Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport won its fifth Grand Prix of 2017 in nine starts at the scenic Red Bull Ring in Austria's Styrian mountains as Valtteri Bottas catapulted away from pole position and took his second Formula 1 victory by less than a second from Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel. Lewis Hamilton conducted an exercise in damage limitation with a fighting fourth after suffering a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change.
Which tyre to qualify on?
Motor racing is about risk and reward and the team was faced with a tough decision when a partial gearbox inspection revealed damage after the previous race in Baku. It had nothing to do with Lewis's contact with Vettel in Azerbaijan, incidentally, but the chances of a failure and potential non-finish in Austria, costing the team a potential minimum 15 points and Lewis as many as 25, had to be weighed against the likely loss of points arising from taking a five-place gearbox penalty. While the chances of a gearbox failure were not 100%, they were high enough to warrant changing the unit, putting Lewis on the back foot.
The question then became: which tyre to qualify on? For Austria, Pirelli had brought the three softest compounds in its range - UltraSoft, SuperSoft and Soft. With Saturday weather forecasts predicting rain at some stage during the race, anything that could extend the first stint, possibly taking the driver deep enough into the race to eliminate an extra tyre stop before the rain arrived, needed careful consideration. Hence the team's decision to put Lewis onto the SuperSoft tyre in Q2 (the session which dictates a driver's race-start tyre), potentially affording him an additional 10 laps over the UltraSoft, just over 10 minutes.
In fact, when Lewis managed to top Friday's first practice session with a 1m05.9s lap on the Soft tyre, consideration had even been given to qualifying on the hardest tyre to further extend the first stint range. But, by Saturday afternoon qualifying, as the track rubbered in, the speed delta between the three compounds had widened enough to render that strategy just a bit too adventurous!
Valtteri's start was about as good as was possible!
Lewis cleared Q2 comfortably on the SuperSoft - the only man to do so. But the price was a lack of opportunity to feel the car's balance on the UltraSoft used by everyone in Q3. Valtteri, however, did a fine job to claim the second pole position of his short Mercedes career to date with a fine lap in 1m04.251s, beating Vettel's Ferrari by 0.04s. Lewis' 1m04.424s lap was good enough for third, which translated to eighth on the grid after his penalty.
When the red lights went out on Sunday afternoon, Valtteri made a lightning start - so good that both Vettel and Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo radioed in that he'd jumped it! Shortly afterwards came notification that the FIA was investigating.
When data from the grid sensor was examined, it revealed that Valtteri's reaction time was 0.201s, compared to 0.364s for Vettel alongside him on the front row. To stop drivers anticipating the start, the governing body may impose a penalty if they find that the reaction time is less than what's considered humanly possible. Anything better than 0.18s is thus likely to be marginal. Valtteri's start was about as good as was possible!
"I had no doubts about it," he said, "but I knew it was probably the best start I'd ever had! We do a lot of start practice and reaction time practice and in those practices you can hit better times than that, but it was just the perfect start really."
Further back, a problem for Max Verstappen promoted Lewis to seventh on the opening lap, which became sixth when he passed Sergio Pérez at Turn 3 on lap 6, and fifth when he passed Romain Grosjean's Haas a couple of laps later.
'Do the opposite to Kimi'
Knowing that Valtteri's start was under investigation, the team was looking at available videos and data, both at the circuit and back at the Brackley factory. Confident that everything was in order, Valtteri was nevertheless instructed to build a gap at the front, just in case a penalty was forthcoming, although he was not told about the investigation. If anything, a Drive Through penalty was considered most likely, which, at Red Bull Ring, would have involved a time loss of around 14.5s.
Despite upping his pace, Valtteri was lapping with amazing consistency, laps 7-10 all within 0.09s as he extended his lead over Vettel to 4.5s. Lewis, meanwhile, once he had cleared Grosjean and set off after Kimi Räikkönen's fourth-place Ferrari, was 14.5s behind his race-leading team mate.
By lap 25 of the 71-lap race, Lewis had closed to within DRS range of Räikkönen but the opportunity of an undercut did not yet exist because Grosjean, running sixth with the Force Indias close behind, was just 17s behind with 20s the necessary pit stop window.
By lap 29, Räikkönen had the necessary margin over Grosjean to pit but Ferrari left him out, presenting Mercedes with the opportunity to undercut him with Lewis. "Do the opposite to Kimi," came the radio instruction to Lewis on lap 31. As Räikkönen stayed out, Lewis dived into the pits for a set of UltraSoft Pirellis.
There was no sign of the rain that had partially driven the strategy of qualifying Lewis on the Supersoft tyre and with the team confident that Lewis could get to the end on the UltraSoft and benefit from the better first-lap performance (Räikkönen would be going onto the Supersoft after starting on the UltraSoft) the decision was taken to grab the undercut opportunity when it presented itself.
'There's not much left in these tyres'
The second factor was that when Ferrari did not pit Räikkonen as soon as his window to Grosjean opened, Mercedes concluded that their strategy was to leave him out, possibly in an attempt to back Valtteri into Vettel later on. Leaving Lewis out, therefore, would only have lost him more time behind Räikkönen at a time when Ricciardo's third-place Red Bull was a further 6s in front of the second Ferrari.
With the race pace of the leading three teams - Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull - very evenly matched, Lewis's pit stop caused the leaders to react, with Ricciardo pitting on lap 33 and Vettel on lap 34. It was not until lap 41, however, that Valtteri headed for the pits after a long stint on his UltraSofts.
Seeing what Ferrari's strategy was with Räikkönen, Valtteri was tantalisingly close to having a pit stop window over his fellow Finn, but not quite there. Between laps 34 and 40, the gap fluctuated between 19.5s and 20.2s. Valtteri had been given a new target lap time and team strategists could see that Räikkönen was going to have to lap Palmer's Renault and may lose vital time. Just at that point though, Valtteri reported on the radio, "There's not much left in these tyres."
Mindful of the fact that a year earlier Vettel had suffered a blow-out in Austria when he extended his stint, Valtteri was called straight in. There was a slight delay positioning the right front, with Valtteri's stop around 1.4s slower than Lewis's, and he re-joined 1.6s behind Räikkönen, with Vettel now just 3s behind Mercedes No77.
The first hurdle to be cleared was Räikkönen
With 30 laps of the fourth shortest circuit on the calendar remaining, the race was building to a thrilling climax. Valtteri was tasked with defending his lead under increasing pressure from the World Championship leader's Ferrari and Lewis, on his UltraSofts, was hunting down Ricciardo's Red Bull. This was not as simple a task as it may have been earlier in the season. The Red Bull had shown strong pace a fortnight earlier in Baku, despite the track being a power sensitive one. And a look at the quickest lap times set over the course of the race by the top three chassis, saw them all blanketed by just 0.07s!
Intensifying the pressure on Valtteri was that, as in Russia, while he'd been able to control the race during the opening stint on the UltraSoft, the tables seemed to turn once they bolted on the SuperSoft for the second stint, the Ferrari better-suited to it.
The first hurdle to be cleared was the long-running Räikkönen Ferrari. Valtteri was able to do that as soon as he caught it, Kimi having a slight lock-up into Turn 3 and Valtteri going by with the aid of DRS on the run to Turn 4.
The next issue he had to deal with was a black line appearing as he blistered his left rear tyre. With the same composure he'd shown in Russia, despite Vettel being within DRS range for the last two laps, he calmly made no mistakes and blasted across the line just 0.658s ahead of the Ferrari. He clearly enjoys cutting things fine - in Sochi the margin had been 0.617s...
'It was a bit of a déjà vu with Seb'
"It was a bit of a déjà vu with Seb coming close in those final laps," Valtteri smiled. "And I could feel the blister getting worse and worse. Every time I approached a right-hand corner it was more tricky, and with the back markers as well. You try to get through them as quickly as you can but sometimes you lose a bit more time than the guy behind. It all ended up well but I was pleased the race ended when it did!"
Lewis's damage limitation weekend concluded with 12 points for fourth place as he only just failed to steal the final podium position from Ricciardo on the penultimate lap with a bid down the outside into Turn 4. The Australian, though, braked as late as he dared and clung on.
"I've just sat and watched the replay with Daniel to see just how far alongside I got and whether if I'd just been a bit more aggressive I might have been ahead," Lewis explained post-race. "In the end, though, he just defended really well and I don't think I could have done better. Daniel's pace was fantastic today - very, very fast and they have obviously improved somewhere. I was giving it hell and wasn't closing massively. It was down to a mistake of his at the end that opened up that small window of opportunity for me but I couldn't quite do it.
'It was actually a really good race for me'
"It was actually a really good race for me. I would have taken out a bit more front wing for the second stint because balance-wise the car had a bit too much front end and it was difficult to race for 35 laps when the car was already neutral from the get-go. It's better to start the stint understeery and have it progress to neutral and then into oversteer later on. If it starts neutral then there's no way I'm going to do 35 laps without the rears dropping off. I came in at short notice, though, and we didn't have time. Saying that, I was able to make some switch changes and manage it. I was almost 15s behind when I got past Grosjean and just 7s behind at the end, so I was quick today. But Valtteri did a fantastic job, both today and yesterday, and he deserved to win. He's also had a DNF this year and I'd say there's no stage when he hasn't been in the fight."
In what is proving to be a classic season, Valtteri's second win moved him to within 15 points of Lewis in the Driver's Championship and 35 points behind Vettel's 171-point leading total. In the Constructors' Championship, the fighting performances by Valtteri and Lewis saw Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport extend its lead by nine points to lead Scuderia Ferrari by 287 points to 254.
At Silverstone next weekend, the drivers are looking forward to the Northamptonshire circuit's high-speed challenge with 2017's higher downforce cars. It should be more spectacular than ever!