When Williams locked out the front row in Saturday’s qualifying session, it was an uplifting result for the officially plucky British squad in a week of entirely predictable misery for English football fans. Its first one-two since the German Grand Prix in 2003, it was also the first pole position Felipe Massa has managed since his career-threatening 2009 Hungarian GP accident. Smiles all-round, then.
Was it optimism on a par with the most hopelessly cheery England fan to hope for a victory? Following the braking and electrical maladies that blighted Nico Rosberg’s Canadian GP two weeks ago and destroyed Lewis Hamilton’s, perhaps not. In the end, though, the Silver Arrows pierced the Williams effort fairly convincingly, although both Mercedes’ drivers were at pains to point out that this was far from a stroll in the Austrian hillside. ‘It wasn’t the easiest of races trying to manage certain things,’ Rosberg said. ‘But I had a very fast car, and it’s great to win.’
Hamilton, who started ninth after losing his car under braking during his last qualifying lap, provided one of the race highlights with a stellar start. He shot through a gap between Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat, and had dispatched Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo and McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen to make fifth place by turn two. Then he breezed past Alonso’s Ferrari at turn eight, to wind up fourth by the end of the first lap. Equal parts deft and ballsy, it looked like Lewis was on course for one of his periodic Senna-style demolition jobs. Once again, though, it appears that he’s met his match in the one driver he really is obliged to beat: his team-mate.
After that, it was a question of pit-stop strategy, and who could do what on the Pirelli super softs and softs on a track whose temperature was higher than at any previous point during the weekend. Suddenly, everyone was mumbling about ‘tyre deg’. It was like 2013 all over again.
The Williams looked impressively close to the Mercedes on the supersoft rubber, but Williams blinked first and when both cars pitted a couple of laps later, Mercedes regained the upper hand. It was a fight to the end between Rosberg and Hamilton, both of whom were able to maintain a decent margin despite managing heat and brake issues, as they had in Montreal. It looked easy, but the Austrian Grand Prix was more proof that even with a substantial technical advantage, Mercedes is still working all the angles to win.
While three of the four Red Bull cars faltered and faded at the company’s own racing circuit – Vettel once again strangely luckless and forced to retire with powertrain problems – Valteri Bottas scored his first podium finish, Massa was fourth, Alonso fifth, Perez sixth, Magnussen seventh, and Daniel Ricciardo eighth. Raikkonen, who must now be seriously testing Ferrari’s patience, provided another one of his priceless Kimi FM moments. ‘We are racing Button, we are racing Button, we need two-tenths per lap,’ his English race engineer David Lloyd told him, as he scrambled for 10th place and the solitary point that goes with it. ‘Well give me some more power!’ was the at-once logical but not entirely politic reply. Oh to be a fly on the wall in the post-race debrief in the Ferrari motorhome. When things are going well, as they had been at Lotus, Kimi is a handful enough. When they’re as painful as they currently are, well… I’m not sure the word ‘quixotic’ exists in Italian.
Fun to be had, too, in the Mercedes camp. The Rosberg v Hamilton battle was always going to serve up the key narrative in 2014. But with eight races done, the momentum is still with the German, who is forcing the apparently naturally faster Hamilton to dig deeper than he – and us – might have expected. Perhaps Silverstone’s legendary fan-power will give Lewis the extra he needs to pull back the 29-point deficit that’s now opened up.
We’ll be there, as will many thousands of you. With Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo calling for a ‘collective brainstorming for the good of F1’, amid calls to revolutionise the sport for the younger audience who are currently disengaged from it, now might be a good time to ask: what kind of race do you want to see?