Even within what is a densely technical new formula, this was an intensely technical race. To the watching 100,000-plus fans gathered at Spielberg after the race’s 11-year absence here, it looked just like a closely fought contest in a beautiful Styrian setting on a gloriously sunny day, one in which Nico Rosberg took a close-run victory over Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton after both had to find a way past the two front-row-sitting Williams of Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas.

But beneath that surface was a desperate struggle to keep electronic systems, brakes and tyres alive. Mercedes struggled less with the tyres than Williams and that was the crucial difference between them. But all four cars were being heavily managed, constantly on the cusp of running out of something vital.

The layout of the track and the heat of the day combined with how teams always design their cars to only just clear the demands of the season’s toughest tracks – in the interests of more total performance over the season – to put things on a technical knife edge.

“It’s to do with the duration of the deployment of ERS,” says Williams’ Rob Smedley in answer to what made everything so marginal. From the final corner onto the pit straight and up to turn two, encompassing two steep uphill sections, the battery is pumping its full 160bhp for all but the couple of seconds of braking required. Then it’s full deployment again on the run down to turn three. Although the straights are relatively short, stringing three of them together and interspersing them with a couple of slow turns means the electronics are working flat out for perhaps 25-26 seconds, with very little time in between to cool down.

Then there’s the matter of brake cooling with these systems – the exact same demand that caused Mercedes and Bottas’s Williams such problems in Montreal. It’s a struggle to harvest enough energy through what is a short lap to have full power available for that long three-straight stretch. So the harvest rate has to be quite aggressive – which puts a big demand on the rear brakes.

Couple that with how Mercedes and Williams have each gone very aggressive with the reduction in size of their rear brakes – they each use four-piston calipers rather than six, giving less heat dispersal, and have each gone substantially below the regulation maximum disc diameter – and they are marginal. Compared to a less aggressively specced car – a Ferrari, say – the rear axle of these two cars is around 1kg lighter, according to one brake supplier; but also accordingly less tolerant of the abuse of aggressive harvesting.

That was why Mercedes and Williams were struggling to manage their cars – their drivers running ever further forward brake bias, but with this then putting a strain on the front brakes, and only rarely allowing full power. “OK, strategy six to the end,” Rosberg and Hamilton were told with three laps to go, finally let off the power leash they’d been pushing against all race. But even strategy six is only the sixth most powerful of 12 options.

But circuit layout was also the reason why Mercedes’ pace advantage was so reduced here and why it was Williams and not Red Bull who was challenging. Bizarrely, the Red Bull Ring could not have been conceived to better expose the weaknesses of the Red Bull RB10 which is a high-drag/high-downforce/low-power car. The track’s layout punishes high drag disproportionately more than it rewards high downforce way more than most tracks on the calendar.

It also more heavily punishes a lack of torque and power. So the Red Bull was slow and the Williams – a very low drag car with big power but which lacks the ultimate in downforce – was not only faster than the Red Bull but also a much closer match to the Mercedes than usual. Yes, the Merc was being run in compromised form – but so was the Williams. Everything suggests that the raw pace advantage of the W05 over the FW36 around here was only in the order of around 0.3s. There have been places this year where the figure was five times that.

Qualifying

You need to know all that to properly appreciate the shape of this race – to understand why it played out the way it did. The final circumstantial piece of the jigsaw was Hamilton screwing up his qualifying, leaving him starting ninth and limiting Rosberg to third on the grid because of the delay his yellow flags caused to the following Mercedes in the dying moments of qualifying (ironic!).

On his first Q3 run Lewis had run wide at the Rindt Curve (turn eight) and had his time disallowed. Up until that point he was 0.3s up on anyone and looking a likely pole sitter. So he had it all to do on his final run. Yet – just as at Montreal – he made a second error, this one more serious.

Braking hard and deep into turn two, the rear locked suddenly as the ERS completed harvesting at just the wrong moment, spinning him into the run-off area; so no Q3 time for Hamilton and only a scrappy first run time for Rosberg. With both Mercs neutralised, pole was therefore up for grabs – and that led to the great feel-good outcome of Felipe Massa heading an all-Williams front row.

On Friday afternoon, as everyone did their first low-fuel simulations, Lewis Hamilton’s time had been 0.928s clear of the best non-W05s. Around a 69.5s lap, this represented a Mercedes advantage of 1.3 per cent, a greater margin than in any qualifying session this year. But it didn’t translate – for a variety of reasons. The higher track temperatures of Saturday afternoon saw the Merc lose its balance and not gaining as much from the super-soft tyres as other cars – and Williams dialled themselves in better.

Bottas had already eclipsed Rosberg’s first run time and was pushing hard to improve on that when he got his Williams crossed up on the kerbs exiting the fast turn six (formerly the Texaco chicane). Which left Massa a golden opportunity. He grabbed it to take his first pole since 2008, his lap including a lovely on-the-limit sequence through turns five and six, no surrender, foot to the floor even as the car ran to the very outer edges of the exit kerb.

As well as its generic limitation, the Red Bull just didn’t seem to be tuned in to Red Bull Ring. It had a new floor, a modified front wing – and another evolution of fuel from Total. But it kept trying to fly off the road at both Rindt Curve and the final corner – a tricky, undulating, downhill entry onto the pit straight, with astroturf and dusty grass beyond the kerb ready to spit you into the pitwall opposite.

Vettel performed a dramatic 720-degree double spin through there during practice. In qualifying he couldn’t even break out of Q2 and was only 13th fastest. Daniel Ricciardo, a couple of tenths faster (made up through turns two and five), got through and qualified fifth – a couple of tenths slower than the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso who, as ever, was in irrepressible form and somehow getting around the car’s reluctance to turn in and its over-abrupt power delivery.

Others over-delivering included the rookies Kevin Magnussen, who put the McLaren sixth (albeit 0.8s off the identically-engined Williams) and Daniil Kyvat, seventh in the Toro Rosso.

The race

The Williams FW36 is habitually the fastest accelerating car off the line and so, starting from pole, it was no surprise that Massa was virtually unchallenged as the lights went out and they charged up the hill to turn one. On the grippier side of the grid, Rosberg got off the line better than Bottas and slotted into second – but so much quicker was the Williams on the straight up to turn two that Valtteri simply breezed back past.

Hamilton meanwhile had made a peach of a start. From his ninth place slot he was almost instantly between Kyvat’s Toro Rosso and Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari. He found a gap past Magnussen as they exited turn one and as Ricciardo ran wide off the circuit, so Hamilton was now fifth and chasing Alonso. The Mercedes exited turn five at a different rate to the Ferrari, allowing Hamilton to comfortably breeze by before the Rindt Curve; ninth to fourth on the first lap, now right behind team-mate Rosberg.

Massa, Bottas, Rosberg and Hamilton pulled away as one from Alonso, Magnussen, Räikkönen, Nico Hülkenberg’s Force India, Ricciardo and Kyvat. Vettel had suddenly lost drive and dropped to the back. He’d pressed his ‘overtake button’ – that momentarily allows a higher power setting – and it was suspected this had somehow triggered an electrical glitch.

After following instructions to reboot the system, he was up and running – but at the back. Team-mate Ricciardo was warned not to use his overtake button for the duration. Unable to make progress and further delayed by snagging his front wing against Esteban Gutiérrez’s Sauber, Vettel later retired, simply to save engine mileage.

From very early in the race, both Williams and Mercedes were in safe and conserve mode. Hamilton was constantly being advised he needed to bring his brake temperatures down. He’d do this, then re-launch himself upon the back of Rosberg – only to be told his brakes were marginal again. The Mercs weren’t being left behind by the Williams pair but neither were they making inroads on them. Massa continued to lead the field, Bottas one second or so in his wake.

Williams came into this race expecting to be racing for third place, despite their grid positions. The whole mindset was not to compromise their own race trying to race a faster car. They weren’t to know just how compromised the Mercs were. Had they, maybe they’d have been more strategically aggressive. But the fear at Williams was rear tyre deg, especially on the super-soft the top 10 had all qualified on.

Friday afternoon had revealed, not for the first time, that the FW36’s relative lack of rear downforce was proving hard on the tyres. If they made their first stop too early they ran the risk of making the subsequent stints too long for their tyres. The Merc definitely had superior tyre usage and furthermore, the FW36 had proved reluctant during the practices to get the prime soft tyre (that was generally everyone’s preferred race tyre) immediately up to temperature. Therefore Williams was potentially vulnerable to being jumped by Merc around the stops.

They decided therefore to simply run their own race – a two-stop just like everyone else, but unable to be aggressive with the timing of the first stop. “We couldn’t have done the strategy Mercedes did,” said Smedley. “If we’d pitted in response to Rosberg’s stop on lap 11, we’d probably have found ourselves out of rubber with a few laps still to go and we’d have looked pretty stupid.”

So Rosberg came in for his primes on lap 11, Hamilton on 13 (they couldn’t risk bringing him in on lap 12 as he might not have cleared the lapped Vettel upon rejoining). Hamilton’s stop was 0.9s slower than Rosberg’s had been. He exited still just behind his team-mate. Up front Massa kept going for a full three laps after Rosberg’s stop, with Bottas staying out a further lap after that.

As well as wishing to minimise subsequent stint lengths, there was also the matter of Sergio Pérez’s Force India 20s or so behind. He’d started on the prime tyre and so would be running long, had made a great first lap and was now running seventh. Williams would have been looking to clear Massa out ahead of him, but weren’t quite in a position to do that as the Mercs came in.

If they could just keep Felipe out a couple of laps longer, going faster than Sergio, it would be enough. But then Massa’s rears began to surrender. He’s habitually hard on rear tyres in a car that is prone to it and they were close to finished. The pitstop loss was expected to be around 21s. By lap 12, Massa was 20s ahead of the Force India.

One more lap should do it – but that fateful lap 13 was when Felipe’s tyres finally went; he was no quicker than Pérez on that lap and it was only going to get worse. His in-lap was indeed slow, his stop at 2.9s wasn’t bad – but it all dropped him behind Rosberg. Furthermore, on his cold prime tyres he didn’t have the grip to fend off Hamilton up to turn two as he rejoined.

Bottas had been able to preserve his rears better than Massa and despite pitting a lap later his in-lap was 0.7s faster. Furthermore his stop set a Williams record at 2.1s – all enough to jump Valtteri past his team-mate, and to keep him ahead of Hamilton – though it was a close-run thing as Bottas locked up at turn three on his cold primes.

Rosberg, though, was now at the head of this close-fought quartet and Massa had fallen from the front to the back of it. Leading the race though was the yet-to-stop prime-tyred Pérez, who soon had the quartet closely on his tail. The long-running Jenson Button and Pastor Maldonado (who’d each started on primes) lay between the quartet and Alonso, but were essentially not far enough clear of Magnussen, Hülkenberg and Kyvat to clear them after their stops. Kyvat went out on lap 24 when his right-rear suspension completely failed on the approach to turn three.

Pérez was essentially racing his team-mate Hülkenberg, who had been obliged to start on the option on account of qualifying in the top 10. With their inverted strategy, it was Pérez’s task to be more than 21s clear of Hülk by the time of his first stop, planned for around lap 29, the combination of Pérez and the Force India again able to stretch out the stint length – though one-stopping was this time out of the question.

Pérez kept up a good pace but with no-one really forcing the issue among the quartet – other than occasionally Hamilton upon Bottas before being told to bring his brake temps down – they stayed behind the Force India for several laps. It wasn’t until lap 27 that Rosberg barged his way by at turn two, Nico quickly followed through by Bottas and Hamilton. By this time Pérez’s tyres were finally fading and he lost crucial time to Hülkenberg, exiting three seconds behind. No matter, he could try again in this stint to build the necessary 21s gap in the time between Hülk’s second stop and his.

Rosberg wasn’t really pulling away from Bottas up front – and on the 30th lap, that forward brake bias almost caught Nico out, forcing him to run onto the turn one run-off, having to defend hard from the Williams up to turns two and three. Massa had fallen off the back of the quartet a little, as his rears again began to degrade quite quickly. In fact, as the stint went on, so Alonso came menacingly into Massa’s world.

As ever, Alonso was doing a quite brilliant job in hanging on whilst looking after his tyres and then coming on increasingly strong towards the end of the stint. He was one of very few setting personal bests on old rubber. Williams was more than aware of his threat and was telling Massa from a long way out.

Having not found a chink in Bottas’s defences, Hamilton was brought in first by Mercedes in order to undercut ahead of the Williams – on lap 39. There was nothing sinister about this from Rosberg’s perspective; he was comfortably far enough clear to be able to come in a lap later and still be ahead, and so it proved. Nico’s stop was again substantially quicker than Hamilton’s though – by a full second this time. “I need to look at my positioning at those stops,” said Lewis after the race. “It may just have been that.” Stopping short or long of the marks can easily cost valuable chunks of time.

Surprisingly, Williams did not respond immediately to Hamilton’s stop with Bottas – leaving him out for another two laps. It’s believed this may have been in error. “Yeah, well we need to analyse if there’s anything we can do better,” said Valtteri diplomatically. Out of grip, he slid briefly off track and this in combination with the gripless in-lap allowed Hamilton to finally leapfrog ahead.

Lewis was just two seconds behind Rosberg and began to gradually close him down. But it was as if he was on a piece of energy elastic – each time he attacked, so he’d be brought into check by the team telling him about his brake temperatures. Rosberg was doing a similar job of managing the brakes, while monitoring the gap to his team-mate.

Lewis was informed that the tyres that had come off his car were in better shape than those of Rosberg’s – and that there might therefore be a chance towards the end, 30 laps later. Overall, Rosberg looked like he had just enough in hand to repel the energy-contained challenge of Hamilton. Again, Lewis was using less fuel than Nico; less fuel, less rubber for near-enough the same speed – it only underlined how expensive his qualifying mistakes had been.

Massa stayed out until lap 43 – as late as Williams dared, with Alonso getting to within 2.9s. Fernando stayed out for another three laps, but with Massa quickly up to speed couldn’t pull out the necessary gap to jump the Williams. As the Ferrari peeled into the pits so Rosberg resumed the lead, Hamilton breathing down his neck from 1.5s behind. At this point Rosberg responded, keeping Hamilton out of DRS reach.

Like cat and mouse they played, Nico generally quicker through the fast six-seven, Lewis better into the slow corners. The Merc’s small but significant pace advantage over the Williams was playing out now they were out of each other’s hair – and Bottas had fallen to around seven seconds behind and Massa a further four seconds behind that, the Williams pair separated by the out-of-sync Pérez, still trying to eke out that 21s advantage over Hülkenberg before his late second stop.

Just behind Hülkenberg ran Ricciardo, the Canada hero having a much lower profile race at his team’s home track. Just behind them ran Räikkönen, having a totally invisible race around half a minute behind his team-mate.

Long before Pérez made his lap 55 stop he’d cleared Hülkenberg and upon rejoining was closing down on Magnussen for sixth. When the old-tyred McLaren got a poor exit from turn one on the 66th lap, Pérez pounced – a sweet move on the man who replaced him, the Force India allowing the Mexican to rebuild a reputation damaged at McLaren last year.

Whenever tyre degradation is a significant factor, Pérez seems to have the beating of Hülkenberg even if the latter is slightly faster. In fact, that probably played a part in Hulkenberg’s undoing here as his qualifying for the top 10 obliged him to start on the option from a part of the grid where Pérez’s choice of prime/prime/option was probably a better strategy. Hülkenberg was running out of rubber by the end, allowing Ricciardo to get ever-closer.

Going into the last 10 laps, Hamilton renewed his attack on Rosberg, and got the gap down from over 2s to just over 1s within five laps. “Can I use overtake?” asked Rosberg as they arrived upon backmarkers. “Yes,” he was told. “Blue flags,” shouted Lewis, for the benefit of the race director. With three laps to go they were told they could have the extra power of ‘strategy six’ and on they both charged, locking wheels here and there – hard racing on the limit.

Going into turn three for the final time Rosberg locked a front and began running wide. It briefly looked like Hamilton was going to ambush him, but Nico calmly collected it up and continued on to his third victory of the year, taking him 29 points clear at the top of the table. Hamilton seemed accepting of it all, realising that he’d blown his best chance of beating him the day before.

Bottas was delighted with his first podium, Massa was left pondering his tyre usage, Alonso having run him uncomfortably close in a Ferrari that definitely wasn’t as fast. Pérez was a long way back from there, but well clear of Magnussen while Ricciardo managed to nail Hülkenberg two corners from home for eighth, with Räikkönen taking the final point.

“I’m enjoying the moment – with the car we have,” said Rosberg, trying to deflect premature championship talk. “I still believe that we have the fastest car. I didn’t get the best out of it in qualifying, but I was pretty confident we could get it to the front before the end.”

On this day of technicalities, that was all that could be asked. For the second consecutive Grand Prix Rosberg had beaten his only real rival not by searing pace – but simply by putting his weekend together better.