When is a success not a success? Forget, for one moment, Daniel Ricciardo’s sensational win in Canada. Formula 1’s return to Austria was the first time in 2014 when a rival team was able to challenge Mercedes on merit. Williams had the faster car in a straight line and, crucially, track position after locking out the front row in qualifying. But despite running 1-2 throughout the first stint of the race, it was the Silver Arrows who collected those positions after 71 laps of racing. The result will forever go down in history as a mere formality for Formula 1’s dominant outfit, but the conservative approach of Williams perhaps handed the result to Mercedes. For Williams, third and fourth was undoubtedly a success after some difficult times, but could their success have been even greater?
Williams has had a competitive car throughout much of the season but failed to capitalise on their promise. In Austria, the signs were there on Friday that the Martini-liveried FW36 might be in contention as both drivers ended the day in top five, albeit almost a second behind pacesetter Lewis Hamilton. More pressingly, race pace was average – it was this which required the most urgent attention.
Come Saturday, Valtteri Bottas topped the timesheets in final practice as conditions heated up, but it was attributed to a strong lap from the Finn allied to Mercedes trialling an alternative set-up and not pumping in a proper hot lap. Both cars got through Q1, while in Q2 it was Nico Rosberg who led the way, with Williams a few tenths down in third and fourth.
The final top 10 shootout arrived. Bottas went straight out on a set of options and banged in a blisteringly quick time of 1:08.846. At the time, it looked good enough for pole position. But the track was ramping up and Hamilton was flying. This was the pole position lap, surely. Alas not. The Brit slid wide at the penultimate corner – his time was deleted for exceeding track limits, albeit a tour which was good enough only for fifth. Rosberg hadn’t set a particularly clean lap – his time of 1:08.944 put him second. Then came an uncharacteristic error from Hamilton; the Brit braked too harshly at turn two and arrived at the corner backwards, Rosberg had to back off. Advantage Williams. Bottas was a tad slower across the first two sectors and dipped a wheel onto the grass at turn six. Felipe Massa, behind, didn’t put in the perfect lap but it didn’t matter. It was pole position, his first since 2008 and Williams’s first front-row lockout in a decade. Cue jubilation.
But could they convert it into a famous win?
Massa retained the lead at the start but behind him Bottas lost out to Rosberg on the line. However, they swapped positions on the run up to turn two, leaving the Grove-based team with their cars leading the way. But would Rosberg be battling them single-handedly? Hamilton shot away from his ninth place grid slot, taking Daniil Kvyat off the line and also dispatching with Kimi Räikkönen. Daniel Ricciardo was easy picking after the Australian ran wide at turn one, while the Brit was able to line-up a move on Kevin Magnussen as the pack approached turn two. Hamilton had a look at Fernando Alonso, but waited until turn eight before nosing up the inside of the Ferrari driver.
Massa-Bottas-Rosberg-Hamilton was the order as they came across the line at the end of the first lap, with the leading quarter separated by 2.8s. That gap lowered to 2.0s, before increasing as Rosberg began to struggle with his tyres. The German was the first driver to react and he dived into the pits at the end of lap 10 and began setting a couple of quicker lap times compared to Massa. Hamilton responded a couple of laps later before Massa also came in. Those crucial few laps cost him, and allied to a comparatively slower stop he emerged from the pits behind Rosberg. Hamilton was on Massa’s tail but surely a little too far back? No. Hamilton pounced into turn two, relegating Massa another place. Bottas stopped a lap later than Massa but crucially his in-lap was 0.7s faster, while his stop was also one of Williams’s finest. The net result was that Rosberg headed the group, with Bottas, Hamilton and Massa in close contention. Williams’s decision to prolong the first stint had shuffled the order in favour of Mercedes.
However, it was Sergio Pérez who led the way as a result of Force India’s decision to put the Mexican on a long first stint. Pérez headed the pack for 10 laps as he eked out the life of his prime tyres, before his pace gradually faded and Rosberg seized the initiative on the run up to turn two on lap 26. Pérez wisely made it straightforward for the Mercedes racer, while Bottas realised the situation and used his superior traction to follow Rosberg through on the exit. Pérez lost over two seconds to Rosberg on that particular lap and Hamilton also usurped the Mexican soon after in order to keep pace with the leading duo. Massa, a second or so further back, was spared having to think twice after passing his Canada nemesis after Force India elected to service Pérez.
By now it was Bottas who was the man on a move, aided by a minor error from Rosberg when he ran wide at the first corner. The FW36 was faster than the W05 Hybrid throughout the first part of the lap – courtesy of its superior straight-line speed – while Rosberg was quicker across the second half of the lap, in which downforce was crucial.
Bottas slipped back by a few tenths and with Mercedes warning Hamilton of his brakes, they elected to service the Brit on lap 39. He slightly missed his marks, which cost him a second, while a few flames flickered out of his front right brakes. Hamilton immediately set the quickest lap of the race, with Rosberg reacting on the next lap. Williams kept Bottas out for a lap longer and he emerged behind Hamilton.
Massa was by now coming under increasing threat from the ever-present Alonso, despite the multiple deficiencies of the F14T. The Spaniard stayed out a few laps longer, enabling him to lead a lap for the first time in 2014, and came out of the pits within reach of Massa. Alonso began to eat into the advantage held by his erstwhile team-mate but the Brazilian responded, signalling the end of matters.
Bottas was unable to keep pace with the Silver Arrows and settled for third, while Hamilton radioed his team in a vain attempt to close the gap to Rosberg. Across such a short lap time, finding an advantage was a difficult proposition, although Rosberg’s marginally earlier stop meant he was slightly further down the line in terms of tyre wear. Hamilton sat a second-and-a-half behind his team-mate for much of the final stint – agonisingly just out of DRS range – before closing the gap significantly on the final lap. It was ultimately too late and Rosberg claimed his third win of the season, ahead of Hamilton and first time podium visitor Bottas. Massa dropped back in the last stint, although he did enough to keep Alonso at bay.
But despite Mercedes’s sixth 1-2 of the year, Williams initially had track position as well as the faster car in a straight line. Did they lack aggression in their strategy – allowing Mercedes the undercut - and cost themselves a shot at victory? Head of Performance Engineering Rob Smedley downplayed such thoughts.
“I think we were beaten by a faster car and a better organised team, so hats off to them because they did a better job than us today," Smedley said.
"We were not without problems ourselves and had to manage systems on the car - brakes, tyres, and it was all about that, and about consolidating and making sure we got third and fourth, and we didn't do anything silly trying to race Mercedes and finish fifth or sixth, or worse.
"I'm not sure we could have done it much differently to be honest. Mercedes had problems but I don't think they were running their full pace. If you react to their first pit stop there's every chance we wouldn't have got our cars to the end of the race, the tyre wear was that close, so I'm reasonably happy with what we did.”
Third and fourth nonetheless represented a good haul of points for Williams, who moved within reach of Ferrari and Force India with their result. Pérez eventually came sixth after a late pass on Kevin Magnussen, while Ricciardo moved ahead of Nico Hülkenberg on the last lap. It was a disappointing day for Red Bull as Sebastian Vettel, who struggled all weekend, lost power on the second lap and ultimately retired. Kimi Räikkönen encountered brake problems all race but beat Jenson Button to the final point. Pastor Maldonado had his best showing of the year in 12th, while Adrian Sutil was 13th after a radio mix-up at Sauber resulted in the Swiss team erroneously informing him to stop the car, costing its driver 10 seconds. That message was intended for Esteban Gutiérrez, who was released prematurely from his first stop. The right rear wheel was not attached – a 10 second stop/go penalty and a grid drop for Silverstone a punishment for the unfortunate Mexican.
Romain Grosjean started from the pits and finished a dismal 14th, while the one-stopping Jules Bianchi claimed 15th, ahead of Kamui Kobayashi, Max Chilton and Marcus Ericsson. Daniil Kvyat impressed all weekend but he was hobbled by a suspension failure, with the sister Toro Rosso of Jean-Éric Vergne also failed to make the flag after a braking problem.
But further ahead, it was Rosberg who increased his lead over team-mate Hamilton.
“Well 29 points for sure it’s a nice gap but it’s still so early in the season,” cautioned Rosberg. “I really like to concentrate on each weekend and keep on trying to make the most of them and enjoying the moment, also with the car that we have.”
Hamilton, though, isn’t worried about the deficit.
“Nico’s done a great job. He’s finished every race and fortunately hasn’t had any car problems so it’s inevitable.”
Austrian Grand Prix results:
|2||44||Lewis Hamilton||Mercedes||71||+1.9 secs||9||18|
|3||77||Valtteri Bottas||Williams-Mercedes||71||+8.1 secs||2||15|
|4||19||Felipe Massa||Williams-Mercedes||71||+17.3 secs||1||12|
|5||14||Fernando Alonso||Ferrari||71||+18.5 secs||4||10|
|6||11||Sergio Perez||Force India-Mercedes||71||+28.5 secs||15||8|
|7||20||Kevin Magnussen||McLaren-Mercedes||71||+32.0 secs||6||6|
|8||3||Daniel Ricciardo||Red Bull Racing-Renault||71||+43.5 secs||5||4|
|9||27||Nico Hulkenberg||Force India-Mercedes||71||+44.1 secs||10||2|
|10||7||Kimi Räikkönen||Ferrari||71||+47.7 secs||8||1|
|11||22||Jenson Button||McLaren-Mercedes||71||+50.9 secs||11|
|12||13||Pastor Maldonado||Lotus-Renault||70||+1 Lap||13|
|13||99||Adrian Sutil||Sauber-Ferrari||70||+1 Lap||16|
|14||8||Romain Grosjean||Lotus-Renault||70||+1 Lap||22|
|15||17||Jules Bianchi||Marussia-Ferrari||69||+2 Lap||18|
|16||10||Kamui Kobayashi||Caterham-Renault||69||+2 Lap||19|
|17||4||Max Chilton||Marussia-Ferrari||69||+2 Lap||21|
|18||9||Marcus Ericsson||Caterham-Renault||69||+2 Lap||20|
|19||21||Esteban Gutierrez||Sauber-Ferrari||69||+2 Lap||17|
|Ret||25||Jean-Eric Vergne||STR-Renault||59||+12 Lap||14|
|Ret||1||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull Racing-Renault||34||+37 Laps||12|
|Ret||26||Daniil Kvyat||STR-Renault||24||+47 Laps||7|