Formula 1

Mika Häkkinen: “Bottas’ victory in Austria showed Hamilton the fight for the World Championship will be harder this year”

July 6, 2020January 6th, 2022

VALTTERI Bottas’ victory in the first race of the 2020 Formula 1 season sends a message to team mate Lewis Hamilton that the fight for the World Championship is going to be harder this year. He also won the first race last year, of course. It is a good habit to get into. 

It was also good that he won a fascinating race in which we saw the kind of mistakes, reliability issues and unpredictable results that I am sure will be typical of this season.

Charles Leclerc’s second place for Ferrari was unexpected because the car is clearly not very competitive at the moment, while Lando Norris’ first podium in Formula 1 for my former team McLaren is a fantastic result for a talented young driver in a team that has worked night and day to return to a competitive position. 

I said before this weekend that Valtteri was the strongest he has ever been, and he proved it with a superb pole position followed by a strong race in which he had to cope with a lot of pressure from Lewis, other rivals and his Mercedes car having potential reliability issues. At the start he had to defend from Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, but he was soon in control of the race. 

It was not an easy win, however. Safety Car periods meant that Valtteri’s race was potentially compromised, and he had to defend against Lewis on restarts. He absorbed the pressure, did what was required, and in winning his eighth Grand Prix, now leads the World Championship. He will want to repeat the victory when the second round takes place at the same circuit in Austria this weekend.

Lewis’ collision with Alex Albon’s Red Bull towards the end of the race was judged by the Stewards to be an error by the reigning World Champion, and his five-second penalty ultimately cost him a podium finish. This weekend saw Lewis suffer from the kind of mistakes he cannot afford if he is to defend his title and match Michael Schumacher’s seven World Championship titles.

This is already a unique Formula 1 season thanks to the delayed start caused by Covid-19, and with eight races in 10 weeks every good result will be vital, just as every mistake will be costly. Lewis had already made a mistake in qualifying, not slowing down for a yellow flag when Valtteri went off track, and that enabled Red Bull Racing to raise a protest on Sunday when new video evidence of the incident became available. That cost Lewis three grid positions.

Red Bull Racing’s successful protest against Lewis showed just how determined they are to attack Mercedes Benz from every possible angle. It followed another protest on Friday – this time unsuccessful – concerning the DAS steering system that Valtteri and Lewis can use – this ‘Dual Axis Steering’ system is an extremely clever piece of engineering, and shows how hard Mercedes continues to push in order to keep their competitive advantage.

I am not sure they need to worry too much, however, because in terms of pace the Mercedes remains the fastest car in Formula 1 at the moment. Reliability is potential problem, however, as both Valtteri and Lewis were warned to keep their cars off the kerbs due to a potentially terminal problem with their gearboxes.

Mercedes had a number of reliability problems with both their factory and customer teams during pre-season testing, and to see Lance Stroll’s Racing Point and George Russell’s Williams fail to finish in Austria due to engine-related problems shows that reliability issues remain.

Red Bull was realistically Mercedes’ only threat in Austria, and Max Verstappen was on an aggressive race strategy which might have caused problems for Valtteri later in the race, but an electrical problem with his Honda engine caused him to retire. In total, nine cars from the 20 starters failed to finish this race – the kind of reliability we used to see back in the 1990s! It certainly mixes things up and give the teams plenty to think about before the second round of the Championship next weekend.

One team which will be looking forward to a second Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring on Sunday is McLaren. After a strong performance in qualifying both Lando Norris and teammate Carlos Sainz drove competitive races, Norris’ flat-out performance on soft tyres on the last lap securing that third place podium finish. This was the English driver’s first podium in Formula 1, and I am certain it will not be his last. In fact the last time an English driver scored his first podium for McLaren was a young Lewis Hamilton, back in 2007.

I am very happy for the whole team at McLaren – the men and women who work so hard to compete. After a difficult relationship with Honda they returned to a simpler formula with customer Renault engines last year, and the latest McLaren car appears to have built on the success they achieved in 2019 when they finished fourth in the Constructors World Championship.

In Austria Lando and Norris qualified fourth and eighth, with the fastest of the factory Renault cars driven by Daniel Ricciardo 0.3 seconds slower. This shows how capable the McLaren chassis is, and I believe the team has the opportunity to threaten more podiums against Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari.

Ferrari salvaged second place in Austria thanks to Charles Leclerc, whose overtaking manoeuvres during the race showed his talents well. The Ferrari car is uncompetitive at the moment – by which I mean it cannot win races, and that is a real problem for the Italian team.

Charles did really well to recover to finish second, but Sebastian Vettel’s unforced error during the race, which caused him to spin off, underlined why team boss Matti Binotto has decided not to re-sign him for next season.

There is not much time for teams to fix any technical, performance or reliability problems before next weekend. It should be fascinating.