Tuesday 24 June 2014

Being won over by the Red Bull Ring

Regular readers of this particular site will know by now that I've not always been the world's greatest fan of the A1/Red Bull Ring. To say the least.

The A1/Red Bull Ring returned - and I actually thought
it was pretty good
Photo: Octane Photography
This is not because I consider anything especially objectionable about the track in itself - which is perfectly acceptable within the modern Zeitgeist - it instead is due overwhelmingly to what it replaced. Namely the wonderful, fearsome Österreichring - all fast corners, blind brows, plunges and climbs. Had they only built the new track up the hillside or something (as ironically they did with the original Österreichring which usurped the previous 'Zeltweg' track) then you probably wouldn't hear a peep out of me.

Having watched over the weekend just passed a re-run on TV of the highlights of the last Grand Prix at the old place, from 1987, it brought home that the modern formula is in some ways unrecognisable even compared with that relatively recent history. Of the fearsome fast corners referenced all but one had literally zero run off, instead being lined on the outside by barriers. And curiously much of the track looked built on something of a ha-ha, which meant that leaving the track even where there wasn't a barrier would probably result in gravity sucking your car directly to meet something solid. One was put in mind of Stirling Moss's analogy of doing a tightrope walk two feet above the ground as opposed to doing it over the Grand Canyon. The skill is the same; the challenge is not.

The original Hella-Licht and Dr Tiroche Kurves still exist among the trees, though have rather had the sport's backs turned on them now (there were plans a few years ago to bring the latter corner back as part of a new loop, plans which sadly faltered). But their fates are one up on the pulse-quickening Boschkurve, as well as the Texaco Schikane and Rindtkurve, all of which are trampled beneath the new facility.

Plenty that I heard over the course of last weekend awarded the Red Bull Ring track a tag of a 'classic'. I even encountered Jenson Button describing the circuit as 'old school'. It can be taken as a measure of the extent that track layout standards have slipped. But still, such is life; all things are relative, to be judged within their context.

And moreover in the course of this latest Austrian Grand Prix weekend, you know what? Despite everything outlined above the new track is growing on me. Whisper it but I might just be forgiving the Red Bull Ring for being the Red Bull Ring.

The spectator sections were packed
Photo: Octane Photography
Plenty of things about the old track remain the same, indeed cannot be changed. First off, the stunning scenery of the Styrian foothills and the featuring gradient.

And add to this the number and enthusiasm of those who come through the gates. There are no Austrian drivers in F1 right now (though there is a conspicuous Austrian team), and yet the crowds were vast last weekend; over 100,000 were in position for the race (apparently most tickets were snapped up within hours of going on sale). And in another thing that was unchanged from before, its middle of nowhere quality ensured a Silverstone-esque jamboree atmosphere. More generally, the Austrian public gave the impression of being thoroughly delighted to have their race back. Even the sun shone.

Possibly again showing that all things are relative is that such attributes are increasingly rare and therefore increasingly treasured in the age of the encroaching presence of the Tilke-drome constructed on a flat expanse where few of the locals seem terribly bothered about the whole shebang.

Even with this vast support though, and not for the first time underlining the absurdity of F1's current financial model, the race's continuation probably relies just about entirely on Dietrich Mateschitz cash life support. One hopes that he doesn't for whatever reason ever choose to withdraw his bounty.

And races at this track have always been diverting, and this pattern continued last Sunday. Indeed, its layout is one that tends to close the pack up. It's helped by being relatively short, and one not big on quick corners that can really sort the cars working well from those not, but whatever is the case once again the lap times were close. In Q2 fully 14 cars were within one second of the pace, while in the race the rest were much closer to the usually imperious Mercs than we've grown used to in 2014. Valtteri Bottas - without the aid of a safety car or anything else - was just eight seconds behind winner Nico Rosberg at the end. Compare this to Bahrain wherein the Mercs put 24 seconds on the car next up in just 11 laps of green flag racing.

As is often the case at this venue, the race
was a good one too
Photo: Octane Photography
Also the race, as well as being entertaining, was not one you'd have thought that even the vexatious wing of the F1 2014 self-loathers could find much therein to complain about. The sport's 'gimmickry' as well as the 'conservation formula', however they are defined, were hardly factors, something that Lewis Hamilton confirmed afterwards: 'we didn't have any problems with fuel consumption and tyres weren't an issue'. The Merc pilots both had to manage brake temperatures but that could have been thus with any set of regulations. DRS-assisted were relatively few; cars certainly weren't cruising past each other easily. Instead Sunday's action seemed a case of good drivers giving us a good race on a track that allows them to do that. Simple really.

So, Red Bull Ring, we may not have hit it off at first, but perhaps you know we can let bygones be bygones? Start afresh? I'm willing if you are.

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