Valtteri Bottas insisted before the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix on Sunday that he has what it takes to win the Formula One world championship.
That’s a tall order with six-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton as his teammate at Mercedes. Especially as Hamilton needs one more title to equal Michael Schumacher’s record of seven.
But Bottas showed impressive composure to win Sunday’s race – which had no fans present due to the coronavirus pandemic – with Hamilton just a half-second behind him for spells. Not easy for Bottas when Hamilton’s among the best drivers at overtaking in F1 history, and when a chaotic race restarts three times behind a safety car.
“There was definitely quite a bit of pressure. One safety car was OK but by the last I was like, ‘Come on – again?'” a relieved Bottas said.
“There were so many opportunities for Lewis to take the lead if I made a small mistake and he was really quick today. But I managed to keep it together, could really control the race from my side, and there’s obviously no better way to start the season.”
Hamilton crossed second but finished fourth after getting a late time penalty.
Bottas kneeled with the winners’ trophy and the podium trio – including second-place Charles Leclerc for Ferrari and third-place Lando Norris for McLaren – held up a black T-shirt with “End Racism” written on it.
Nine of 20 drivers abandoned, including both Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Alexander Albon – who tried to overtake Hamilton on the outside with 10 laps left, touched wheels and flew off track.
It was better to be up ahead.
“I dodged a few bullets today,” Bottas said after the eighth F1 win of his career.
Aussie Renault driver Daniel Ricciardo retired with a suspected “cooling issue”, while his teammate Esteban Ocon finished in eighth place.
“Today was a reminder of what Formula 1 can be like and, sometimes, it’s unkind,” Ricciardo said.
“It’s a shame to retire early, but we had a cooling issue and we had to retire the car as a precaution before we did any further damage. I think there are a lot of positives from the weekend.
“Our low fuel pace looked strong and we know we have a little bit to learn on high fuel. We can take a lot from it and it’s good we have another chance next weekend. We’ll learn and move forwards.”
“It was a typical first race of the season with lots of things going on throughout and some possible high reward for anyone completing the race distance. We didn’t manage that entirely with Daniel’s retirement as a precaution for a cooling issue,” Renault Team Principal Cyril Abiteboul said.
“Ahead of next week, we must focus on the main negative of the weekend: the car reliability that not only cut Daniel’s race short but also impacted Esteban’s build up to qualifying earlier in the weekend compromising his starting position.”
Hamilton was given a five-second time penalty for causing Albon’s crash, having earlier been hit with a three-place grid penalty after an incident in Saturday’s qualifying was reviewed by stewards.
“It was just a misjudgment by Lewis at the end of the day and it’d be good if he apologised for it,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said.
“This sport can be pretty brutal sometimes and it feels like today’s been one of those days. Alex drove a great race, he didn’t deserve that.”
The race had looked like a straight fight between the two Mercedes, as has been the case so often in recent years, but late drama in Spielberg ensured otherwise.
“It felt like a victory today. Second place is something I never would have expected,” said Leclerc, who started from seventh.
“I will rate this as one of my best races, I didn’t do many mistakes.”
Norris sent McLaren’s garage into raptures, and threw social distancing out of the window amid the euphoria as CEO Zak Brown hugged everyone in sight.
His jubilation was understandable.
It was the 20-year-old British driver’s first career podium and his superb final lap was the fastest of an exciting opening race. Norris became the youngest British driver to secure a podium finish and the third youngest ever in F1. Only Verstappen and Lance Stroll were younger.
All drivers wore “End Racism” T-shirts before the race, but six drivers did not take the knee: Verstappen, Leclerc, Kimi Raikkonen, Daniil Kvyat, Antonio Giovinazzi and Carlos Sainz Jr.
Hamilton, the only Black driver in F1, wore a T-shirt with Black Lives Matter on the front and End Racism on the back.
Verstappen was chasing a hat trick of wins at the Red Bull Ring, but his race ended early while Sebastian Vettel’s miserable form from last season carried over as he finished 10th.
Hamilton’s three-place grid penalty pushed Verstappen up to second place on the grid. Norris jumped to third and Albon to fourth.
Bottas made a strong start from pole position while Hamilton took a little while to overtake Norris and Albon, but he was gifted a position as Verstappen crawled to a halt.
Daniel Ricciardo (Renault), Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean (Haas), Stroll (Racing Point), George Russell (Williams), Raikkonen (Alfa Romeo) and Kvyat (AlphaTauri) also abandoned.
When Magnussen went off track after trying to overtake Esteban Ocon’s Renault, a first safety car was deployed for two laps — allowing Hamilton to claw back a few seconds on Bottas.
When the race re-started on Lap 30, Bottas got away cleanly.
But moments later Vettel tried to pass Sainz on the outside but misjudged his attack, spinning his car after nudging into the McLaren and losing several positions.
Hamilton lurked right behind Bottas for the next 20 laps but could not find a way past.
The safety car came out a second time on Lap 52 and again after the right tire flew off the front of Raikkonen’s car and narrowly missed Vettel’s car.
After that restart, Albon made a daring but slightly hasty move on the outside of Hamilton, who appeared to impede him just as he was passing.
F1 stays in Austria next Sunday, then goes to Hungary as part of an eight-race European swing.
The rest of the calendar remains uncertain amid the pandemic. The cancelled Australian GP had originally been scheduled as the opening race of the 2020 season in March.