“We dodged some bullets there,” said a relieved Valtteri Bottas after climbing out of his Mercedes the victor of the opening round of the 2020 world championship, a thrilling and incident-packed race that belied the substantial raw pace advantage of the Mercedes W11. An official second place for Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari (after a 5sec penalty was applied to Lewis Hamilton for a collision with Alex Albon – again) was a major over-achievement, a brilliant drive in a mediocre car. Lando Norris also punched way above his weight in both qualifying and race to take the third podium place.
There were indeed, though, so many bullets Bottas had to dodge in taking this victory. Here they are.
Spinning In Q3
Bottas’ pole lap was his first Q3 attempt. He didn’t complete his second. Running without the benefit of a tow (it was Hamilton’s turn this weekend) he was pushing super-hard, knowing he was fighting the likely couple of tenths of slipstream advantage he was providing his team mate. He took huge momentum into Turn Four and released the car from the brakes early, just a little too early – running him out of road on the exit and getting onto the grass. At this point the yellows (lights) came on in the expectation of Bottas rejoining the track – but actually he stayed over on the grass and the lights were almost immediately extinguished. But not before Hamilton had passed one of them at full racing speed on his own qualifying lap. It was dusty and there was a green flag further on, lending further ambiguity. But footage presented by Red Bull just over an hour before the race proved that Hamilton had technically committed the offence – and he was duly penalised three places. So by spinning, Bottas had inadvertently inflicted a serious blow to his likely biggest threat. Hamilton’s lap had trailed Bottas’ by 0.012sec. But the ‘Black Arrows’ were a full 0.5sec clear of the field.
But Hamilton’s demotion boosted the chances of the other bullet likely to be fired at Bottas – a medium-tyred Red Bull driven by Max Verstappen.
The footage that led to Hamilton’s penalty
Verstappen’s strategy gamble
The Red Bull RB16-Honda looked an oversteering handful on Friday when both Verstappen and Albon had spun, just as in Barcelona testing. It was much better from Saturday onwards – but still a full 0.5sec adrift of pole, not significantly faster than a McLaren, Racing Point or Renault (but comfortably faster than Ferrari).
But that was just about fast enough for Verstappen to get through Q2 on the slower medium tyre, thereby allowing him to start the race on it. More durable the softs used by the rest in Q2, it just might have enabled Verstappen to have hung onto Bottas for the first stint, then run longer – so as to get onto the soft for a short final stint, in which he might have been able to chase down and catch Mercedes, in just the way he did Charles Leclerc last year.
But it wasn’t to be. He’d got away second and was indeed able to peg the gap to Bottas to around 3sec for the first 10 laps of the race. The strategy appeared to be shaping up nicely, but the engine went south very suddenly a lap later. He was out.
Ferrari’s aero upgrade comes in Hungary. The power upgrade is perhaps more urgent.
Ferrari wouldn’t be firing any bullets Bottas’ way, incidentally. The SF1000 was revealed to be 1sec off the pace, Leclerc qualifying it only seventh and Sebastian Vettel failing to make it into Q3. It appeared to be seriously down on power, was 11km/h slower than it predecessor through the traps – and its deficit in the ‘power sector’ of S1 was twice that of the more flowing sector two. In-car footage comparison showed it was actually faster than last year’s car through the turns but over 0.9sec slower over the lap. It went from fastest on the straights in 2019 to 19th and 20th this year… It’s little draggy, perhaps. The aero upgrade comes in Hungary. The power upgrade is perhaps more urgent.
Leclerc drove a quite brilliant race, initially sitting in the ‘Class B’ pack with the McLarens and Sergio Perez’s ‘pink Mercedes’ Racing Point, unable to pass due to the lack of straightline speed – but then launching a series of late braking attacks in the late stages to take himself to the head of that pack. With some late safety car help, that was enough to get him within less than the 5sec by which Hamilton was penalised.
Gearbox sensor electronics
Mercedes’ drivers were ordered to stay off the bumpy kerbs as they nursed the cars home
Antonin Vincent / DPPI
Another bullet for Bottas to dodge was a sensor which threatened to put the gearbox into failsafe mode – which would have meant no gears. This was an issue on both cars throughout the weekend and was exacerbated by the severe vibrations the kerbs of this track impose. It was apparent from lap one on Bottas’ car – and a few laps later on Hamilton’s. But it was always more critical on Bottas’. The likelihood of it lasting the race was deemed low. Both drivers were being constantly admonished for using the kerbing – which you need to do to be quick here. And Hamilton wasn’t letting Bottas off the hook, once he’d benefitted from Verstappen’s retirement to get up to second.
Hamilton began closing Bottas down as soon as Verstappen retired. He’d had to find his way past Albon and Norris in the opening couple of laps and so was 8sec adrift by lap 10. But he had this down to 3.8sec – and was sniffing opportunity.