The 2016 Austrian Grand Prix was a brilliant example of a Formula 1 race. So if you have friends who you are waiting to introduce to the sport, you know which Grand Prix to show them. The race had a perfect mix of strategy, wheel to wheel action and controversy. The last 11 laps were probably the best with the potential podium finishers in a straight shootout for the win. And of course, it isn’t always that we have the winner decided on the last lap of a Formula 1 race. Perfect drama!
Lewis Hamilton, a surprise race winner for many, clinched his third victory of the season, his first in Austria and 46th career win. The reigning World Champion now stands five wins away from equaling Alain Prost’s 51 race wins – the second best record in Formula 1. Given Hamilton’s form and Mercedes’ superiority, it is only a matter of time before the Briton equals and breaks Prost’s record. Michael Schumacher’s 91 wins seem much further away and chasing that record will need much time and luck. The big question will also be – motivation.
The 2016 Austrian Grand Prix will be remembered also for the last lap clash between teammates and arch championship rivals, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. Despite starting from pole-position, Hamilton saw himself chasing Rosberg for victory after their round of pit-stops. This was due to a fiery drive from Rosberg and Mercedes’ questionable late tyre change for Hamilton. The popular belief was that the ‘Master of Overtaking’ Hamilton would easily DRS (yes, Formula 1’s way to force overtaking!) his way past the ‘mentally not-so-strong’ Rosberg.
However, Rosberg drove a champion till the start of the last lap of a race he absolutely needed to and should’ve won. His error on Turn 1 saw his exit and hence approach to T2 be compromised. This allowed Hamilton to slipstream his way next to Rosberg on the outside, a spot from where overtaking would’ve been very difficult. In an attempt to halt Hamilton’s move by leaving no room at the exit, Rosberg drove straight at the corner which otherwise turned right, leading to yet another collision between the Mercedes drivers. The result? Rosberg’s car suffered more damage than Hamilton’s and saw him limp his way to the finish line to clinch fourth. As for Hamilton, he still managed to bring the car home and claim victory.
The FIA Stewards acted as expected, as they inquired about the Rosberg-Hamilton clash. First, they took nearly four hours to announce their decision. This meant that the official results of an international sporting event were delayed as the global audiences waited to know Rosberg’s fate. Second, their delayed penalty wasn’t a penalty after all. Rosberg was penalized 10 seconds to his race finish time, two penalty points on his Super License (you need this to race in Formula 1) and a reprimand. Since Rosberg finished 14 seconds ahead of Daniel Ricciardo, he kept his fourth place. Basically, the Stewards penalty didn’t penalize Rosberg at all. One does wonder if the Stewards kept the Drivers’ Championship into consideration while making their decision. Something that they are absolutely not supposed to do so while adjudicating such incidents. However, a quick glance at similar errors by other drivers in the recent past indicates that they were fair in their judgement.
Post-race reactions from Mercedes were interesting too. The reigning Constructors’ Champions saw yet another 1-2 finish be robbed after their drivers failed to keep away from each other’s bodywork again this year. The team claimed that a ‘brake by wire’ issue compromised Rosberg’s car on the last lap, an excuse that should be read in two ways. First, the team didn’t publicly blaming Rosberg to save him from a harsh penalty by the Stewards. Second, what was said publicly and what would’ve transpired in the team’s post-race debrief would’ve been two different things. Rosberg was clearly to blame for the incident. After all, a car with a ‘brake by wire’ (BBW) issue should’ve braked earlier to compensate for the loss of braking power – Rosberg didn’t. And a BBW issue doesn’t create further steering issues for the driver not allowing him to turn right – Rosberg didn’t!
Either way, the fight between the two Mercedes drivers is heartening to see. They are separated by 11 points in the Drivers’ Championship and for a change, Rosberg isn’t seeming the one to succumb too soon. They will fight till the last corner of the last lap of the last race of 2016, but if their on-track behavior doesn’t change, Mercedes will impose team orders to protect their interests and disallow their drivers from racing.
The other heroes in Austria were Max Verstappen (P2), Jenson Button (P6), Romain Grosjean (P7) and Manor’s Pascal Wehrlein (P10). After Jules Bianchi’s ninth place finish in the 2014 Monaco Grand Prix, Wehrlein’s 10th place in Austria brought much joy to the team and the paddock. Manor’s first point of 2016 also meant that they’re now ahead of Sauber in the championship table. If they finish the season this way, Sauber’s earnings could drop and further compromise the team’s financial position.
The Force India team, however, was the biggest losers in Austria as they suffered from a double DNF on a track that should’ve otherwise suited their package. Their race performance was a polar opposite of their qualifying performance where Nico Hulkenberg qualified in third place.
With the 2016 British Grand Prix only five days away, the Mercedes rivalry could hit a major Hamilton bias, as he prepares to race at home in front of his fanatic British fans.