Lewis Hamilton began his quest for a record-equalling seventh world title by topping the times on Friday as Formula One roared back with a full day’s practice and an official technical protest of his Mercedes car at the belated season-opening Austrian Grand Prix.
Three months after the cancelled traditional curtain-raiser in Australia and six months on from the last race, it was business as usual from the dominant ‘black arrows’ Mercedes men with Valtteri Bottas completing a familiar one-two as the sport re-ignited after its longest off-season.
Hamilton, in commanding form in both the morning and afternoon sessions, was quickest in one minute and 4.304 seconds to lead Bottas by 0.197 seconds and third-placed Sergio Perez, in Racing Point’s pink Mercedes, by 0.657.
“Day 1 back behind the wheel. Man, I love it. Great effort from the team today and in the build up to what really is the most unusual circumstances. I’m grateful to everyone whose hard work enabled us to be back today. Sending you all positivity,” Hamilton tweeted.
“It’s been a long time coming, so it feels great to feel the new car for the first time since February.
“It’s quite a big difference to the one we got to test at Silverstone and I don’t remember what I was like in February, to be honest. It was so long ago,” he added.
Sebastian Vettel, in his last season with Ferrari, was fourth for the Italian outfit ahead of McLaren-bound Daniel Ricciardo of Renault and Lando Norris of McLaren.
Lance Stroll, in the second Racing Point car, modelled on the hugely-successful 2019 title-winning Mercedes, was seventh ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc in the second Ferrari and his future team-mate Carlos Sainz of McLaren.
Verstappen revealed afterwards that his performance was heavily curtailed by running with a broken front wing shortly before his Red Bull team confirmed, on a day of hectic action, that they had lodged an official protest over Mercedes’ controversial dual-axis steering (DAS) system.
The system allows drivers to adjust the toe angle of the car by pushing or pulling the steering wheel in the cockpit.
It was used by both Mercedes drivers on Friday when the teams all carried the sport’s ‘We Race As One’ pro-diversity message on their cars.
In the early hours of Saturday, race stewards threw out the protest, declaring DAS to be “a legitimate part of the steering system”.
The long-awaited track action brought an end to Formula One’s longest break following the lifting of lockdown restrictions in Europe caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Hamilton, who has been an outspoken supporter of the campaign for equality and diversity since the death of American George Floyd last month, revealed a statement ‘Black Lives Matter’ helmet before climbing into his Mercedes.
His Mercedes W11 car was also running in revised new black livery, instead of the team’s traditional silver, with a message to ‘End Racism’ on the halo.
“For a long time, we’ve been planning for the livery change for the car, for the (driver) suit change and I have also designed my helmet in black,” said Hamilton, speaking on a video released on social media.
“Normally, my helmet is white, my suit is white and obviously the car is in silver. This is why – it’s the whole reason that the helmet has changed its colour and the suit and the car.
“It’s supporting equality, above all, and just really continuing to solidify that important message as we currently have ‘the mic’ and people are starting to listen. So, it’s an opportunity to push that message and really hold people accountable.
“It’s not good enough, even if someone says to you ‘we’ve been doing something’ or ‘we’ve been trying’. They need to try harder because it is still a big issue that the world is fighting 60 years later, after Martin Luther King was fighting for it and gave his life,” Hamilton added.
(Note: The report has been updated with details of Red Bull’s protest)