Lewis Hamilton claimed pole position for the Styrian Grand Prix in dominant fashion on Saturday, as Formula One managed to complete qualifying despite a heavy downpour.
The result was a nicely mixed up grid for tomorrow’s race, which is forecast to take place in dry conditions. Here are the major talking points from another wild afternoon of F1 at Austria’s Red Bull Ring.
That was a hallmark Lewis Hamilton performance. On the very edge in the most challenging conditions, pushing the absolute limits of his car as far they go. As he often does, he saved his best effort until last, improving an already large advantage in the closing seconds of Q3 – when it ended, he was 1.216s ahead of Verstappen and 1.428s ahead of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas. In F1 terms, that is enormous for one lap.
It’s those performances which have made him statistically the greatest qualifier in F1 history (by some margin, at that). Some of his best laps have come in similar conditions. We won’t know how much closer Max Verstappen would have been without his spin through the penultimate corner, but either way Hamilton’s performance was outrageously dominant.
Speaking in the socially-distanced virtual press conference which followed, Hamilton likened his display to one of his most famous – his dominant victory at the 2008 British Grand Prix during his sophomore F1 season. That race was held in similar conditions and Hamilton finished over a minute clear of second-placed Nick Heidfeld.
“It was a fantastic lap, the last one,” Hamilton said. “I think [it was] just the importance of managing your time out there, managing your battery pack, knowing when to use the few laps that you have on the qualifying modes, creating the gap, [and] not making a mistake when it counts.
“That last lap for me was really as close to perfect as I could really get in those conditions. Considering it was raining more, it makes me even happier knowing that we could go a bit quicker during that time.
“It definitely takes me back to times like Silverstone 2008, because when you’re really at one with the car and not fazed at all, and just being very dynamic with your driving style from corner to corner.
“The wet patches arrive, and the puddles are shifting about with the cars that are driving ahead of you, which is a massive challenge.”
It seemed like an apt comparison. We have got so used to these sorts of displays from Hamilton that it is so easy to take them for granted, or explained away simply that he has the quickest car at his disposal. There was such a gap between the end of last season and the beginning of this one that it was easy to forget how often he was performing at this kind of level in 2019, and why his Austrian Grand Prix display was so out of character for him.
Hamilton has the perfect chance to kick-start his quest for a seventh championship with a win on Sunday.
Another box office afternoon
After serving up a wild Austrian Grand Prix last weekend, the Red Bull Ring delivered another spectacle on Saturday afternoon, courtesy of some heavy rain which had looked threaten to delay qualifying to Sunday morning.
F1 did not react hastily and cancel the session before it needed to, waiting 45 minutes until there was a gap in the weather as the rain eased off and the track conditions became driveable. F1 was rewarded for that decision with a thrilling — and complete — qualifying session.
It was hard to keep up at some points as drivers took chunks out of their lap time on an improving circuit, leading to a constantly-changing leaderboard at various points. After so long waiting, it feels like eight months’ worth of drama has been bottled up into this back-to-back opener.
As was the case seven days ago, Ferrari was in the thick of the drama…
Ferrari firmly in the midfield
Despite the conditions being completely different, Ferrari’s Q2 was almost exactly the same as last week, just with the drivers swapping roles. This time Sebastian Vettel was the one who edged through to the top-ten shootout, while Charles Leclerc finished 11th and was eliminated from the session.
Had Ferrari repeated last week’s performance in similar conditions, it wouldn’t have seemed so extreme. The wet weather should have been the great leveller, masking the team’s straight-line speed weakness and letting it lean on the strengths of its car. The fact that it still performed so poorly, having fast-tracked several upgrades to this weekend’s race, suggests there are some fundamental problems with the overall package.
When asked if he had been surprised Ferrari could not do a better job in the conditions, Vettel replied: “Honestly, yes.
“I think it was a difficult session for us. We struggled to get the tyres to work and we need to have a good look and see why. I had lots of aquaplaning, in particular at the end of Q2, and the last run of Q3 as well. Not ideal, but we need to make sure we learn the maximum we can from this session and take it into the next wet session.
“Tomorrow should be dry so it’s a bit different. We will fight and try everything we can tomorrow.
There was speculation over whether Ferrari had misjudged its strategy with Leclerc, who appeared to miss a good opportunity for different tyres just before the rain intensified. The Monaco native said it would have made no difference.
“Unfortunately we had the rain once we went on the second set,” Leclerc said. “We were just not quick enough, we were 1.8 off. However we look at it we are just too slow at the moment. We need to work.”
Leclerc’s day got even worse after the session, as he was hit with a three-place grid penalty for impeding Daniil Kvyat during qualifying. The Monaco native managed to salvage a podium for Ferrari last weekend but it looks like the Italian team will need another remarkable set of circumstances to do similar this weekend.
Russell shows his class
We already knew George Russell is a future superstar – the Englishman showed why there is so much hype around him Saturday afternoon. Russell put Williams through to the second qualifying segment for the first time since the 2018 Brazilian Grand Prix and will start Sunday’s race in 12th. It gives him a perfect and deserved chance to leave Austria on a high, after car trouble cruelly robbed him of a chance at his first F1 points while running strongly last weekend.
Russell has been remarkably patient waiting for his chance, while fellow 2019 rookies Lando Norris and Alex Albon have landed top drives and fought at the front end of the grid. In a Williams car which has clearly made a step forward from its horrible 2019 campaign he might finally have the chance to showcase his talent properly.
His message on his warm-down lap hinted at some relief mixed in with his joy: “Come on! Yes boys! F— yes! Nice one. Nice one”
Any good Russell display always comes with the reminder that he is a Mercedes academy prospect and a contender for a 2021 seat if the world champions decide to move on from Valtteri Bottas. While Bottas has stated the season perfectly, Russell has too. If he keeps this kind of form up into 2020 its going to be very difficult to ignore the calls for his elevation up to the top end of the F1 grid where he so clearly belongs.
What Bottas will we see on Sunday?
On the topic of Bottas, it’s going to be fascinating to watch how he fares on Sunday. We’ve seen the ‘Valtteri Wins A Race’ movie enough times to know how it’s gone previously — Bottas has never been able to follow up his victories with another in F1 and that has often allowed Hamilton to recover from setbacks and build big championship leads. Hamilton put it a perfect response to Bottas’ victory on Saturday and now Bottas needs to respond in kind with a standout performance of his own tomorrow.
Bottas will start fourth on Sunday and will be looking to drag himself back into contention for victory from the start. If the Finn fades early, it might be another worrying sign that the erratic form of previous seasons hasn’t gone away.
Ocon shines for Renault
One final person worth mentioning is Esteban Ocon, who qualified fifth for Renault on what is his second F1 race weekend in 18 months. Most impressively, he was comfortably quicker than teammate Daniel Ricciardo.
The Frenchman felt he could have been even higher up the order with a fresh set of tyres available to him in Q3.
“It’s been a great qualifying, very happy with the result and how it went in the end. Straight away from the word go I felt very comfortable in the car.
“The performance was there. Every lap I was putting on was different, we didn’t do a wrong move. We could have improved a few things for the Q3 run as I didn’t have a new set of tyres there, I could have pushed a bit higher up the order if we had a new set there. So it’s a very positive session, very happy to be in the top five with my new team after such a long period of inactivity.”