Baku delivered a heart-stopping Grand Prix that magnified the rivalry between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. Barely two weeks on and all eyes remain fixed on the title favorites ahead of the Austrian Grand Prix.
Set in the picture-perfect Styrian Mountains, the rolling green fields will make for a stunning backdrop but probably won’t relax the paddock in the middle of a hotly contested season.
Mini-battles are shaping across the grid – Vettel and Hamilton are jostling for the championship; Mercedes and Ferrari both have eyes on the constructor’s title; Williams, Toro Rosso, Renault and Haas are having a midfield scrap; while McLaren is just trying to restore some credibility.
All the teams will take to the Red Bull Ring in Austria with something to prove on a track that seemingly reduces the pace advantage for Mercedes or Ferrari.
A Classic Challenge at Spielberg
The recent street races are a far cry from the more traditional Red Bull Ring located in rural Spielberg.
Gone are the inner-city tight, narrow tracks of Monaco, Canada and Azerbaijan and in their place is a circuit in a regional setting with a racing heritage dating back to the 1950’s.
The original Osterreichring – which hosted many Grand Prix – has since been redeveloped and the circuit was re-launched as the Red Bull Ring with the F1 cars returning to the track in the 2014 season.
The track is one of the shortest on the F1 calendar in distance (4.326 kilometres) and has one of the quickest lap times with just nine corners, although some of those will now be taken a full throttle in the current 2017 cars.
The first sector features an ‘L’ shape in a nod to the original 1950’s layout of the track. Sectors 2 and 3 are a little more technical with corners varying considerably in their style and challenges – from the heavy braking, low speed Turn 2 to Turns 4 and 7 where the drivers won’t even touch the brakes, and then the high-speed Turn 8 that tends to catch drivers unaware.
Fast and flowing, this is a track that requires a good car setup.
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo explains: “At any kind of power circuit like Austria you want to be smooth and get good exits in order to give yourself the best chance on the long straights.”
“The compromise is always the aero package. In the middle to the end of the lap you want more down force because the corners are quite fast but more down-force means you are slower on the straights, so the key is to find a good balance throughout the lap.”
Ricciardo landed a second-place finish in 2016 following a one-stop gamble and the team will again be hopeful of a podium position after an engine upgrade in Baku.
Feud Intensifies Between Hamilton and Vettel
But Mercedes are also returning to a track that they have dominated in recent years and the likely tussle between Hamilton and Vettel is a mouth-watering prospect.
Vettel was widely admonished when he collided with Hamilton under the safety car in Baku and then intentionally swerved into the Englishman’s Mercedes.
Vettel was unrepentant after the race pointing the blame at Hamilton for intentionally slowing down. A look at the data by the stewards showed that Hamilton didn’t change speeds and on top of a mid-race 10-second stop-go penalty Vettel also faced a visit to the FIA during the week.
In a statement, the FIA said: “Following detailed discussion and further examination of video and data evidence related to the incident, Sebastian Vettel admitted full responsibility.”
“Sebastian Vettel extended his sincere apologies to the FIA and the wider motorsport family. He additionally committed to devote personal time over the next 12 months to educational activities across a variety of FIA championships and events.”
While Vettel walked-away with no further penalties, it will only heighten tensions with Hamilton who he leads by 14 points in the championship.