BERLIN – Two penalties were too much for even the mighty Lewis Hamilton to swallow at the season-opening Austrian Formula One Grand Prix, but it could make the season a lot more exciting.
A grid demotion from second to fifth for not slowing down under yellow flags in qualifying, imposed an hour before the race start Sunday, was followed by a five-second penalty towards the end of the race for an incident with Red Bull’s Alex Albon as Hamilton finished off the podium in fourth.
The outcome shows that Hamilton won’t have an easy ride as he chases a record-equalling seventh world title in a season already very different than others owing to the coronavirus crisis.
“The mistakes of the favourite were not the worst news for what should be a strange season all around,” Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung paper said on Monday.
Britain’s Guardian named the race with plenty of excitement and three safety car phases an “engrossing and bravura show” while saying Hamilton’s day “ran like some violent roller-coaster.”
Teammate Valtteri Bottas stayed out of all trouble and won from pole, but it was not an easy day for Mercedes even before Hamilton was punished for the incident with 10 laps left.
Running first and second at the time, the drivers were repeatedly warned by the team to stay off the kerbs because of gearbox sensor problems.
“At a certain stage it looked like neither of our cars would finish the race, so we were trying to cruise home and really look after our cars,” Mercedes motorsport chief Toto Wolff admitted.
And when Albon pitted for fresh and fast soft tyres under the final safety car stage victory appeared under threat as Bottas and Hamilton stayed out on their slower mediums.
“I really think we could have easily won that race,” Albon said. “I feel like I had completed the move on Lewis already, and I was thinking about getting Bottas on the next lap.”
Red Bull driver Alexander Albon. File picture: Ng Han Guan / AP Photo.
But the two collided as Albon tried to pass Hamilton on the outside, their second incident after Brazil 2019, the Thai spun and then even had to retire late in the race, just as teammate Max Verstappen, winner of the previous two Austrian races, early on.
Hamilton still seemed on course to a podium but Lando Norrris then put together a sensational final lap in his McLaren to pip Hamilton by less than two-tenths for a his first career podium in third, with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc second from seventh on the grid.
By doing so, Norris became the first Briton to rank ahead of Hamilton in the championship since Jenson Button at the 2014 season-opener in Australia where Hamilton didn’t finish and Button placed third.
Hamilton, who had made plenty of headlines in the run-up and during the weekend with his big support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and along with 13 other drivers had taken a knee before the start, took it all in his stride as a somewhat elder statesman now.
“I drove my heart out in the race, I did everything I could – but it was just one of those weekends,” he said.
“There are lots of areas where I can improve. I didn’t do a great job in qualifying … The scenario with Alex felt more like a racing incident to me. The time penalty meant that I lost the podium, but it is what it is.
“Ultimately, this was not a good weekend for me, but it could be worse – I’ll take what I’ve got, try to learn from it and be better next time.”
Hamilton’s next chance comes right away on Sunday on the same course, where he has now missed the podium four times since his lone win there in 2016.