Bottas aims to deal early blow to Hamilton in unprecedented F1 2020 season; Will Verstappen be a factor? Norris 4th for McLaren; Watch Austrian GP live on Sky F1 at 2.10pm, build-up from 1pm
By Matt Morlidge
Last Updated: 04/07/20 11:48pm
Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton are ready to battle “head to head” in a long-awaited first Formula 1 race of the season today – but Mercedes are wary of the threat of Max Verstappen at the Austrian GP.
217 days after F1’s stars last lined up on the grid, the 2020 season-opener is live on Sky Sports F1 at 2.10pm, with build-up from 1pm.
Bottas will lead Hamilton from pole as he looks to put an early dent in his team-mate’s seventh title ambitions, aiming for victory in the sport’s first-ever behind-closed-doors Grand Prix amid strict COVID-19 safety protocols.
Verstappen lines up third in the Red Bull on a different tyre to the Mercedes and ahead of some unexpected rivals, led by McLaren’s young English star Lando Norris, with Ferrari facing an uphill climb further back.
“It’s obviously exactly how I wanted to start the season,” Bottas told Sky F1 following qualifying, after which Hamilton escaped punishment despite a stewards’ investigation for a yellow-flag infringement.
“But the main day is [Sunday] and I already have my thoughts on that, try to maximise and try to turn this pole into a victory.”
Bottas won the opening race of the season last year, although a shortened F1 2020 campaign raises the stakes of landing the early blow.
Not that Hamilton is fretting.
“We’re very, very close here,” said the six-time champion. “This is a strong track for Valtteri. You look at all the tracks across the year and there are ones where I’m stronger, those where he’s stronger and this is one of his.
“To be that close [0.012s in qualifying], I’m pretty happy. Of course you always want to be ahead when it is that close. But [Sunday] is where it counts.”
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has promised that his two drivers will be able to battle “head to head” in Austria – the scene of Hamilton and Nico Rosberg’s race-deciding battle and contact in 2016.
Mercedes wary of ‘clever’ Red Bull strategy
But Mercedes also insist that the Austrian GP will not be a two-horse fight.
Despite out-qualifying the nearest non-Mercedes car – that of Verstappen – by more than half a second, Mercedes believe the Dutchman is a real threat as he starts the race on the more durable medium tyre compared to their softs.
“I think it’s going to make it very tough for us,” admitted Hamilton. “Degradation will probably be quite high. I think the race will be much closer than it was in terms of performance [on Saturday], so we’ve got a fight on our hands for sure.”
Bottas added: “We’ve seen many times that the Red Bull, even if they are slightly behind in qualifying, they can still have a really strong race car. We don’t want to go [into Sunday] thinking it’s only us, so we think and hope that there’s going to be a threat from elsewhere.
“And it’s also going to be a good battle with me and Lewis, I have no doubt.”
Mercedes believe that possible higher temperatures on Sunday – not comparable to last year’s heatwave which saw their race ruined but still warmer than Friday and Saturday – could play into Red Bull’s hands.
“I think what they did in terms of the offset strategy with the medium, knowing that raw pace probably wouldn’t be enough for pole, is clever,” said Wolff. “With the increasing temperatures, they can have a real go.”
Verstappen is certainly more confident about Sunday than Saturday.
“It’s going to be warmer, it’s going to be a different day,” he stated. “That doesn’t mean Mercedes will suddenly be slow, but I hope will close the gap a little bit and we can at least fight them. Then we’ll see what happens.
“Let’s hope the others run into some trouble. But first of all we need to have a good start. Then we’ll see how it goes.”
How the grid lines up for F1 2020 opener
Norris secured his best-ever qualifying to secure a second-row slot behind Verstappen and ahead of Alex Albon in the other Red Bull.
Sergio Perez is next in the fancied Racing Point, while Charles Leclerc provides Ferrari’s best chance of a strong result with Sebastian Vettel down in 11th, although with free tyre choice.
“We knew the start of the season would be difficult for us and [Saturday’s] result certainly confirmed that to be the case, even more so than we had expected,” admitted Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto.
“It’s pointless to predict where we might finish and we must just try and score as many points as possible.”
Austrian GP grid (top 11)
1. Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes
2. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes
3. Max Verstappen, Red Bull
4. Lando Norris, McLaren
5. Alex Albon, Red Bull
6. Sergio Perez, Racing Point
7. Charles Leclerc, Ferrari
8. Carlos Sainz, McLaren
9. Lance Stroll, Racing Point
10. Daniel Ricciardo, Renault
11. Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari
The new Formula 1 season is underway Sky Sports F1 with the Austrian GP. Sunday’s race starts at 2.10pm. Find out more & subscribe.