Lightning they say, does not strike the same place twice. Fans who were expecting fireworks after the controversy laden race in Azerbaijan two weeks ago. Asides Valtteri Bottas’ spellbinding start which will probably never happen again, and the close run Sebastian Vettel gave the Mercedes driver at the end, there were no flashpoints of note.
Bottas came in first, Vettel a close second, and Daniel Ricciardo brought Red Bull home in third place(avid fans know what this means but more on that later). Lewis Hamilton could only manage fourth position after starting in eight due to a five place grid penalty.
At a circuit where Mercedes has won for the past three years, there was little to give away during practice. Valtteri Bottas showed his increasing confidence by snatching pole position ahead of Sebastian Vettel. Lewis Hamilton provisionally came in third but had to settle for eight on the starting line-up due to a five place grid penalty incurred for a gearbox change. Kimi Raikonnen who has been underwhelming so far this season considering what Vettel has done with the Ferrari car, Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen both of Red Bull, made up the top six. Two time world champion, Fernando Alonso, arguably the most talented driver currently on the grid continued to languish in his McLaren as he didn’t even make it out of Q2.
The race was perfectly set for a duel between Bottas and Vettel while Hamilton had to contend with starting from deep and look to overtake a minimum of five cars to even get a chance of snatching a podium finish.
The race was practically over as soon as it began as a blistering start gave Bottas a lead he never relinquished despite Vettel’s best efforts. So fast was the Mercedes driver’s start that stewards had to double check to make sure it wasn’t a jump start.
It was not to be for young brash Red Bull driver Max Verstappen though, who despite having ten thousand Dutch fans present to cheer him on, crashed out in lap one and took the hapless Fernando Alonso with him. It was Verstappen’s fourth retirement in five races, a situation made all the more galling by his teammate Daniel Ricciardo coming in third, his fifth consecutive podium finish which shows that Red Bull has got a car that can hold its own. Of course, a Ricciardo podium finish means a shoey. Race winner Bottas passed up the chance to drink from the shoe though, obviously didn’t have the stomach for it.
Lewis Hamilton could only come in fourth, thereby losing further ground to Vettel in the race for the drivers’ title.
Kimi Raikonnen came home in fifth with the other Ferrari and Roman Grosjean drove brilliantly to snatch sixth position for lowly Haas.
The gloves came off in the championship battle between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix two weeks ago following the collision between them which saw Sebastian Vettel slapped with a ten second penalty but escape further punishment following an inquiry into the incident.
Many observers believe Vettel got off lightly considering he still managed to finish ahead of Hamilton in that race and some even suggested he should have been disqualified outrightly, citing similarities between this incident and the Tour de France one where Peter Sagan, the reigning world champion was dismissed from the Tour after he was adjudged to have deliberately elbowed Mark Cavendish. Critics accused the FIA of lacking the balls to do the same to Vettel instead opting to dock the Ferrari driver seconds and issue him a stern warning.
However, the decision of the FIA to err on the side of caution is also admirable and is better for the sport.
There are about eight riders who can win the Tour de France. The Tour can survive without one rider no matter how good he is. On the other hand, this Formula 1 season is shaping out to be a two horse race. If you disqualify either Hamilton or Vettel, then there is no race. Nobody wants this, except Hamilton maybe.
The possibility of disqualification is not the only thing threatening to dampen the building excitement over the battle for the drivers’ title though. Mechanical problems are proving to be a spanner in the works too. Two weeks ago in Baku, a loose headrest robbed Hamilton of the win and here again in Austria, he had to take a grid penalty due to a faulty gearbox that needed replacement. Despite that, the British driver still posted the fastest lap time of the day.
In a season where a quadruple world champion and a triple world champion have gone head to head in the two most glamorous cars on the prix, it would be somewhat anticlimactic if the winner was decided by mechanical faults rather than by pure racing on the tracks.
It could yet become a three horse race though. While Sebastian Vettel managed to extend his lead over Lewis Hamilton to twenty points, Valtteri Bottas who many thought would play second fiddle to his Mercedes counterpart, has been quietly building consistency and is now only a further fifteen points back.
While everyone has been focused on the growing rivalry between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes has pulled away in the race for the constructors title and is now thirty three points clear of its closest challenger, Ferrari.
This is in no small part due to Bottas refusing to lie low and play supporting cast. The Finn has come up tops twice this season and in addition to limiting the potential, Vettel could’ve built over his illustrious teammate, has gained Mercedes precious constructor points.
In contrast, Kimi Raikonnen, a world champion with Ferrari back in 2007, has not been able to reach the giddy heights managed by his teammate this season. In fact with 83 points, he has less than half the points his counterpart Vettel has garnered this season despite driving the same car.
If this trend continues, expect Mercedes to take the constructors title with ease for the fourth season in a row.
The Formula 1 season goes home to Britain next weekend at the famous Silverstone track which hosted the first world championship in 1950. The tenth race of the season is one Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton will be eagerly looking forward to. Not only is he assured of local support, history also favours the Briton as he has won the last three editions of the race. A win for Hamilton will help him close the gap to Sebastian Vettel as Formula 1 reaches its halfway stage and make the second half of the season one to await with bated breaths while a win for Vettel will extend the Ferrari driver’s lead and set him in good stead in his quest to become world champion again for the first time since 2013.
As has been shown several times this season though, Valtteri Bottas will play a huge role in deciding where the title ends up, while Daniel Ricciardo still retains an outside chance especially if Red Bull can improve the car’s performance to match the driver’s undoubted potential.
All in all, exciting days are here again in Formula 1. Follow @thegabwire to continue to be a part of it.