Austrian Grand Prix: Pre Race Thoughts

Hallo, und willkommen auf der Austrian Grand Prix*. Formula 1 returns to Austria for the first time since 2003 at the newly renamed Red Bull Ring. The 4.326km circuit runs clockwise, and is the second shortest on the calendar. With only 9 corners, the track is an interesting combination of high speed straights into heavy braking and slow corners. One of the biggest issues that face drivers at the Red Bull Ring is the elevation change during the lap. This is especially apparent going into turns 8 and 9, where the car becomes light on the approach to turn 8, before dropping into turn 9. Resulting in a loss of grip and balance. The stewards have been heavy handed in disallowing lap times that exceed the track limits in the final sector, with no less than 14 drivers having their times disallowed throughout the sessions. While Mercedes power still dominated the time sheets, it was Williams who secured a front row lock out. Massa topped his team mate’s time by 0.087s to secure pole from Bottas. Rosberg qualified P3 on the supersofts, revealing the Mercedes to be slightly less competitive on the supersofts compared to the soft compound tyres.

Matching their pace for FP3, Williams hinted at the possibility of pole throughout qualifying. It was a squabble between the two Williams for pole, with Massa coming out on top. In the final session, Bottas pushed the Fw36 a little too hard on his first flying lap, locking up the right rear. The Finn went on the set the pace for Q3 with provisional pole. Team mate, Felipe Massa was equally quick on the supersofts, though sat P2 on the time sheets until Rosberg bumped him down to P3. In the final minutes of the session, Massa clinched pole position from his team mate, leaving Bottas to respond. On his final attempt however, Bottas drifted off the line out of turn 6, spoiling his challenge. So, the Finn must settle for a career best, P2.As each round progresses, I enjoy seeing Massa in the Williams livery just that little bit more. Since Ferrari decided not to renew the Brazilian’s contract for the 2014 season, Massa has began to race closer to his pre-accident form.

Mercedes have remained the team to beat throughout practice and qualifying, taking out their usual spot towards the top end on the time sheets. However, the Red Bull Ring has exposed a slight (emphasis on slight) weakness in the grip of the Mercedes on the supersoft compound tyres. The disadvantage is small, though it proved too much for Rosberg to challenge the Williams for a front row starting position. Both the Mercedes complained of understeer in the F1 W05, with Rosberg feeling it most at high speed. Hamilton failed to set a lap time in Q3. My tweeting prayers were answered when Hamilton ran wide at turn 8 on his first attempt on a flying lap, disallowing a 1:09.836, and then running off at turn 2 on his second attempt for a lap after locking his rear axle under braking. It was a bizarre moment for the Brit, and sees him start P9.

Ferrari had a better qualifying than recent rounds. Alonso carried his pace from free practice through to the final session, qualifying P4. The Spaniard had a rally moment during Q2 jumping over the grass on the exit of turn 9. He’d suffered from understeer, and lost grip, like many others, into the final corner. Raikkonen is still not comfortable in the Ferrari, and struggled to keep the F14 T balanced under braking. A lock up at turn 1 put Kimi’s best qualifying effort at P8.

At their home Grand Prix, Red Bull have had a somewhat bipolar performance. Both Ricciardo and Vettel had off track moments in the final corner during free practice, and it became apparent that the Bulls are not as competitive as they’d hoped in the Austrian countryside. Ricciardo just shaved enough of his time at the end of Q2 to secure him a spot in the final session, though Vettel’s best effort saw him eliminated at the end of the session. Ricciardo steadily improved on his time in the final session, and managed a competitive P5 in the end. Somewhat out of place, Vettel qualified P13, though will start P12 after Perez’s penalty.

It too was a bipolar performance for McLaren after Kevin Magnussen qualified P6, ahead of Jensen Button’s P12. The MP4-29 had improved over the weekend, though Magnussen clearly has the better handle of the car. Having missed FP3, Button struggled with the set up in qualifying, and was then caught in traffic behind Grosjean. At least with Perez’s grid penalty, the Brit moves up to P11 on the grid.

Recent track experience definitely paid off for Toro Rosso, as Kvyat made it safely through to Q3. On a late flying lap at the end of the session, the Russian rookie took P7 on the supersofts. Less familiar with the Red Bull Ring, Jean-Eric Vergne couldn’t put a clean lap together, struggling with the STR9. Keeping to the bipolar team performance, Vergne qualified P15, but will start P14.

It was a bittersweet qualifying for Force India. On a circuit where starting grid positions play a significant advantage, both Hulkenberg and Perez performed well but with not much to show for it. Easily making it through Q1, and eager to get temperature into the tyres, both Force India’s were out early in the second session, and sat best of the rest behind the Mercedes and Williams. Perez just missed out on Q3, and qualified P11. Unluckily for the team, the Mexican’s 5-place grid penalty for the last lap collision with Massa at the Canadian Grand Prix pushes him back down to P16. Hulkenberg did make it through to Q3, but had his late flying lap disallowed for running wide at turn 8, putting him back to P10. The result for Force India, having it all to do on Sunday.

Lotus struggled for both grip and speed during qualifying, with both drivers being eliminated in the second session. Even on the stickier supersoft tyres, the Renault power E22 proved difficult to control. Maldonado had an off track moment at the end of Q2, going wide at turn 5 and onto the gravel. Rather surprisingly, managed to out-qualify Grosjean for P14, though will start P13. While Maldonado had the scrappier, but quicker lap, Grosjean had better control, but slower laps. Early in Q1, the Frenchman put in a competitive time on fresh supersofts to bump him up to P7, though as the sessions wore on, the pace of the E22 began to fade. At the end of Q2, Grosjean qualified in P16, though will start P15**.

Sauber have been struggling in recent races, competing with the back markers rather than Force India and Lotus. The C33 has struggled for grip and balance over the weekend, resulting in slower lap times. Both drivers joined the exceeding track limits club, as Sutil and Gutierrez had times in Q1 disallowed. Sutil’s 1:10.774 would have been just enough to scrape him through to Q2, though Gutierrez’s 1:11.667 was still outside the Q2 cut off time. The best the team were allowed to muster puts Sutil in P17, and Gutierrez P18.

The back of the grid is rounded out the the familiar faces of Marussia and Caterham. Marussia’s Jules Bianchi was amongst the drivers to have their time disallowed for an off moment at turn 8, though his final flying lap still saw him out-qualify his team mate for P19. Max Chilton managed to keep his MR03 firmly on the grey stuff, though being half a second slower than Bianchi saw him qualify P21. However, Chilton does carry a three place grid penalty for causing the first lap collision with Bianchi at Canada, so will start P22.

Kobayashi and Ericsson had times disallowed in Q1, though both drivers were able to improve on their times while sticking within the track limits. Kobayashi is clearly within the battle with the Marussia’s, qualifying to split the two in P20. Marcus Ericsson’s early Q1 performance raises the question whether recent experience at the circuit in the junior formulas will play advantage to the newer driver’s on the grid. As the session progressed, Ericsson’s lap couldn’t remain competitive in the CT05, qualifying P22, though starting P21 thanks to Chilton’s penalty.

It will be a tough race for Massa and Bottas in trying to keep the Mercedes behind them. Though reasonably matched for speed with Mercedes, Williams’ have the advantage in grip at the Red Bull Ring, especially on the supersoft tyres. Most teams are favouring the supersoft tyres at the Red Bull Ring for as much grip as possible. Points for the most embarrassing  result from qualifying is tied between Sebastian Vettel’s elimination in Q2, and Lewis Hamilton’s failure to get a lap time on the board in Q3. While I don’t particularly enjoy Lewis Hamilton in general, I don’t mind the idea of watching him weave his way back to the front of the field. Hopefully the overtaking occurs in the corners, rather than down to the straight line speed of the Mercedes.

Adding an element of unpredictability to Sunday’s race, a recent understanding of the track elevation, and the limits to which you can push into a corner could definitely play advantage to the mid field teams with newer drivers, as seen by strong laps by Kvyat and Ericsson. No doubt an exciting race will unfold, with about 4 overtaking zones, some good battles too. We’ll have to wait and see who comes out on top.

– Alex

* I apologise if my grammar is poor. My German is a little rusty, and by that, I mean I’ve never learnt German.

** Grosjean will start now start from pit lane due to a late gearbox change

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