Steer we go again! Formula One giants in dispute over Mercedes’ new device as Red Bull try to halt Lewis Hamilton’s bid for a seventh world title
- The 2020 Formula One season finally begins on Sunday at Austrian Grand Prix
- The drivers have already begun their preparations for this weekend’s race
- Lewis Hamilton posted the fastest times at the Red Bull Ring during practice
- Red Bull protested the legality of Mercedes’ reinvention of the steering wheel
- The DAS system (dual axis steering) allows Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas to move panel they hold in their hands not only right and left but forwards and backwards
No sooner had the scream of V6 engines filled the Styrian valley than those seeking to prevent Lewis Hamilton winning a seventh world title blew the cobwebs off the rulebook.
How very Formula One, with all its arcane squabbling.
On Friday night, Red Bull protested the legality of Mercedes’ reinvention of the steering wheel ahead of Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix, which marks the return of major international sport after the coronavirus-created famine.
Red Bull have protested the legality of Mercedes’ reinvention of the steering wheel
Lewis Hamilton and his fellow racing drivers will finally start the season this Sunday in Austria
It is not a case of back to normal. Spectators are banned. Masks are worn. Sanitiser is rubbed in. But certain verities pertain: Hamilton led the way in both practice sessions again, his car still the cream at the top of the bottle.
The man himself looks in prime physical shape, a touch more muscular after three and a half months of hibernation in the gym and pounding the pavements.
As for his machine — black-liveried rather than silver, as a nod to the racial equality cause he is espousing — it is helped by the controversial, Red Bull-challenged DAS system (dual axis steering). This enterprising device allows him and team-mate Valtteri Bottas to move the panel they hold in their hands not only right and left but forwards and backwards.
The novel adjustments deliver optimum set-up for both straights and corners by altering the angle of the wheels.
Hamilton posted the fastest time in both first and second practice sessions on Friday
‘It’s a very clever system,’ said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. ‘All credit to the ingenuity behind it. The fundamental question for us is, does it comply with the regulations?
‘We’re after some clarification from the FIA. We have questions about it.’ Deliberations were ongoing on Friday night.
Ironically, Red Bull have set about emulating DAS, which broke cover in pre-season testing a lifetime ago in February, and are believed to be close to fitting their own version soon if the FIA declare the Mercedes within the rules. A Red Bull surge is the best hope of Hamilton and Co being threatened this season, however long it might last.
All we know for sure of the schedule for now is that eight races are planned over the next 10 packed weekends. So 18 rounds, finishing in Abu Dhabi in December, is the aim. There are no guarantees.
Christian Horner wants clarification from the FIA regarding the steering wheel system
Seizing opportunities, reacting nimbly, will be more important factors than usual. Max Verstappen, in the Red Bull, is the man most likely, just conceivably, to stop Hamilton. He is fearless, young, aggressive.
‘He has the ingredient of self-belief,’ said Horner of the 22-year-old who is remarkably starting his sixth season.
Last year he took a second successive victory at this track — the Red Bull Ring, owned by the drink manufacturers’ boss Dietrich Mateschitz, born 40 miles from here in Wiener Schnitzel territory.
This place at the foot of the Alps, when still known as the Osterreichring, used to be one of the most picturesque killing fields in sport.
Hamilton is looking to equal Michael Schumacher’s record of seven world championships
Now it is tamer, and a golden-horned bull, made of 1,200 pieces of rusted steel, ‘jumps’ through a hoop on the infield. Hamilton has won here once, in 2016.
Another winner in Austria is Bottas, the following year. One feels the Finn needs a flying start to launch his season.
If he should fail to land an early blow, it is hard to imagine him keeping his confidence high or denting Hamilton’s.
There are two reasons why the champion could waver. First, the uncertainty over his future at Mercedes. As we report on Saturday, he is asking for twice as much as his team want to pay him in these Covid-hit days of reduction, £40million to £20m. Will the gap breed ill-feeling? Secondly, will his political activism, fervently supporting the anti-racism cause, act as a distraction (or indeed as motivation)?
John Watson, a five-time race winner in the more dangerous era of the Seventies and Eighties, thinks it might be a negative.
‘Has he reached a tipping point?’ he wondered. ‘Have outside interests become bigger in Lewis’s mind than his racing? Has he the capacity to separate the two things?
‘Bottas is the sleeper this weekend and maybe this season. Judging by his social media output he is fitter than ever, never off his bike, and has been spending his time contentedly in Finland with his new girlfriend. He’s one to watch.’
What else is there to watch? Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari. The German has been told he has no future at Maranello from the end of the season, which means he is now slipped the pressures of corporate responsibility.
His relationship with the team and his replacement as No 1, Charles Leclerc, has the potential to turn toxic. It will be political at best.
Talking of politics, all eyes will be turned towards the grid on Sunday and the planned statement on the big racial contention of the day. To take a knee or not to take a knee?
This was the question discussed at a long meeting of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association on Friday night. The millionaires’ trade union decided as one to wear ‘End Racism’ T-shirts.
As it stands, so to speak, some of them will kneel, some won’t.
2020 FORMULA ONE CALENDAR
Austrian Grand Prix (Spielberg): July 5
Styrian GP (Spielberg): July 13
Hungarian GP (Budapest): July 19
British GP (Silverstone): August 2
70th Anniversary GP (Silverstone): August 9
Spanish GP (Barcelona): August 16
Belgian GP (Spa-Francorchamps): August 30
Italian GP (Monza): September 6
September-November: Eurasia (Russia), Asia (Vietnam and China) and Americas (Canada, United States, Mexico, Brazil)
December: Middle East (Bahrain and Abu Dhabi)
Australia, Monaco, France, Netherlands, Azerbaijan, Singapore, Japan
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