After the relentless drama of Baku two weeks ago, the Austrian Grand Prix was always going to be a bit of a come-down.
But it certainly wasn’t lacking in drama, even if very little of that drama happened between laps two and 65.
It all kicked off with one of the most blistering starts I can remember in F1, one which had Sebastian Vettel in full-on moany mode again…
Bottas beats the clock
Valtteri Bottas may have been a late arrival at Mercedes but he’s grabbing every chance to show his mettle.
His start, from pole, was so rapid it looked like everyone else had been having a sandwich when the lights went out.
Bottas’ reaction time was 0.201 seconds, within a smidgin of being declared a jump start.
Vettel (pictured with Bottas) was in no doubt it was a jump start, radioing his crew to complain. Daniel Ricciardo in the Red Bull also saw it as an illegal start but the figures showed it wasn’t illegal – just very, very fast indeed.
In the cool-down room before the podium ceremony, Ricciardo laughed as he said ‘Your start..!’ to Bottas before Vettel chimed in, saying: ‘He jumped it, jumped it 100 per cent.’
Bottas, as is his way, was totally unflustered. In the post-race press conference, Vettel again accused Bottas of an illegal start. When he was told it was legal, at 0.201 seconds, Vettel replied: ‘I don’t believe that!’ Thankfully, that provoked laughter all round, including from race winner Bottas, rather than more F1 ire.
A reaction time under 0.2 seconds would get the race stewards sharpening their penalty pencils, so Bottas was right on the edge.
The stewards themselves were somewhat more snail-like. It was lap 26, a full half-hour into proceedings, before they issued a statement saying no further action would be taken against the Fin.
Being 0.001seconds quicker off the line can translate to a 2metre advantage at the first corner in F1 and Bottas made his advantage count, controlling the opening phase of the race and crossing the finishing line just metres in front of Vettel.
Elsewhere during the start, Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat blotted his already crusty copybook with another clumsy effort, running into the back of Fernando Alonso in the McLaren and ending his race.
Alonso in turn was shunted into Max Verstappen in the Red Bull – parent team of Toro Rosso – and Verstappen was out too.
Luckily for Kvyat, Verstappen was already having transmission problems. Otherwise, Red Bull angel of death Dr Helmut Marko may well have decided to swing his sharp scythe over Kvyatt’s career for the second time and heave him off the F1 roster for good.
What’s that ominous noise, Daniil? I’m afraid that’s the clock ticking on your career with the Red Bull family.
Special mention for the unfortunate Verstappen. That’s five retirements in the last seven grands prix for him.
The experience is not lost on the youngster though. His season may be shot but he’s learning how to put a brave face on disappointment. Indeed, he could have given Lewis Hamilton some valuable lessons this weekend… but more on that later.
Saving the best til last
While the bulk of the race wasn’t completely without action, it was a good afternoon to pop out for a quick pint before the closing laps.
On lap 65 of 71, Sergio Perez reported spots of rain at turn nine and we all held our breath as… no rain fell.
However, even without the wet stuff, the race was finally getting up a proper head of steam.
Hamilton, seemingly stuck in fourth, asked his team for all the power they could muster to help him pass Ricciardo (pictured).
For the closing laps, Hamilton harried Ricciardo for third but just couldn’t make the extra Merc grunt count.
That Red Bull is looking pretty handy – this was Ricciardo’s fifth podium in a row and he celebrated as if he’d just won the world championship and a Nobel prize.
His car was fastest in the middle sector of the Red Bull Ring, no small feat given the Merc and Ferrari competition this year.
A few seconds up the track, Vettel was harrying and haranguing Bottas for the victory but the race was a lap too short for Ferrari, and they had to make do with a second-place finish.
The German didn’t seem too unhappy with the result, which stretched his lead over Hamilton in the title race and – bonus – brough Bottas into contention too, adding some new tactical pressures to Mercedes for next week’s gathering at Silverstone.
Vettel bounded up the stairs to the cool-down room like a man who’d just won the lottery, or perhaps a man who desperately needed a comfort break.
Either way, the closing laps were a just reward for fans who’d stayed awake as the race threatened – and only threatened – to get exciting for the bulk of the afternoon.
Uh-oh. The old Lewis is back
I’ve been asked many times what it is about Lewis Hamilton (pictured) that winds so many F1 fans up.
There’s no single answer but one ancient chink in his armour was back this weekend.
When Hamilton is down, the world knows it. His team boss, Toto Wolff, admitted in private that the row over Vettel’s behaviour in Baku had got to Hamilton.
That, coupled with a gearbox change that resulted in a five-place grid penalty, meant Hamilton was facing a tough weekend.
But, rather than using his misfortune as a springboard to showcase his world-class skills, Hamilton went into either ‘Poor Me’mode or ‘Quiet Mode’, depending on your own viewpoint.
He struggled to get the car working for himself, even as Bottas was tearing up the circuit in the other Merc, and managed only third-best in qualifying – which, coupled with his gearbox penalty, bumped him down to eighth on the grid.
Just as significantly, his interviews were appalling. He often gave monosyllabic answers, looked incredibly defensive and, well, was a bit annoying.
Why is this significant? Because mind games matter in sports at this level.
Whether Hamilton irritates fans or not is neither here nor there. What is significant is the set of signals he gives out when he’s on the back foot.
Love him or hate him, Vettel gets punchy when the going gets tough – he wouldn’t let go of his Bottas ‘jump start’ claims at all, for example. And let’s not mention Baku.
Hamilton, on the other hand, can look like a man who feels he has been robbed of his birthright when things go wrong. The mid-Atlantic accent returns, the awkward interviews return, the uneasy sense that he is fixated on what’s wrong rather than focussed on winning returns.
Fourth-place in Austria may seem like reasonable damage-limitation after a challenging weekend but, with Bottas nailing victory, it will be a huge disappointment to Hamilton.
Here’s hoping the ‘other’ Lewis turns up for Silverstone.
The battle of the No.2s
Bottas is now 35 points adrift of Vettel in the Drivers’ Championship, and only 15 points behind Hamilton.
He’s extremely popular in the Mercedes garage and his understated approach to the world has garnered him plenty of fans out in the grandstands too.
A No.2 driver? We’ll see about that.
Kimi Raikkonen, meanwhile, is being used and abused by Ferrari as a tactical pawn to help Vettel win.
It’s perfectly legitimate but you can hear Raikkonen’s frustration in just about every radio transmission.
Ferrari have more updates coming as they struggle to wrest the Constructors’ title from Mercedes but it’s becoming clearer by the week that Kimi, who finished a lacklustre fifth in Austria, can’t win – either literally or metaphorically.
It’s a tough position for someone as popular and – on his day – able as Raikkonen but it is the way of Ferrari.
I wonder who’ll be filling Ferrari’s seats next season?
The midfield heroes
Romain Grosjean (pictured), Haas, sixth place. The last car not lapped by the leaders.
Grosjean, like Haas, has his ups and downs. But the ups are really quite special.
Don’t underestimate what a big deal it is to get that Haas ahead of both Force Indias.
Talking of which, it was another solid weekend for the Force India pair, who managed not to collide with each other and finished seventh and eighth as a result.
Behind them, Williams managed ninth and tenth for the recovery of the weekend, having qualified so far back they were starting from behind the bins at a burger van.
In fact, it was their worst qualifying for years and they’ll be relieved to have seen both Massa and Stroll – in the points yet again – finish in the top ten.
And so on to Silverstone, where the big debate is whether the circuit’s years as an F1 venue are drawing to a close.
Which is as good an excuse as you need to get down to Maggots and Becketts for an up-close view of just how much speed 2017 F1 cars carry through corners.
See you there.