, with Red Bull reacting to the second Safety Car period to bring him in for the soft tyre — the perfect tyre on which to attack the Mercedes pair as they struggled with gearbox issues forcing both to drive conservatively.

Albon clearly sensed this was a big moment and, after managing the third Safety Car restart perfectly, he had a run on Hamilton down to Turn 4. Albon took the brave route around the outside and appeared to have his nose in front of the six-time world champion.

Hamilton’s car made contact with Albon, and the Thai driver was spun out of contention. Although it seemed similar to the Brazil incident last year, Albon felt on this occasion he had clearly made the move stick before contact was made.

“I feel like this one, I wouldn’t say it hurts more, but I felt like Brazil was a bit more 50/50, I felt like I did the move already,” he said after the race. “I was kind of already focused on Bottas in front. It was so late, the contact.”

Although he was punished by the five-second penalty, which would help Norris onto the podium, Hamilton suggested he felt that was a harsh outcome.

“A really unfortunate situation with Alex,” he said postrace. “I can’t believe we came together again. It really felt like a racing incident. Either way, I’ll take whatever penalty they feel I deserve and move forward.”

There is certainly an argument for it being deemed a racing incident, with Hamilton insisting after the race that he could not have left Albon any more space. The only criticism of Albon would be his eagerness to get the move done — with those tyres on, it was a matter of when, not if, he could get past the six-time champion.

Valtteri’s secret recipe

A lot was made of Valtteri Bottas’ old prerace ritual of a morning bowl of porridge, but it seems the Finn has changed things up courtesy of his new girlfriend, Tiffany Cromwell.

Social media posts in recent months showed him eating pancakes instead of porridge.

When asked whether he has changed things up for the new season, Bottas laughed and said: “The porridge is hidden in the pancakes.

“I still use the power of porridge, and my girlfriend always makes the pancakes with oat, so we make the most out of it. It’s kind of porridge as well, and, on top of that, I also have a bit of porridge before the race. That’s the best to have lots of power …”

Bottas proclaimed he is now “Bottas 3.0” ahead of the new season, but we’ll need to see a little bit more of this pancake-loving version of the Finn before we decide whether this might be the year he goes from a pretender to a contender for the world championship.

However, if Sunday is anything to go by, he might just have found himself a new winning recipe.

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