Formula 1 heads to Austria in a strudel of controversy following an unexpected weekend of action and drama at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Following his apologetic escape from the powers that be, Vettel heads to the Red Bull Ring with his Championship lead of 14-points in-tact.
Ferrari had a mixed Austrian Grand Prix in 2016, with Vettel spinning out dramatically in the race on the start/finish straight with a puncture and Raikkonen securing an unlikely 3rd place podium finish–overtaking a damaged Nico Rosberg on the final lap–following the controversial collision with Hamilton. The 2016 World Champion managed to make it look like he was playing the F1 video game and going into the corner with Hamilton on the outside, the batteries in his controller died such was the lack of ambition to make the corner.
Vettel has a huge incentive to be on his best behaviour here after Baku, especially when there is a large chunk of the following who are acting like Vettel has personally murdered their cat. He seems to have not only fans to win over, but media outlets too. It’s a bit like Filch in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when his cat Mrs Norris is petrified by the basilisk.
Whilst Vettel won’t be hung by his thumbs in a dungeon, he does need a magical weekend to cleanse his recent record. The rivalry with Hamilton is now in full swing and has been sought after by F1 fans for years. A win here would really go against the grain and upset Hamilton’s confidence.
The Brit must be in a good place heading into the weekend. His biggest rival has faced the brunt of the incident and it will have unsettled the Ferrari driver. Hamilton knows that his rival will be under the all-seeing gaze of the stewards and Charlie Whiting and he will exploit any advantage he can.
All of this must be irritating for Valtteri Bottas, who put in one of the best performances of the weekend last time out. Without the Vettel/Hamilton drama, he would have been talked about much more heading into Austria. Given the chaotic nature of the race in Baku, finishing 2nd after coming through the field wasn’t the most impressive aspect of his drive. Instead, it was the pace he found in the final stint to keep a charged Hamilton and a triggered Vettel at bay. He matched the pace of the two headliners, and took Stroll on the line for good measure. The Finn has to be the dark horse for victory this weekend as the buzz continues around his teammate.
Can Red Bull secure another win on home soil? Only if Ferrari and Mercedes trip over each other again. The team are still slightly off the pace and need to start scoring with both cars. It was great to see Ricciardo pick up another victory, but with Verstappen retiring for the fourth time in six races, the team seriously need to get the Dutchman to the chequered flag, especially at a venue with a huge Dutch presence.
Williams were able to make some serious ground in the Constructors courtesy of Lance Stroll’s breakthrough drive to third. Before Baku, he was criticised for being over-reactive on the steering wheel and a bit of a hazard, but in the race that proved most chaotic, he put in a faultless performance and managed an unlikely podium. It was calm during the storm, and most drivers will talk about how big a factor confidence in the car is in terms of getting a result. Stroll has now broken that seal, and it will be interesting to see how he does in Austria. A podium is out of reach for Williams in a non-chaotic race, but more points on the board for the Canadian would surely confirm that Stroll has arrived in Formula 1.
The big losers in the midfield scrap last time out were Force India and Renault. The tension building between Perez and Ocon boiled over to a costly effect in Baku, denying a potential maiden victory for the team, and destroying what was going to be another strong double-points haul. It simply can’t happen again this weekend, with Vijay Mallya having reminded both drivers that the team needs to come first.
Renault also struggled in Baku, with Palmer once again the unluckiest driver on the grid. A fire in FP3 prevented any chance of qualifying, which didn’t matter in the end as he was out of the car on lap seven with an engine failure. Palmer can’t buy a smooth weekend, and the rumour is that he will be replaced after the British Grand Prix if points aren’t achieved, so a strong weekend in Austria has to be on the cards for the out-of-favour Brit. Nico Hulkenberg made an uncharacteristic mistake during the race too, hitting the inside barrier of a corner and damaging the front-right of the car. It meant that the French Manufacturer dropped to 8th in the Constructors, losing serious ground to Williams, with Toro Rosso pulling away further and Haas jumping them into 7th courtesy of the team’s double points finish.
Haas could struggle around the Red Bull Ring. A lot of lap time is made up on the brakes given that there are lots of high speed corners, and the team still seems to have a recurring brake issue from last year.
McLaren head to Austria with subdued optimism, but optimism nonetheless. Honda have made their spec-3 Power Unit available to both drivers, and will be more than desperate for it to work. The team are still down on power but clearly have a good chassis, with Alonso starting to become a regular scrapper in the top ten. The orange cars still have a massive target on their backs on the straights and there won’t be many placed to hide around the Red Bull Ring, but the team seem to be confident that the amended PU will bring some more performance. You would think so given that this F1 campaign has done unfathomable damage to Honda’s image. It would make sense for the Japanese Marquee to pour all of the resources at their disposal into gaining some respect back. When it’s being managed from a PR perspective where both drivers are allowed to publicly make jibes, you know it must be an extremely divisive atmosphere. But “us and them” could easily become “we” again should the spec-3 throw Alonso and Vandoorne a bone.
So, the points to look out for this weekend will primarily revolve around Vettel and Hamilton’s reactions to the previous race weekend, but outside of that, it’s worth keeping an eye on what times Bottas is putting in for FP1 and FP2 on Friday. Red Bull will be targeting a podium at least, and whilst they don’t have the outright pace, they clearly have a strategic cunning – Verstappen needs to see the chequered flag to keep the peace at the team too. Force India need their drivers to get back to their best. There’s no point having an intimidating, offensive race-craft if both drivers are spending it on one another. They’ve lost ground to Red Bull in 3rd by a whopping 25-points, whilst they’re still comfortably 4th, Williams are getting stronger so errors now could prove costly later on.
Massa hasn’t had a mention yet in this post because he retired in Baku, but what a revived season he is having. The 2017 regulations are more similar to the late naughties regulations than recent seasons, and this was a time in which it was perceived the Brazilian was in his absolute prime. He is considering another year at Williams and is 10th overall in the drivers standings. Two DNF’s in the last two races have been tough, so the aim will be to get to the end and finish in the top eight, a target Williams has the potential to hit every race. Stroll will also be after another result to extinguish any fluke calls.