New McLaren-Honda era starts badly as Button and Magnussen occupy back row of the grid

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The greatly-heralded new era for McLaren and Honda got off to the worst possible start in qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix on Saturday as Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen qualified on the back row of the grid.

The Honda power unit is reported to be over 200bhp down on its Mercedes equivalent in Australia, limiting Button to P17 and Magnussen to P18 as they occupied the final row of the grid following Manor’s no-show.

However, Button wasn’t surprised by the result, having said on Friday that anything better than the back row would be an achievement.

“This level of performance wasn’t a surprise for us,” Button said. “We knew from winter testing that the pace wasn’t there, so we knew we weren’t going to be competitive here.

“However, there’s a good feeling about the car. I know we’re so far off, but the basic car is there beneath me, and we’re adding to our experience and learning with every lap we do.

“And that’s really impressed me – we’ve gone through our first race weekend together, and we’ve managed to solve each issue that’s confronted us. There’s just a lot of work needed to add power and downforce – but this is an important car for the future of McLaren-Honda.”

Kevin Magnussen believes that points are out of reach for McLaren in Australia, with the team instead focusing on merely getting to the line.

“Things were going well on my first run in Q1,” Magnussen said. “Then, on my second run, I had a slight problem with the engine – it didn’t really matter, as we’d have needed a bit of luck to get into Q2.

“For tomorrow’s race, we’re not really focused on getting points. They’re not really on the cards for us. But we’ll go racing tomorrow to try and learn.

“We haven’t done a full race distance yet, so progress tomorrow will be important. If we can finish, we’ll learn a lot; and, even if we don’t, there’ll still be something useful to take home.”

Honda chief officer of motorsport Yasuhisa Arai confirmed that the Japanese marque had taken the decision to limit the power of the engines in a bid to keep them fresh for later in the year.

“Unfortunately, today’s higher temperatures didn’t help the conservative data mapping settings that we chose to run this weekend,” Arai said. “From the outset, we took the decision not to gamble any engines away in the opening race, so there’ll be more to come from us.

“McLaren and Honda have come a long way together since the beginning of this project, but we still have a long way to go. However, I’m sure that we’ll continue to make progress – and that first step starts in the race tomorrow.”

You can watch the Australian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 12:30a ET tomorrow.

Valtteri Bottas wins chaotic season-opening F1 Austrian Grand Prix

Mark Thompson/Getty Images
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SPIELBERG, Austria — Valtteri Bottas won a chaotic season-opening F1 Austrian Grand Prix while six-time series champion Lewis Hamilton finished fourth after getting a late time penalty Sunday.

The Formula One race was interrupted three times by a safety car, and nine of 20 drivers abandoned, including both Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Alexander Albon – who tried to overtake Hamilton on the outside with 10 laps left, touched wheels and flew off track.

Hamilton was given a 5-second time penalty for causing the collision, having earlier been hit with a three-place grid penalty after an incident in Saturday’s qualifying was reviewed by stewards.

SHOW OF SUPPORT: Drivers take knee before race

Bottas led all 71 laps in the eighth victory of his career. It was the second consecutive victory in the season opener for the Finn, though he won four months earlier in 2019 after this season’s start was delayed by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Lando Norris of McLaren F1 celebrates after his first podium finish (Mark Thompson/Getty Images).

Bottas started from pole position and Hamilton from fifth, but it looked like a straight fight between the two Mercedes drivers as has been the case so often in recent years.

But late drama in Spielberg ensured otherwise and Hamilton’s time penalty meant Charles Leclerc took second place for Ferrari, and Lando Norris sent McLaren’s garage into raptures – and threw all social distancing rules out of the window amid the euphoria – with third place.

It was the 20-year-old British driver’s first career podium, and his superb final lap was the fastest of a dramatic season opener.

Norris became the youngest British driver to secure a podium finish and the third-youngest ever in Formula One.

Valtteri Bottas leads Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton during the Formula One Grand Prix of Austria (Mark Thompson/Getty Images).