Monday, 25 June 2018

Red Bull Ring Preview - Mountain mist

F1 has developed a season. A season within a season if you like.

The end of the season - F1 visits the Red Bull Ring
Photo: Octane Photography
We had Montreal, then Paul Ricard. And now this weekend we have the Red Bull Ring in Austria.

These circuits have a family resemblance - lengthy straights are predominant and are separated mainly by technical turns - though like Paul Ricard the Red Bull Ring has some quicker corners too. Straightline speed, braking stability and traction are the chief discriminators.

Trouble is that even so it doesn't really help us predict what will happen this weekend. In Montreal Ferrari was well on top of Mercedes; in Paul Ricard they almost exactly swapped positions. Last year's Austrian visit doesn't help either, which was won for Valtteri Bottas's Merc but only just from Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari. There was only four hundredths between them in qualifying.

Then there's where we are. This circuit often serves up fare of the non-predictable kind.

The image of the Red Bull Ring has over time shifted as frequently as its name. When F1 first rocked up in 1997 to what was then called the A1-Ring many struggled to forgive it for trampling the magnificent Österreichring that was there before it. In sharp contrast the new place seemed tepid even though the wonderful scenery and undulations of the Styrian mountain setting remained as they were.

The circuit dropped off the calendar after 2003 but then Red Bull money - as evidenced in the name - brought it back for 2014. And we then got a demonstration that time is a healer, or else of the shifting context, as suddenly the place had developed a charm in the meantime. It seems now a firm favourite.

Mercedes got one up on Ferrari in France - reversing Canada
Photo: Octane Photography
More pointedly the track tends to offer good races. Partly as overtaking is more presentable than at most tracks, but also that fields tend to be close here and orders can end up unusual. This in turn relates to that the place doesn't strain aero too greatly - a combination of thin air at the altitude and that as noted most of the corners aren't quick - as well as that its short lap lasts not much more than a minute.

The weather is a factor too. In Styria it seems there are two settings - sapping hot and humid or monsoon, and the switch between the two can be instant. Rain's arrival in qualifying two years ago (aided by a few grid penalties) gave us the refreshing sight of Nico Hulkenberg on the front row, with Jenson Button third. Jenson ran second early in the race too while Pascal Wehrlein scored a point for Manor.

Rain hitting practice and qualifying can also make tyre behaviour in the race a mystery for strategists, which was another factor here in 2016. Tyre graining can also be a concern if it stays cool. Blistering on the ultra-soft was a concern last year, though as always seems the way come the race drivers were able to run on the compound for much longer than engineers had feared.

Safety cars are fairly likely too as the track features a few places that it's hard to retrieve stricken cars from. Prangs at the first two turns and resultant order shuffles are pretty common also.

Carnage in the first two turns is common -
this is from last year
Photo: Octane Photography
For championship leader Lewis Hamilton you'd think big braking zones were his thing but he's actually not had a happy time at this track since F1 returned. He botched his final qualifying efforts in his first two visits, followed Nico Rosberg home ignominiously in the 2015 race (picking up a penalty for crossing the pit exit line), in 2016 his route to victory involved a collision with Rosberg on the final lap while last year he wasn't much of a factor as his team-mate Bottas triumphed, though he did have the mitigation of a grid penalty.

Ferrari and Vettel might therefore be well-placed to bounce back this weekend. As noted the track rewards good braking and traction which Ferrari has. And it's worth reflecting that in not a single race meeting this year has our sense of the F1 pecking order left the weekend in the same shape as it entered it.

An irony is that the Red Bull Ring doesn't on paper particularly suit the Red Bull, or rather the power circuit doesn't suit its Renault power unit. Last year though Daniel Ricciardo had arguably his most competitive run of the year all things being equal, as he finished third just six seconds off the winner with the aid of safety cars and the like. While the year before Max Verstappen almost exactly replicated the result with a second place again six seconds off the victor (although the notorious intra-Merc contretemps on the final lap let him get a bit closer).

The Bull traditionally excels in traction and low speed grip which also serves it well here, and its been running close to the Mercedes and Ferrari everywhere lately.

Daniel Ricciardo had arguably his most competitive
run of the year in Austria last year
Photo: Octane Photography
As for the rest, Haas will be worth keeping an eye on and particularly in Romain Grosjean's hands, as he has finished sixth and seventh here in his last two visits. Force India also tends to go well on this sort of track and last year the pair finished seventh and eighth. Renault has generally headed the best of the rest field lately though like Red Bull may find its power unit lacking on this track's extended full noise sections.

With McLaren the story is the same as before the French round, expect worse. The car is woefully off it right now particularly in low speed turns which will impede it in Austria too. And now its talk is of dread 'correlation problems'.

Williams has a pretty good previous here but again with its recent woeful form it'll have to go some to get a good result this time. To think it was here just four years ago that Team Willy locked out the front row...

And we mentioned the weather and its ability to alter things. At this stage forecasts suggest rain may hit Friday only, then again we entered last year's race with supposedly a 60% chance of rain, increasing as the race went on, and it didn't arrive.

Getting an even warm up between the front and rear tyres can be challenging at this track, as the traction zones ensure the rears heat up quickly but the fronts may not come in so rapidly. This sort of uneven tyre warm up has implications both for quali laps and for attempting undercuts in the race, and has flummoxed Mercedes a few times in the past.

The best chance to pass is in the uphill run to turn two
Photo: Octane Photography
Another fiddly factor is that while the vast majority of turns here are right handers the two most trying turns for the rubber are left-handers, meaning drivers can reach them with the side of the car that'll take the load not sufficiently heated.

Despite local reputation, in recent Austrian races overtaking hasn't been all that straightforward though the uphill braking zone at turn two is the best opportunity (an extra DRS zone has been added this time too at that point). Qualifying will count for a lot, not only with one-stoppers likely but that tyre warm up as noted can make undercuts not as effective as usual.

One-stoppers were the Austria default last year and have been the default everywhere this season. Degradation is low here and last year pace differences between the compounds weren't great either. The same compounds as in France are available - good news for Mercedes as there's no hyper-soft - but there won't be the thinner tread that Mercedes has won on both times it was used.

But then again, at the Red Bull Ring things tend not to be all that straightforward.

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