Was the Austrian Grand Prix as good as the 2020 F1 season gets?


The 2020 Austrian Grand Prix was thrilling, but another year of Mercedes domination looks inevitable, says Andrew Frankel

Lando Norris ahead of Alex Albon and Lewis Hamilton during the 2020 F1 Austrian Grand Prix

Mercedes' mistakes gave rivals a chance

Jo Klamar/AFP via Getty Images

It was, I think, better than any of us expected and all but the most dreamy of optimists hoped. Formula 1’s return to racing after seven months away produced an absolute cracker of a race, with three different teams on the podium, one of them something other than a Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull, and almost half the field retired from the race.

And if that alone was not enough to satisfy those clamouring for less predictable racing, consider this: Lewis Hamilton not on the podium, beaten by a McLaren, Alex Albon being awarded driver of the day on Sky, an apparently hopelessly uncompetitive Ferrari still managing to come second and in Lando Norris, the first new British driver to reach the podium since, you guessed it, Lewis Hamilton on his debut in Australia in 2007.

It was also a weekend in which Lewis made two distinct mistakes, one earning him a three place grid drop in qualifying, the other in the race costing him that podium position. This from the greatest driver in the field who has won five out of the last six World Championships not just through surreal speed, but also very rarely blotting his copybook.

For those of us looking for an ultra-competitive season of Formula 1 racing, it all looks mightily encouraging. Doesn’t it? Well I’m not so sure. In fact I’m near certain that, sadly, very little can be read into those results and that as the season progresses, normal service will be very much resumed. Here’s why.

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The most fundamental stat to point to is that in qualifying the two Mercedes were half a second clear of the field over the shortest lap (in time terms) on the F1 calendar. Now of course race pace is different, but as a broad rule of thumb, if you multiply the apparent advantage by the 71 lap duration of the race, you find that the Mercedes should be able to drop the second best team in F1 by over half a minute over a race distance, which is a free pitstop. At least.

Second, the A1-Ring is arguably not one of Mercedes’s happiest of hunting grounds: Red Bull won on the last two occasions and Lewis has won just once in seven attempts. Compare that to the Hungaroring where the circus goes after next weekend’s Styrian Grand Prix: Lewis has won there no fewer than seven times – over half the races he’s done there – while Mercedes has scooped three of the last five.

The third point to consider is that Mercedes made mistakes last weekend we’re unlikely to see again. Both cars had to be held back because of gearbox issues and Lewis appears to have lost his podium because no one believed Lando Norris capable of completing not just the fastest lap of his race, but of anyone’s race on the very last lap of the race, to reduce his deficit to Lewis to under five seconds. When did a McLaren last set fastest lap? I’m sure there’s some nice kind soul out there who’ll tell me. Mercedes will not be so easily caught out next time.

Mercedes would probably win the title even if it didn’t have the best car

Then there is the Ferrari issue, whose embarrassment over its lack of power and aerodynamic inadequacies not even the fig-leaf of Leclerc’s hard earned but nevertheless fortuitous second place could cover. According to Mattia Binotto, of the one second gulf in pace to the Mercedes, fully 0.7sec is down to the mysterious drop in engine power Ferrari has experienced ever since the FIA investigated the legality of the unit. Its findings have not been published but it is clear the power Ferrari enjoyed before is not there now, and in the face of such silence you and I are entitled to draw whatever conclusions we like.

The real issue with the engine is that even if Ferrari knew how it could get the lost power back in theory, in reality the regs are frozen so it would seem to be stuck with the spec they have for the duration. For those looking for a close title fight, removing from the equation 50 per cent of the teams capable of bringing the fight to Mercedes over the course of a season, this is very bad news indeed.

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And finally there is the fact that Mercedes would probably win the title even if it didn’t have the best car, a point you could argue in at least two of the last three seasons. It has Lewis, strategic errors are rare and it has one of the best crews in the pit lane. If that weren’t enough, however strong Mercedes is at the start of the season, it is always stronger relative to the field at the end, because as the biggest, best financed team in Formula 1, it has the talent and resources to develop the car from first to last.

I hope I’m wrong. I’m in awe of all Mercedes has achieved over the last few seasons and I have no doubt that this year it will break Ferrari’s already equalled record of six consecutive Constructors’ titles. But for those who want to see a tense climax to the championship, I fear you’re looking at the wrong year.