Austrian Grand Prix: F1 takes to the hills

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Spot the bull: Valtteri Bottas on his way to victory in Austria last year. Of the current grid, only he and Lewis Hamilton have won at the Red Bull Ring
Spot the bull: Valtteri Bottas on his way to victory in Austria last year. Of the current grid, only he and Lewis Hamilton have won at the Red Bull Ring

Away from the lederhosen japes and Sound of Music clichés, this weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix is a serious affair.

It’s the second of F1’s ‘triple header’ races, with 75 points up for grabs in just three weeks. As such, it could prove pivotal in this season’s championship.

Lewis Hamilton arrives with, it seems, his motorsport mojo (and his music mojo – more of which later) back and a whole bunch of Mercedes upgrades to boot. Plus those 25 points from last weekend’s sojourn to Paul Ricard … is he on a roll?

Merc move up a gear

Never stand still: Mercedes have brought some major aerodynamic upgrades to the Austrian Grand Prix
Never stand still: Mercedes have brought some major aerodynamic upgrades to the Austrian Grand Prix

The Mercedes lads had upgraded engines for last weekend’s race and they didn’t disappoint, even if Valtteri Bottas did struggle after being bumped at the first corner.

This weekend, it’s the Merc aero team’s turn to shine, and they’ve brought a barrowload of shiny new silver bits to bolt on.

The most significant change is to the rear wing, which looks to have borrowed from the design McLaren have been using for some time.

The sidepods are shorter – that’s a Ferrari idea – and there’s now a vane supporting the mirrors, which undoubtedly impacts on the aero performance somehow.

Which just goes to prove that the team at the front is always on the lookout for ideas from those behind – just behind, in the case of Ferrari, and in the F1 bargain bin, in the case of McLaren.

It’s worth noting that, despite their various woes, McLaren have had plenty of their aero designs borrowed in recent times; someone there is doing a decent job but the whole is, very definitely, less than the sum of the parts.

It’s not all about Merc though

No, I’ve no idea either: Sebastian Vettel gets the ol’ invisible trumpet out at the Red Bull Ring, in the build-up to the 2018 Austrain Grand Prix
No, I’ve no idea either: Sebastian Vettel gets the ol’ invisible trumpet out at the Red Bull Ring, in the build-up to the 2018 Austrain Grand Prix

While Hamilton said he hoped the Mercedes updates would ‘frighten’ his rivals, and while Mercedes have won every race here since F1 arrived at the newly-christened Red Bull Ring four years ago, there are some positives that the opposition can take.

Pirelli are using the regular diameter tyres, which have caused some warm-up problems, and Ferrari will hope that they have the edge on Mercedes in that department.

For Red Bull, although they lack the grunt needed to compete on the three main straights, their agility and acceleration out of slower corners should be worth a bit of time – and they’ll be able to run with less downforce than Mercedes, offsetting a little of that power deficit.

But the circuit layout, coupled with some serious gradients, means any power deficit is likely to be punished.

High expectations for F1

How Pretty? The Red Bull Ring is proper chocolate-box territory, 800m up in the Styrian mountains
How Pretty? The Red Bull Ring is proper chocolate-box territory, 800m up in the Styrian mountains

The Red Bull Ring is a pretty circuit, with its Styrian mountain setting, about 800m above sea level.

That altitude brings its own challenges – for example, turbos will have to work harder to help the engines breathe.

And cooling becomes a little trickier in the thin air so, even if the track temperature is not ever at Bahrain levels, attention must be paid to stop overheating of the brakes, gearbox and power unit.

The track is a good all-round test of a car’s strengths and weaknesses, with the first half of the lap favouring those who have good traction, while the second half is more about the aero performance.

A third DRS zone has been added – it’s almost easier to point out where DRS isn’t permitted – which means teams may be tempted to run a bit more downforce for stability in the corners, safe in the knowledge that they can just open that rear flap and fly on three of the four straights.

The fact that this circuit needs a car with decent straight-line speed, plus both low and high-speed cornering ability, is not exactly good news for those struggling veterans at McLaren and Williams; but, then, very little is good news for those teams at the moment.

But it is good news for those of us who appreciate the candour of Fernando Alonso as he kicks his recalcitrant McLaren from one pitstop to another.

Rubber and rain

Slidey stuff: Daniel Ricciardo, a couple of drift cars and a typically damp start to F1’s 2018 trip to Austria
Slidey stuff: Daniel Ricciardo, a couple of drift cars and a typically damp start to F1’s 2018 trip to Austria

Although race day is predicted to be dry, there might be a bit of dampness around on Friday and Saturday, and temperatures could be significantly different on those days too.

That will make it a little more challenging for teams to understand how their tyres are working at this circuit … and we know what a nuisance F1 tyres can be.

For a team like Renault, whose cars already have a tendency to understeer at high speed, any loss of front-end grip will be costly at the Red Bull Ring.

And, even for the likes of Mercedes, managing temperatures and wear on their rears could be the difference between finishing ahead of the Ferraris or behind.

Expect the inevitable split strategies, and Kimi Raikkonen being sacrificed again at the altar of Sebastian Vettel.

It ain’t over ‘til the phat laddie sings

Friends of note: Lewis Hamilton and Christina Aguilera at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix earlier this year
Friends of note: Lewis Hamilton and Christina Aguilera at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix earlier this year

There’s always a party atmosphere at the Austrian Grand Prix – an old school party at that.

Someone will be streaming Now That’s What I Call Yodelling Volume Eight-eeyo, someone else will be playing Fleetwood Mac (always, there’s Mac).

And there may be a few people listening to Christina Aguilera’s naughty new track, Pipe, featuring ‘XNDA’ … or is that Lewis Hamilton?

Seems like Lewis has finally laid down some vocals and, boy, are they steamy.

Asked if he was the XNDA singing about ‘nana’ (hint: possibly not his grandmother), Hamilton pointedly refused to issue a denial or a confirmation.

Which is a sure-fire way to keep the story bubbling along.

Anyway, if Hamilton’s on-track performance is as hot as that song, he’ll have the race won by the first corner… and not for the first time.

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