Making sense of F1's season opener: Is this Bottas' year? And what happened to Ferrari?

The Austrian Grand Prix had a season's worth of storylines in one weekend, not to mention being one of the best opening races in recent years. ESPN F1 editor Laurence Edmondson looks back at the three main talking points, starting with whether race-winner Valtteri Bottas has what it takes to mount a championship challenge this year.

Is Bottas really a title contender?

We've been here before. Remember "Bottas 2.0" and the hype surrounding the Finn after his victory in Australia last year? It lasted a couple of months before fizzling out around the time of the Monaco Grand Prix, just as his Mercedes teammate -- and eventual champion -- Lewis Hamilton hit his form. So, will 2020 really be any different?

Formula One certainly needs an exciting title fight this season. Hamilton has cruised to victory for the past three years, and it's not since his showdown with Nico Rosberg in 2016 that the title battle has gone down to the final race. But for all the usual preseason hype over Red Bull or Ferrari taking the fight to Hamilton, the early evidence from Austria is that the job will fall firmly and solely to Bottas.

The problem with getting excited about an intra-team battle at Mercedes is that, despite showing flashes of brilliance, Bottas has never mounted a true title challenge in the three years he has had the fastest car on the grid at his disposal. To be fair to him, he has never shied away from the fact that Hamilton is the more consistent driver, but in failing to offer a genuine threat, he has allowed himself to be portrayed as an obedient No. 2 at Mercedes.

The challenge has always been about upping his game to reach Hamilton's level at every race, and it goes without saying that it's not an easy task. He has so often fallen short by milliseconds on the track, but if you do that enough times, it quickly becomes tens of points in the standings. Each season it seems he has hit a downward spiral of performance as Hamilton has touched new heights, and beyond a certain point, his title hopes become irrecoverable.

But compared with last year, when he was going through a divorce alongside all of the pressures of being a Formula One driver, Bottas believes he is in a much better place to build on his season-opening win and turn the tide.

"Every season is always different, and, from a driver's point of view, there can be certain distractions," Bottas said. "The main thing is keeping your head very clear and be able to focus on the driving and feeling well, and not trying to minimise all the distractions.

"There can be so many in Formula One, whether it's about contract or your private life; I have learned a lot about those things from last year, so I can deal with things better. Yes, definitely at some races I was lacking pace, and it was about knowing that driving-wise I could do some things better. I've learned from those.

"Obviously it's only the first race of the season, but it's a good starting point, and I feel, before coming here, more complete as a driver. That's why I feel confident for the future. Obviously we will see how things go, but I am feeling good and feeling more complete in all the areas."

But there is still external pressure on Bottas this year. George Russell is next in line for a Mercedes drive and is getting increasingly itchy feet as he outperforms his Williams at the back of the grid. Mercedes has invested heavily in Russell's career ever since the junior formulas, so at some point it will demand a return on that investment.

By the end of this season, Russell will have been in F1 for two years with Williams, which by modern F1 standards is a relatively long apprenticeship. Max Verstappen spent a season and four races at Toro Rosso before joining Red Bull, and Charles Leclerc moved from Sauber to Ferrari in the space of a year. All of which puts extra pressure on Bottas to secure the title and keep his place at the team on merit.

Of course, Mercedes might choose to keep Bottas over Russell for other reasons. His arrival at the team in 2017 brought with it a degree of harmony on which Mercedes' current success thrives. It washed away the bile built up by Rosberg and Hamilton's toxic relationship and continues to offer a platform for the team, and to some extent Hamilton, to excel on.

And so, Bottas faces a tightrope this year: maintain the harmony that makes him so popular in the team, but be selfish enough to find an edge over Hamilton. In Austria he walked it perfectly, doing enough to secure the win while Hamilton's race unravelled behind. But if Bottas has learned anything from his time at Mercedes, it's that defeat only makes Hamilton more determined.

Yet on Sunday evening, none of Hamilton's frustration was directed at Bottas. It would be quite easy to look at Hamilton's weekend and trace his two major setbacks back to Bottas. His three-place grid penalty for ignoring yellow flags in qualifying was a result of Bottas' spin in front of him, and in the race it was a slow final lap from Bottas ahead that pushed Hamilton and his five-second penalty off the podium to fourth. But the existing goodwill between the drivers means those two factors were more of a talking point on social media than in Mercedes' postrace briefing.

"We just had a debrief and a very open talk about everything," Bottas said. "We went through the race in terms of my point of view and Lewis's point of view and the team's point of view, and there is no tension that I'm aware of. He is pretty experienced, Lewis, in this sport, so he knows things can happen. So no tension."

Hamilton added: "I saw Valtteri just now, and, honestly, I know Valtteri better than a lot of other people -- being so close these last few years -- and that [backing Hamilton up] is not something on my mind or something I would ever think that he would do,.

"He is a pure racer; he wants to win through pure merit, and I believe that even when he says that, even though he doesn't need to say that."

Had it been Rosberg in the other Mercedes, Hamilton might have harboured some suspicion over the incidents. But just as Bottas' spin in qualifying was an honest mistake, the situation in the race was caused by events out of his control. Mercedes had not informed Bottas of Hamilton's five-second penalty, and his slow final lap was a result of conservatively heeding yellow flags at Turn 1 before his car recovered energy for the rest of the lap after a fastest lap attempt the previous time round.

The result is that Bottas holds a 13-point lead over Hamilton in the standings. It's the biggest advantage he has held over his teammate since joining Mercedes and comes at the start of the shortest season, but it will mean nothing in a couple of races if he doesn't continue to perform at his very best.

"It's only one race, but for sure it gives lots of confidence that I'm on the pace here and next week we are here again," Bottas said. "I feel very good in the car; within the team, everything is kind of all set up for me, I just need to do my job.

"So the dream is very much alive this year. No doubt about that. But still, you need to take it race by race, trying to get everything out of yourself every single weekend. And that's it. It's pretty simple in the end. Of course I want to enjoy this result, but there's always going to be an extra race, and we'll have to perform again and be ready for business as usual."

It could have been very different...

In truth, both Bottas and Hamilton were close to coming away with zero points this weekend. As heard on team radio, concerns over an electronics issue on the gearbox nearly resulted in a sensor failure that had the potential to cause a retirement on either car. Mercedes had to tell its drivers not to use the Red Bull Ring's vicious kerbs in order to protect the cars from vibrations that had the potential to shake their internals to pieces.

In doing so, the drivers were losing up to 0.3s in lap time and, again, there was a level of trust required between the two drivers not to ignore the order and gain a personal advantage. The gearbox warnings occurred on Bottas' car first and was initially more of a concern for the race leader, but by the time race strategist James Vowels issued a severe warning to both drivers on team radio the situation was critical for both.

"The situation was pretty serious right away from the start," team principal Toto Wolff said after the race. "It started with issues on Valtteri's car, and it's something that can be an instant kill and we didn't really know what it was.

"We know that it was somehow linked to vibrations and agitation of the car, and that's why we advised them very early to stay off the kerbs. At a certain stage, it looked like we would not finish the race with both cars. So we were trying to really cruise home."

Wolff added that he was confident a fix could be found for this weekend's return to the Red Bull Ring, but Mercedes is still expecting to manage the problem to some extent in the race. Fortunately, for Bottas and Hamilton, they have a 0.5s performance advantage over the rest of the field in their favour, meaning they have a degree of margin in which to stage their own battle.

'Gloves off' in battle between Red Bull and Mercedes

For all of Mercedes' pace advantage in Austria, Red Bull still had an opportunity to snatch victory on Sunday. Had Alex Albon completed his overtake around the outside of Hamilton at Turn 4 on lap 61, he would have had fresher, softer tyres on which to catch and pass Bottas' fragile Mercedes over the remaining 10 laps. As it turned out, it was the Red Bull and not the Mercedes that retired before the end of the race, meaning a double DNF capped off a roller-coaster weekend for the home team.

The new season was only a day old when Red Bull lodged an official protest against Mercedes' dual-axis steering (DAS) system on Friday evening. The innovation had been controversial since it first emerged in testing, but in many ways Red Bull did Mercedes a favour getting a protest out of the way before any competitive sessions. If Red Bull really wanted to deliver a low blow to its main rivals, it could have lodged the protest after the race -- potentially putting Bottas' victory in doubt until the early hours of Monday morning -- but instead it stuck to a long-held gentlemen's agreement in F1 to raise any pre-existing doubts over legality before the competitive part of the race weekend gets underway.

Despite the ruling going Mercedes' way, Red Bull still believes the purpose of the DAS -- to condition the front tyres -- is at odds with what a steering system should do. But loopholes in the regulations have always been exploited in F1 and, as Mercedes successfully argued, on a very basic level, DAS is part of the car's steering system and, like any other steering system, simply changes the angle of the wheels.

It's unlikely other teams will be able to copy the design before it is banned by tweaked regulations in 2021, giving Mercedes an extra advantage on top of the already significant performance advantage it holds over the field. The team is still not talking about the specific benefits DAS offers, but it was clear it helped both drivers keep their front tyres up to temperature ahead of Safety Car restarts in Austria -- a crucial factor considering they were using the hard compound towards the end of the race.

But while Mercedes was semi-grateful towards Red Bull for getting the DAS question out of the way on Friday, the Sunday morning surfacing of footage from a 360 camera on Hamilton's car that showed his failure to slow for a yellow flag in qualifying clearly struck a nerve with the team.

"I found that the [DAS] protest from Friday was actually fair play," Wolff said. "But not Sunday. Coming back on Sunday morning and turning around a decision from yesterday ... if you have new evidence, the rules allow it, so we have to take it on the chin.

"But I think that in the race, putting all these things together, Lewis' penalty [for the collision with Albon] was too harsh."

Asked whether the off-track protests from Red Bull pointed to a new level of political aggression, Wolff added: "The gloves are off."

Refusing to take the bait in a subsequent media briefing, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner pointed out that the timing of the request to review the qualifying footage on Sunday morning was down to someone flagging it on social media, not a desire to pile pressure on Mercedes ahead of the race.

"It was pointed out to us on social media that there was a different camera angle, with a 360 camera, that showed very clearly there was a yellow light box that he had driven through," Horner said. "It only seemed consistent with Mexico [where Verstappen was penalised for ignoring yellow flags], so we asked the FIA to have another look at it and they said they hadn't seen that footage previously.

"So for whatever reason they hadn't had the access or looked at the camera. Having looked at that and reviewed it, it became very clear what decision they would take.

"With DAS, we've been clear from the outset that we have questioned the viability of the system. We saw it used in the race today and the drivers were instructed to use it to control tyre temperatures, so is that steering?

"Anyway, it's been ruled legal, so that's what it is and teams will have the choice to go and develop their own equivalent systems."

While Red Bull's biggest concern will be its own reliability and lack of performance compared with Mercedes, it's easy to imagine Horner taking a degree of satisfaction from getting a reaction from Wolff. Fortunately, social distancing is in place in the paddock, so any subsequent meetings will be brief and at least two metres apart.

What happened to Ferrari?

Leclerc's second-place finish in Austria tells you everything you need to know about the driver but nothing about the true performance of the Ferrari car. Even before the opening practice session on Friday, Ferrari was playing down its chances for this season, knowing the performance of its 2020 car is not where it should be.

That much was confirmed in qualifying when Sebastian Vettel failed to make the top 10 and Leclerc could do no better than seventh on the grid. To underline the point, Leclerc was 0.920s slower than his pole position lap at the same circuit in 2019, while Mercedes was 0.323s faster than its own effort last year and the likes of McLaren and Renault has found as much as 0.5s.

Ferrari was aware of the reality of the situation as early as testing in February and quickly identified a lack of correlation between its aerodynamic simulations at the factory and what it was seeing on track. For an F1 team, that creates a sinking feeling as it not only means the car is slower than expected but also indicates that all of the planned updates are based on false assumptions. As a result, all the upgrades planned for the early part of F1's original calendar were scrapped and the design office returned to the drawing board.

The timing, however, could not have been worse as the coronavirus pandemic, which hit northern Italy particularly hard, resulted in the enforced closure of the Ferrari factory and put a stop to all work. As a result, no new parts had made it through the design and production phases in time to appear on the car for the Austrian Grand Prix and the factory has instead targeted the third round in Hungary for its first major update, with some parts brought forward to the second race in Austria this weekend.

"There was some miscorrelation with the design, especially on the aero; that is the development we have started again, back from the lockdown, and that hopefully we will have very soon at the racetrack," Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto said on Sunday evening. "It will not be the final solution, there is no silver bullet, but what's important to us is to improve the type of behaviours we saw."

But it's clear that Ferrari's problems are not limited to aerodynamics. The other big losers in qualifying compared with last year were Ferrari's engine customers Alfa Romeo and Haas. While the Haas shares a lot of components with the Ferrari, the biggest issue was clearly the V6 turbo hybrid powering all three teams.

"If I look at the qualifying, compared to the pole, we are missing a second, but only 0.3s in cornering, and then there is still 0.7s on the straights," Binotto added. "I think that one will be much more difficult to resolve because the engine [specification] is frozen for the season.

"We need the speed on the straights, and it is also about the drag created by the car. The drag is not something we are addressing very soon, so it was a bit of disappointment to see our speed on the straights. We will analyse our data and see what we can do in the future."

Compared with last year, when Ferrari routinely held a 0.6s advantage over Mercedes on the straights, the difference this year is stark. Against a backdrop of suspicion about the legality of last year's Ferrari engine, it only raises more questions about what has changed over the winter to result in a step back in performance.

Throughout 2019, Mercedes and Red Bull raised questions about Ferrari's power advantage, resulting in an FIA investigation at the end of the season. That investigation ended with a private settlement between Ferrari and the FIA early this year -- a conclusion that failed to give satisfactory answers to the questions of rival teams and leaves them angry to this day.

It's not hard to join the dots between Ferrari's sudden lack of straight-line speed this year and potential changes they were forced to make to their power unit as part of the FIA settlement, but unless Ferrari agrees to release the details of the settlement with the FIA (spoiler alert: it won't), we will never know for sure.

After ordering Mercedes' engine department to stretch the limits of performance and reliability to catch up with Ferrari's 2019 benchmark over the winter, Wolff's agitation over the situation was evident during a video call with media on Saturday evening.

"I don't want to comment on this, I think enough has been said," Wolff said before pausing briefly. "It's more I don't want to talk about Ferrari. This is... this is more about the way things are being managed. And let's not go back there.

"I think everything has been said back and forth; they haven't shown great performance today. We want them to be competitive and race with us -- race under the same rules -- and nothing would make me happier than if we have three or four teams be competitive out there and giving us a run for our money."

The problem Ferrari now faces is that engine performance updates have been frozen as part of the FIA's COVID-19 rules package to save costs. That means all power unit updates have to be related to reliability, effectively locking Ferrari's problems in place. There is a hope that trimming drag from the car will solve some of its issues, but the current situation could make for a very long and frustrating season at Maranello.

"There's a bit of engine power [that we are lacking], and there is a part of the drag itself," Binotto said. "While in the engine side development is frozen, on the drag side there's a lot we can do and we're putting all our efforts in there."

Leclerc's podium will be a shot in the arm for the team, but it will be celebrated knowing the pace of the car offers no guarantees of a repeat at the upcoming races.