Tuesday 16 June 2015

Red Bull Ring Preview: The changing world

Judging the Red Bull Ring, as with most things in life, is a matter of perspective.

Of course, many of those of a certain age (which sadly I just sneak into) struggled for a time to forgive the place that hosts this weekend's Austrian Grand Prix. Not so much for what it was, but for what it replaced. That being the magnificent, undulating and fearsome Österreichring that graced the F1 calendar between 1970 and 1987. The A1-Ring - as it was called when the sport returned in 1997 - built over the top of it by contrast was an achingly up-to-date collection of straights and mainly second and third gear turns. If only they'd built the new track somewhere else, we thought, perhaps up the hillside as ironically they did when the Österreichring itself was created in the stead of the old Zeltweg venue.

The Red Bull Ring may be growing on us
Photo: Octane Photography
But still when all returned initially to the ersatz circuit rapidly it established popularity. It retained a few of the good things about the old venue, not least stunning Styrian hillside scenery and the (even then) increasingly rare use of gradient. Also with its straights followed by heavy braking zones, and that it was a short lap that rewards mechanical rather than aerodynamic grip, it tended to provide close grids, entertaining races as well as the odd surprise. Not least on F1's first time at the revised track when the unlikely contender of Jarno Trulli's Prost led the first half of the race in fine style. Even last year times were conspicuously more clustered in Austria than they were pretty much anywhere else.

The sport turned its back on the circuit for a time after 2003, and the venue then rather fell into disrepair (related to a proposed extension which wasn't completed). For a while its Red Bull owner didn't seem too interested in doing much to alleviate the situation either, but in 2008 the company decided to bring the venue back to roughly what it had been (sometime around the same moment deigning to lend its name to the place) and other motorsport categories returned in the next year. And further aided by Dietrich Mateschitz's ready cash which can break down all barriers last season it was back as a Grand Prix venue too. A rare occurrence of F1 returning to a fundamentally unchanged (at least comparing when it left and when it came back) venue an extended period after walking away from it.

And when it returned we had further perspective on why time is a great healer to this place. Suddenly the track had developed a well-worn charm in the age of the cavernous and soulless Tilke-dromes that had yet further encroached onto the calendar in between times (although it's ironic as this track as in fact Hermann Tilke's first F1 effort). Even more so that it attracted a vast and enthusiastic crowd also formed a sharp contrast with plenty of newer venues. Heck, Jenson Button even described the track as 'old school'. As with the 'new' Nurburgring the Red Bull Ring became a more popular venue as recollections of what was there before became less sharp. And as the world changed around it.

Can Lewis Hamilton win out against Nico Rosberg this time?
Photo: Octane Photography
One thing that isn't changing right now is Mercedes dominance. That this track is made up in large part of straights separated by slow turns means it offers a similar challenge to Canada where the Mercs cantered off, with a premium on straightline speed, braking and traction, though it also has some quicker turns towards the end of the lap including a swift and long-ish double-left. Not that this will likely give the W06 many problems.

And as also appears set right now of the two Merc drivers Lewis Hamilton enters the weekend as the one to beat. He'll have to avoid boo-boos such as his messing up of qualifying here last year, but it feels like such is his pomp at the moment that it'll take that sort of thing for him to miss out again.

It's not clear however the extent that this has been accepted by Nico Rosberg who'll as ever at least run his team mate close. In Montreal though even he hinted that to triumph right now he needs a weekend in which everything goes swimmingly. He did last year win out at this track, though as intimated it owed something to Lewis treading on his own tail.

Then we have Ferrari, of which much was expected in Canada with a new power unit and a track layout that was thought to suit the F15-T. As it was its challenge didn't materialise though for both cars it was in part down to peculiar reasons, and if unlike in Montreal its drivers get trouble-free runs around Austria's similar challenges then perhaps the red cars will be able to at least run the Mercedes close and not allow them the all-systems-nursed cruise they had last time out. Even those at the Scuderia were admitting in Canada though that all being equal the silver cars are clearly ahead right now.

We can recall too that last year at this track Williams performed brilliantly. Felipe Massa took pole while the two Grove cars finished third and fourth and further gave Mercedes by far its closest run of the season without unusual things intervening (third-placed Valtteri Bottas was only eight seconds shy of the winner at the end). The team on the basis of Canada is hitting form and has an upgrade planned for Austria that all are excited about. Even better, while last year its result at this venue might have been better still with more adventurous strategy the team in Canada gave notice that it's now becoming a sharp strategic outfit. Going all the way to beat the Merc remains a order of the towering sort but Williams seems a reasonable outside bet.

The Williams were brilliant here last season
Photo: Octane Photography
As in Canada the other Mercedes-powered cars should be well-set too, and indeed Force India got a double-points finish here last year with P6 and P9.

Another irony about the place though is that the Red Bull Ring doesn't suit the Red Bull. Or rather it doesn't suit its breathless Renault engine (when 12 months ago Christian Horner spoke of inserting a few corners in the long straights here it wasn't entirely said in jest), though Daniel Ricciardo admitted in Montreal that the team's current slog is far from being just about the motor in the back. It gets worse this time too as the team has decided that this is the best place to swallow engine change grid penalties and therefore the team that shares its name with the circuit may be locking out the back row for the start. Expect Red Bull though to have a busy time off the track about the sport's future direction.

Honda too can expect another frustrating time, what with more long straights and some of them uphill...

Another local factor is the weather and again just like in Montreal there are some showers forecast to be around, possibly this time on all three days. Depending on if and when rain hits it could mean all bets are off, perhaps jumble the grid as well as make race day set up largely a matter of guesswork if practice running is largely wet and the race dry. Like last year and as in Canada last time out the two softest compounds are those brought this weekend; perhaps like Canada tyre warm-up will be an issue in the cool conditions, particularly for the front tyres which will be leant on heavily through the quick double-left mentioned.

Unlike Canada however last year's race in Austria suggested that overtaking isn't too straightforward here. Sergio Perez did manage to rise from 15th on the grid to sixth at the end on a contrary strategy starting on the soft tyre. It remains to be seen though if like last time out the tyres are good for a one-stopper, but this track should give the rubber more of a challenge than Montreal did. If tyre warm-up is a problem then drivers may be able to jump rivals by staying out for longer rather than with the usual undercut.

Given all of this, and given where we are, there are a few unknowns heading into this weekend. But whatever is the case the bit about which car occupies the first two places is likely to be of the familiar sort.

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