Monday 16 June 2014

Red Bull Ring Preview: Long time, no see

What we have this weekend is very different. And not just because what is now known as the Red Bull Ring in Austria represents one of only two countries on the this year's F1 calendar not on the 2013 one.

F1 returns to what is now known as the Red Bull Ring
after an absence since 2003
It is also because in this modern age it is habitual that a change to the itinerary involves pitching up at a gleaming new Herman Tilke-designed facility. It often too is in an uncharted territory (literally) for the sport; new European rounds have become as rare as hen's teeth. And equally habitual is that when the fraternity turns its back on a venue for whatever reason it slams the door on the way out and never so much as considers a backwards glance let alone a tail-between-legs return.

Even on the rare occasions that the sport reacquaints with an old partner it has tended to involve a heavily revised layout; the sport rocking up to Fuji in 2007 after 30 years away, to find a very different track, is one such example. Indeed even before the peculiarities of the age in which we live it tended to be the case that any circuit returned to was revised heavily compared with the one left: see Buenos Aires, Interlagos, Spa, Nurburgring, and even this Austrian circuit itself in previous life forms.

But this weekend by contrast we have the sport returning after an 11 year absence to a facility hardly removed from the one it turned its back on. By my reckoning the last time that F1 did similar in taking the high road to an essentially the same venue after an extended spell away was the Schumi mania-inspired return to the Nurburgring in 1995, exactly a decade after the sport had turned on its heels first time around.

The irony in among this weekend's visit being an apparent departure from the trends of the Tilke age is that this circuit's latter day incarnation, then known as the A1-Ring, was in fact Hermann Tilke's first major F1 circuit project. As well as that, what is outlined above is not the only parallel that what is by now known as the Red Bull Ring has with the 'new' Nurburgring. Like the Nurburgring too it replaced a magisterial former track, and unlike say the revised Spa it didn't in many eyes begin to capture the spirit of the old one.

The Österreichring that was there before and graced the sport's itinerary between the 1970 and 1987 was a grand challenge of fast long turns, blind brows, sharp climbs and vertical plunges carved into the beautiful Styrian foothills, regularly the fastest circuit on the calendar, and one that could have been taken straight from the earliest age of fearsome pre-war Grandes Épreuves. The A1-Ring built over the top of it by contrast was an achingly up-to-date collection of straights and mainly second and third gear turns. Legend has it that one elderly F1 journalist, particularly offended by the new creation, refused to attend at all when the sport rolled in to the sanitised version for the first time in 1997.

The venue fell into a bad way in between F1's visits
Credit: Pitlane02 / CC
As if though to perform a real life demonstration that all things are a matter of perspective and context again just like the new Nurburgring the A1-Ring became a popular venue as the recollections of what was there before became less sharp over time.

And in the case of the Austrian track at least we can see why. In the ersatz version much was gone from what had been, but it retained the stunning Styrian scenery as well as the welcome and increasingly rare use of gradient. In another (sadly) increasingly rare trait and again as before its siting in the centre of Europe near to plenty of the sport's core following meant it attracted a numerous and multi-national crowd. This time too all tickets are sold apparently.

What really however helped the A1-Ring's popularity was that it tended to give us entertaining races. Just about all of the F1 rounds staged here were exciting and contained more wheel-to-wheel dicing than the total from across a multiple of races elsewhere. What would become the Hermann Tilke fingerprint of lengthy straights bookended by tight corners ensured that overtaking was a possibility, and was so in an age wherein in-race passes were roughly as likely as witnessing a dodo fly past the McLaren garage.

And while it may appear now to the F1 circus that not much has changed at the Austrian facility in the 11 years since they were last around, in fact the circuit has had some adventures, and peril, in between times. The pit buildings and grandstands as well as some of the track were removed in the early noughties. It apparently was part of a scheme to extend the track but it only meant that it fell into rather crumpled disuse for some years, and circuit owners Red Bull didn't seem too interested in doing much to alleviate the situation. But in 2008 the company decided to bring the venue back to roughly what it was (sometime around the same moment deigning to lend its name to the place), and other motorsport categories returned in the next year. And now - presumably aided by Dietrich Mateschitz ready cash which can break down all barriers - it's back as a Grand Prix venue too.

As usual Mercedes will be on top on pace this time, and as before only technical hobbles or something else delaying them will get others in the picture for a win. Otherwise the fight for victory will be merely the latest chapter in the Nico Rosberg vs. Lewis Hamilton tale. Lewis Hamilton's skills on the brakes should help him prevail at this track, but they were supposed to help him prevail in Montreal last time out too.

Just like in Canada, the layout should
suit the Mercedes runners
Photo: Octane Photography
As mentioned the track is rather a point-and-squirt collection of straights and tight turns, or at least it is for about two-thirds of its duration, and as a consequence just like with the fairly similar Canada track the other Merc-powered runners and their associated straightline speed will have a good chance for a strong result, possibly best of the rest. They'll have to stay out of each other's way of course though.

Another irony around the place is that the Red Bull Ring doesn't really suit the Red Bull. Christian Horner was joking when he talked of his team inserting a few additional corners into the layout of the circuit bearing its name in the aim of aiding its chances, but it was one of those jokes that had some truth loitering in there. Unlike Canada however there at least are some quicker corners towards the end of the lap, including a long double apex left that the RB10 should be mighty through. And even in Canada the Red Bull was still about the best of the rest on pace behind the Merc (and, oh yeah, it won too).

Ferrari might be worth watching also, given its updates in Canada looked promising on the watch though some were abandoned for that weekend at least before quali due to cooling concerns. And the F14 T has been relatively good through quick turns this year (relative that is to the red car's other traits) and the Red Bull Ring, unlike the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, actually has some of those.

Things might not necessarily turn out much cooler in Austria than in Canada though; weather in the Styrian foothills has a character all of its own. As Nigel Roebuck noted some years ago at the old place: 'There is no middle ground. For the Austrian Grand Prix there is either blazing heat or monsoon, sometimes both'. And if monsoon arrives then all bets are off.

Pirelli has taken the unusual step of not going conservative at a new track, indeed has gone to the opposite end of the spectrum by bringing its two softest compounds - those that were on show in Canada. The fronts should take a pounding through the long double apex left mentioned, plus as also mentioned the temperatures could be high. Nursing the rubber could turn out to be a key consideration. Cars gentle on the tyres such as Force India may be aided. Whatever is the case there will likely - as is usually the case at new venues - be frantic calculations going on during Friday to decipher the best approach.

Therefore a lot will be different, and unknown, this weekend in Austria. But the bit about which car occupies the first two places is highly likely to be of the naggingly familiar sort.

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