Formula 1 and motorsport is fickle and the status quo can change in less time than it took the new generation of F1 monsters to lap the Red Bull Ring, venue of the Austrian Grand Prix that was held in Spielberg, Austria yesterday.
From being a Mercedes monopoly, the battle for the F1 drivers’ world championship is now between the two most successful drivers of the post-Michael Schumacher era who – fortunately for the neutral F1 fan – are in different teams.
The fight between the silver arrow of Lewis Hamilton and the scarlet prancing horse of Sebastian Vettel has renewed interest in the sport and has remained the focus of the F1 season, despite Valtteri Bottas’ win from pole at the Russian Grand Prix. The events of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix made sure of that…
However, with Bottas managing to score a win that took him to the very edge of his driving abilities to fend off Vettel by just 0.658 seconds at the end of the 71-lap race, the Finn needs to be discussed as a title challenger for the 2017 crown.
This development is all the more surprising to those who can recall the countless articles prior to the season that all but wrote off Bottas as a legitimate threat to Hamilton, let alone as a championship contender.
Doubts were raised about his speed rather than legitimate arguments of the 27-year-old needing to find his place within a team that was more familiar to Hamilton. Sure, Hamilton is a three-time world champion with the second highest win and pole tally in F1, but chinks in the Briton’s armour have been visible before.
A DASH OF LUCK
This was the case with Hamilton at the Austrian Grand Prix, following the Azerbaijan Grand Prix where his battle for F1 supremacy with Vettel finally hit boiling point. The German was clearly the guilty party and was the target of much criticism for seemingly getting off lightly after Hamilton’s loose headrest largely dampened the effect of Vettel’s 10 second stop-and-go penalty.
But instead of Vettel, under even more pressure following an FIA hearing that did not any additional penalty following much hue and cry, it was Hamilton who seemed to have an off day in the Austrian countryside.
Qualifying third, which became eighth after a five-place grid penalty for his car’s gearbox being changed – some of his zealous fans on social media went so far as to blame Vettel’s accidental tap from behind at Baku for it – started the weekend badly for him and after initial progress, Hamilton was unable to get on to the podium.
A combination of the increased ‘dirty air’ of 2017 cars due to more wing-based downforce and having to get the better of drivers like Kimi Raikkonen and Daniel Ricciardo is never easy no matter who you are.
Hamilton hunted down the wide-grinning Honey Badger but was unable to stop the Australian from scoring his fifth straight podium finish of the year.
Earlier in the year in Monaco, Hamilton and Mercedes were unable to time their qualifying run properly to counter the traffic and the Briton qualified only 14th. He made up six places from a 13th place starting grid position but the damage had been done as Vettel won and Bottas was fourth.
LET THEM FIGHT
In addition to these breaks, Mercedes AMG F1 also seems unwilling to tell Bottas to play second fiddle to Hamilton if there quest for a fourth straight constructors’ title is being compromised.
Such was the case in Baku where Hamilton’s radio calls to the pit-wall to get the Finn to slow down and hold Vettel up were dismissed as the team wanted Bottas to hunt down Lance Stroll for second place.
Given the chaos that ensued in that race, Bottas may even have been in the hunt for a win although Ricciardo held on in superb fashion.
This once again increases the chances of Bottas gaining even more ground in the title battle, as 35 points currently separate the top three drivers with 25 points being available for a win.
But, only if the current inconsistency continues for Hamilton and Vettel. Since the Spanish Grand Prix, where the two had a hard fought encounter and Mercedes played the strategy card to perfection, Bottas has outscored the duo over the four-race period from Monaco to Austria. Vettel has scored 67 points, Hamilton 53 and Bottas 73.
If not for the chaotic events of Baku and the odd misstep here or there we probably would not be discussing this at the moment. However, such upheaval is part and parcel of a racing season at the highest level when you have two evenly matched teams led by two of the greatest drivers of all time.
It is definitely worth wondering how things would have played out had Hamilton started third in Austria instead of eighth. But due credit should be given to F1’s latest Flying Finn for being in a position to take advantage whenever the opportunity has presented itself.