Bottas on pole, Red Bull closing in, Hulk back in action

Will the Nurburgring be as exciting as Mugello? (0:54)

Nate Saunders explains why returning to the Nurburgring will generate an exciting and unpredictable race. (0:54)

It was 24 hours later than planned, but Formula One's return to action at the Nurburgring was worth the wait. ESPN rounds up all the big stories from qualifying day for the Eifel GP...

Bottas must capitalise on good qualifying

Valtteri Bottas has never won back-to-back races, but there is no better time to start than on Sunday at the Nurburgring. Very few people outside of his closest supporters see him a genuine title challenger this year, but with everything that's happened in 2020 and a mathematical shot at the title, it's not over until it's over.

Bottas' win last time out in Russia had an element of luck after teammate Lewis Hamilton was hit with a ten-second penalty for a pre-race incident, but it may just have been the boost his confidence needed.

Luck certainly didn't play a part in Saturday's qualifying as he beat Hamilton to pole position by 0.256s in difficult conditions. It was Bottas' third pole position of the season, but it's worth remembering that he's been less than 0.1s off Hamilton at five other venues in 2020, so the 44 point gap in the championship is, perhaps, slightly unrepresentative.

Given the forecast of rain and a long list of unknowns going into Sunday's race, there's no guarantee that pole position will result in an easy win on Sunday. But as Hamilton enters another race day on the back foot, Bottas must capitalise on his strong qualifying performance to keep his small championship hopes alive.

"Being on pole is a good achievement but it is the race that matters," Bottas said after the session. "I never had a doubt that I couldn't be on pole or win races, but of course it's a nice thing to get it.

"I can't say it's a turning point because I've been feeling upbeat all year long and I've been so close many times, anyway, this season, to win but it's just things haven't come together."

The return of the Hulk (again)

It was a wild day for Nico Hulkenberg. At 11AM he was drinking a coffee with a friend in Cologne, ahead of a leisurely trip to the Nurburgring for some punditry duty for German broadcaster RTL.

That trip was moved forward in his schedule after an unexpected call from Racing Point boss Otmar Szafnauer, informing Hulkenberg he was needed to fill in for the poorly Lance Stroll.

There was an element of déjà vu for Hulkenberg given the fact he deputised for Sergio Perez at the two Silverstone races earlier this year, but on both of those occasions he got some practice sessions in at least.

Not this time, on arriving to the circuit and having a negative COVID-19 test, Hulkenberg threw on some pink Racing Point overalls and got in the car for qualifying. It's little surprise he finished 20th out of 20.

"I feel good considering I had a heart attack around 11am," he joked after the session. Asked how the experience compared, he said: "It was even crazier and wilder than last time." The German driver said a lot had changed for him, including the Racing Point car he had for two F1 events a few months ago.

"It felt quite different to Silverstone, completely different circuit, the car has moved on too. There's a couple of technical bits that are very different that give the driver different sensations, so I had to adjust around that a bit and just find my feet again. Obviously in four laps, that's not so easy. All in all, even though I'm last I'm quite pleased with the laps we produced just now."

Red Bull closing in...

The gap between the Mercedes on pole position and the Red Bull leading the pack was the closest it has been all year in Saturday's qualifying session. The narrowing of that gap has been something of a trend at recent races and could be a positive sign for more competitive races towards the end of the season.

Max Verstappen secured third place on Sunday's grid, but he believed the lack of Friday practice cost him as he tried to dial the car into the circuit and get the most from the latest upgrades.

"The car's been handling quite well, quali as well. I felt quite comfortable. Of course, there were a few little balance things I would have liked to get improved but, of course, short notice. Overall I think it was a good qualifying. I just struggle a bit with understeer - and I don't like understeer but also this track, at the moment when it's so cold, with the tyres, yeah, it just didn't come towards us, dry qualifying.

"I think from the beginning it was fine but then it just slipped away a bit. When you're understeering, you can't carry that mid-corner speed through the corners, you have to V-style it a bit more and you lose a bit of time. Still, a good qualifying. To be that close to them."

But while Red Bull's progress is positive for the competitive picture of Formula One, we've seen a number of false dawns for Mercedes' rivals in recent years and the team from Brackley has always stayed on top.

Since the first race of 2020, Mercedes has had a very competitive car and therefore it has only needed to bring relatively minor upgrades over the course of the season to maintain its advantage at the front. While that has helped Red Bull close the gap at recent races, it's more likely a symptom of the world champions shifting their focus to the future than a genuine change in the order.

Downforce cuts next season mean teams have to redevelop their cars for 2021 even though the chassis is remaining the same. Completing as much of that development work as early as possible will only help free up resource and money when it will be at even more of a premium next year.

"We tend to see this pattern that Red Bull catches up towards the end of the season," Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said on Saturday night. I guess it's good for the championship we are deploying the strategy that we believe is right, balancing next year and this year.

"We can see the results on track but we need to be vigilant and accept that the competition will increase over the last few races."

Leclerc the star of qualifying

It puts Ferrari's season in context that a second-row starting position is being heralded as a good result, but Charles Leclerc's fourth-place grid position certainly deserves some praise. On a day when Sebastian Vettel was 0.4s off the top ten, Leclerc managed to split the Red Bulls and stands a good chance of scoring Ferrari some much-needed points on Sunday.

"I don't really know [where the pace came from], I'm quite surprised, especially with this weather, I expected to struggle in the cold weather," Leclerc said. "From the beginning of the season, we are struggling to make [the tyres] work any time it is cold. Today, it seems it has worked out for us. I'm very happy, very happy with my last lap. I put everything together and P4 is great.

"Surely there were upgrades this weekend that worked in the proper way. We are not trying to find an update that is giving a huge amount of lap time, just small differences every weekend which for now is working well. Every time we are bringing something on the car, it's working, which was not the case in the past. This is very important and it helps us to build a solid base for the car."

Cancel Fridays?

The fog which canceled Friday's practice sessions left every driver -- minus Hulkenberg -- with just one hour of practice ahead of qualifying at a circuit which hasn't hosted an F1 race since 2013. The cold temperatures also created a tricky proposition for drivers.

A lack of practice has often been a factor in thrilling races on Sunday, with teams unable to completely maximise their set-ups.

Valtteri Bottas welcomed the shortened race weekend.

"Currently in a normal weekend I feel like there is too much practice," he said. "Everyone finds their ways on set-ups and optimal things in terms of driving and the car set-up.

"But if there would be a bit less practise, maybe some teams can get it right, some drivers can get it right and some don't. So I'd kind of like it with a bit less practice."

Max Verstappen shared that opinion, saying: "Especially when you have little issues or whatever, you can go over it through a whole night. You can look back at it in the factories as well, work in the simulator and stuff.

"But overall like Valtteri said, we have a lot of practice so you also take your time to settle in. Now, you know that it's only one session, you're straight away on it I think a bit more than what you would normally do in first practice or whatever. So it evens out a bit, but there are little things which can always be improved."