In a dramatic and eventful start to the 2020 season, McLaren’s Lando Norris starred to achieve his maiden Formula 1 podium finish at the Austrian Grand Prix. 

Thanks to an excellent performance from start to finish, Norris came of age at the Red Bull Ring on a weekend he and McLaren will remember for a long time to come.

He was a regular fixture within the top six through all three practice sessions and his impressive form continued into qualifying. A brilliant qualifying lap secured fourth place on the grid with an effort that was just 0.687s shy of Valtteri Bottas’ pole position time. 

A late grid penalty issued to Lewis Hamilton an hour before the start of the race on Sunday for failing to slow for yellow flags in Q3 promoted Norris to third and put him in prime position to capitalise. 

The Briton initially struggled to keep up with the pace of the leaders and dropped to fifth in the opening laps. After Max Verstappen retired with mechanical issues, and Lewis Hamilton and Sergio Perez picked up five-second time penalties amid a flurry of late Safety Cars, he clawed himself back into podium contention. 

Having survived a scrap with McLaren teammate Carlos Sainz and making a bold overtake on Perez’s Racing Point, Norris found himself running in fourth. 

With Hamilton running second on track with a penalty looming for bumping Albon off the road in the closing stages, Norris knew he had to close the gap to the Mercedes driver fast if he was to have a chance of earning his first-ever top three finish. 

It appeared an unlikely prospect in reality with Hamilton holding the buffer he needed entering the final lap, but Norris turned in one of the most important laps of his career to post the race’s fastest lap on the last tour. 

Norris gained a huge 0.728s on Hamilton on the last lap to take third place by just 0.198s once the reigning world champion’s penalty was applied. 

"I'm speechless,” Norris said after the race. “I think there's a few points in the race where I thought I kind of fudged it up a bit.

"I dropped to fifth with a few laps to go, Carlos was almost going to get past me. But I didn't give up and I managed to get past Perez and ended up on the podium.” 

"The last few laps, when I had to get past Checo, I knew he had a five second penalty but nothing more than that," he added.

"I always seemed to struggle when I was close to the cars ahead and more vulnerable to the guys behind. 

“So I knew - not just because of Lewis, because I didn't know at the time [he had a penalty] - I had to try to get past him. And then when the Lewis penalty came, I knew I had to turn it up a little bit.”

At just 20-years-old, Norris has become the third-youngest podium finisher in F1 history, behind only Verstappen and Lance Stroll.

Norris already enjoyed a strong rookie F1 campaign as he helped McLaren claim fourth place in the constructors’ championship last year, but he looks to have made further gains over the winter and has returned for his sophomore season with added confidence. 

And his performance and amazing last lap even took McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl by surprise. 

“To be honest I didn’t expect that he could pull off that lap at the end,” Seidl told Sky Sports. 

“He had a strategy in mind, and for such a young guy to be pulling off such a lap on the very last lap and end up on the podium, it’s just great.”

Speaking in his post-race debrief later on, Seidl added: “It was a roller coaster in the last few laps. At one point we thought we had missed the podium when Leclerc went through. 

“But then obviously we were communicating with Lando the gaps to Lewis, knowing that he gets the penalty. Then the engineers together with Lando prepared it for his last laps, in terms of using the maximum of everything the car had. 

“But for Lando to actually pull it off like that, it’s impressive.” 

Penalties scupper Hamilton in poor start

The Austrian Grand Prix did not go the way Hamilton would have hoped after the defending world champion made the perfect start to the weekend by dominating all three practice sessions. 

Things began to unravel in qualifying after Hamilton was not only beaten to pole position by teammate Valtteri Bottas by the slender margin of just 0.012s, but also found himself under investigation for two potential rules breaches. 

Hamilton had his first Q3 lap time deleted for a track limits infringement but kept his P2 starting position and was also initially cleared of a second offence - failing to slow for yellow flags when Bottas took a trip across the grass.

That was until Red Bull appealed the decision just hours before lights out on Sunday after bringing new evidence to light. After a second investigation, the stewards found Hamilton guilty of failing to slow for the yellow caution flags and subsequently handed him a three-place grid penalty, dropping him to fifth. 

Following the early retirement of Verstappen, Hamilton was up to second place by lap 10, and had begun to close in on Bottas. The gap was less than three seconds by lap 25 when Mercedes double-stacked their cars in the pits during the first Safety Car period. 

Hamilton continued to apply the pressure to Bottas but both Mercedes drivers were soon instructed to nurse their cars home after discovering gearbox-related sensor issues, taking away some of the Briton’s momentum. 

Albon emerged as a threat during a thrilling climax to the race after Red Bull opted to switch the British-born Thai racer onto a fresh set of Soft tyres late on, while the hampered Mercedes duo remained out on ageing hards. 

Albon closed in and attacked Hamilton, leading to the pair’s collision at Turn 4 that resulted in Hamilton picking up his second penalty of the weekend and ultimately left him having to settle with fourth. 

Hamilton’s penalty not only paved the way for Norris’ podium, but also an unlikely second-place finish for Charles Leclerc, with the Ferrari driver starring in his Melbourne-spec SF1000 that was a second off the pace in qualifying. 

Heading into next weekend’s second consecutive race at Spielberg, dubbed the Styrian Grand Prix, Hamilton already finds himself on the backfoot in his quest to win a record-equalling seventh world championship, with a 13-point deficit to Bottas - his most realistic title rival. 

Adding to the blow, Hamilton is now over halfway towards picking up a one-race ban after picking up four penalty points on his superlicence across the opening weekend of the season alone.

However, a wounded Hamilton is a dangerous opponent. As he has proven so many times in the past, Hamilton is often his best when his back is up against the wall, and he has it well within his weaponry to bounce back instantly. 

After over three months of delays and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Austria delivered a classic first race of the season that was worth waiting for. 

 

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