Lewis Hamilton’s damage-limitation performance in Austria yesterday was a perfect confirmation of his latent speed and fighting spirit even if he could not stop team-mate Nico Rosberg securing his third triumph in Mercedes’ sixth one-two of the year.
After Rosberg had briefly snatched second place from Valtteri Bottas, one of the upstart Williams drivers who had had the temerity to annex the front row of the grid, Hamilton – starting from ninth after messing up qualifying spectacularly – exploded between Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat off the start line and was already fifth towards the end of the lap. Then he put an astonishing move on Fernando Alonso going into the eighth of the nine corners, to snatch fourth.
“We’ve been working really hard on starts and that was one of the best I’ve ever made,” Hamilton said. “It’s just a pity I wasn’t where I ought to have been on the grid when I made it!”
There then ensued a game of cat and mouse as Felipe Massa led for Williams from his first pole since Brazil 2008, and Bottas surprised Rosberg by snatching second back at the second corner.
“I thought I would get him at the start and I did,” Rosberg said. “But Williams were very quick on the straight and he went flying by me, which wasn’t good. But we knew we had a little more pace and less tyre wear than them so we went aggressive on the pit stops.”
Rosberg and Hamilton switched sooner from the supersoft to the soft compound Pirelli tyres, on laps 11 and 13, before Massa and Bottas did likewise on 14 and 15. That gave Rosberg the undercut (the advantage of opting for fresher tyres sooner to gain track position on a rival) on Bottas, who had taken over the lead when Massa pitted.
However, Sergio Perez had started on the soft tyres and was now leading, so Rosberg found himself being harried by Bottas and Hamilton until he found a way past the Force India driver on the 26th lap. His pursuers soon did likewise, but by then Rosberg had opened a gap which he was able to maintain.
By stopping on the 39th lap, one before Rosberg and two before Bottas, and also setting a fastest lap, Hamilton got the undercut on the Finn in the next round of pit stops, though Rosberg retained the lead because, overall, his two stops were 1.9sec quicker than Hamilton’s.
“The stops didn’t feel that fast and it may have been my positioning,” Hamilton said. It later turned out that on his first he stopped just past his scheduled marks, which slowed down his pit crew fractionally, while on his second stop there was a problem with the brake duct on the left front wheel, which made the wheel difficult to fit.
“These things happen,” Hamilton said, “but when you push so hard and lose a chunk of time like that, it’s frustrating.”
That set up another duel between the two Mercedes drivers. Both, however, were having to nurse their brakes – Hamilton more than Rosberg – as they had in Canada last time out, so the gap fluctuated as the disc temperatures ebbed and flowed.
“Going into the race I wasn’t aware that we had a brake problem so it was news to me when they started to speak about it,” Hamilton revealed. “In the last race it was the rear brakes, in this one it was the fronts. I’d be guessing what went wrong, but it didn’t seem to be the same for Nico. For me it was constantly an issue, I guess because I was following people all the time.
“I was told to back off quite a lot, but in the last couple of laps I tried to close up again. But after the last race I was just grateful to finish and that has to be my goal for the next couple of races.”
Hamilton kept pushing, however, and the pair went into the last lap within a second of each other, both authorised to use the overtake button. When Rosberg locked up his right front tyre momentarily and ran wide in a corner it seemed that Hamilton might have his chance, but after Rosberg recovered Hamilton had run out of opportunities and backed off in the final sector to finish 1.9sec behind. Which, of course, happened to be the deficit on his pit stops…
“Generally I felt comfortable in those last few laps and thought I could keep a nice gap,” Rosberg said. “But on the last lap my tyres dropped away a bit. Once I was past the first couple of hairpin corners I knew that it would be okay. It’s great to extend my championship lead to 29 points over Lewis. That was my goal.”
As Massa faded to fourth, Bottas drove superbly to take his first podium for the revitalised Williams team, who added 27 points to their tally in a race that made up for many of their could-have-been moments.