Lewis Hamilton’s opening race in his assault on another world championship threatens to be thrown into chaos with Red Bull set to protest the Briton’s Mercedes car.
Hamilton, who is the favourite to match Michael Schumacher’s record collection of seven titles this season, lit up the time charts here in Spielberg as the 35-year-old set a staggering pace on his return to competitive action 215 days after he won last year’s concluding race in Abu Dhabi.
But Hamilton’s team are now preparing to face an investigation from Formula One’s sporting federation, the FIA, with rivals’ Red Bull likely to challenge Mercedes’ controversial Dual-Axis Steering (DAS) system.
The device, which the sport’s all-conquering team first unveiled at testing in February, allows Hamilton to pull his steering wheel towards him, narrowing the alignment of the front wheels on his Mercedes and increasing his straight-line speed.
He can also push the wheel away from him before cornering to improve his machine’s set-up.
But Red Bull believe the system, which has already been banned for next year, is illegal, and they are ready to challenge it. Mercedes, who liaised with the FIA as they spent more than a year developing the concept, are braced for a protest.
Hamilton’s boss, the Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, pleaded with his Red Bull counterpart, Christian Horner, not to overshadow the first global sport event of the Covid-19 era by demanding an investigation that will run into Sunday night if launched after the chequered flag.
“It is the first race, and although it is fair enough seek clarification on the other side we don’t want to end up with a big debate on Sunday,” said Wolff.
“All teams are pretty much aware that we are in a sensitive situation by going racing. I think Christian is going to take the right decision.
“Controversy on engineering innovation has always been a part of Formula One and this has to be expected. It is part of the risk.
“We think we are on the right side, and that is the reason we have it on our car.”
With Ferrari off the pace, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen is set to be Hamilton’s closest challenger during this truncated campaign.
Red Bull feel they have taken great strides with engine partner Honda during the prolonged break to provide the Dutchman with a car capable of ending Mercedes’ stranglehold on the sport.
“Obviously we do want clarity on DAS because it does have an impact regarding the rest of this year,” said Horner.
“It has been outlawed for 2021 so the question for us is whether it complies with the regulations in what is a fundamentally grey area? This is what we will be asking the FIA through the necessary channels.”