A dramatic Austrian Grand Prix meant the chances of a complete repeat were slim as Formula 1 returned to the Red Bull Ring this week, but plenty of significant storyline shifts mean the Styrian Grand Prix instalment is shaping up to be interesting in its own right.
Mercedes’ advantage appears to have been trimmed, if not completely overturned, while the ultra-close midfield fight has been shaken up and Ferrari got stuck into testing its much-need and fast-tracked updates.
Our writers run through what we already know to be different about the second part of F1’s Austrian double-header.
Hamilton’s on the back foot
Sometimes the timing screen lies, especially on Fridays, but Lewis Hamilton’s bid to bounce back from his penalty-hit Austrian GP started with a genuinely displeasing Friday.
An inconsistency in rear grip, which Hamilton was at a loss to explain, meant he did not quite have the same serenity of feeling as team-mate and championship leader Valtteri Bottas.
Hamilton lost time in practice two as the team committed to some mechanical set-up checks on his car with cross-weights and alignments, and more homework is already under way with trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin saying there are some “clues” to work with.
“It felt relatively normal but was quite far off,” Hamilton said. “There’s a lot of work that needs to go on in the background to try to figure out why.
“I was feeling good in practice one and the start of P2 felt good then it started to drop off.”
Salvation could come in the form of a rain-hit qualifying session, as Hamilton is no stranger to turning a disadvantage into an advantage when inclement weather strikes.
He’s up for a wet qualifying session but too much rain tomorrow and an impossible Sunday morning session for the same reason would represent a worst-case scenario in which the FP2 times set the grid (more on that later).
It seems unlikely that Hamilton will genuinely end up sixth, which he said would “definitely suck”, but if Saturday is a wash-out he’s committing to “do a ‘dry dance’” for Sunday morning, just in case. – Scott Mitchell
Red Bull ‘already better’ than last week
Max Verstappen was a much happier driver at around 5.30pm on Friday than the same time a week ago.
Whether it’s a rubbered-in track, warmer temperatures, Red Bull’s set-up changes or a bit more understanding of its aerodynamic experiments, the RB16 looked more compliant – although this could be a Red Bull-Honda turned up to 11, just in case qualifying never happens.
“The car already feels better than last week, the balance is a lot nicer to drive and we have made a good step,” was Verstappen’s verdict. And that bodes very well for him and the team.
He said on Thursday that Red Bull felt it could get within two or three tenths of Mercedes in qualifying to make it “game on” in the race.
And given Honda’s adamant it has made strong gains with its new engine, it seems a logical conclusion that the major Red Bull deficiency last week was confidence in the corners.
“Normally our race pace is more competitive but already over one lap we can’t complain and actually the 11 laps I did in last week’s race didn’t look too bad, so it can only get better,” says Verstappen.
The hills have been alive with the sound of music for a week, but it’s a very different song this Friday compared to last. – SM
Class Perez emerges ahead of midfield group
Big things were expected of Racing Point last weekend. So big, in fact, that sixth and ninth on the grid, and sixth place on Sunday for Sergio Perez, was considered a disappointment.
Perez appeared to put that right on Friday, topping FP1 and going third fastest in FP2. It was a performance that fellow midfield frontrunner McLaren believes has put at least one Racing Point out of reach for the weekend.
McLaren team boss Andreas Seidl said the steps made with the MCL34 over the winter were never going to be big enough to compete with a copy of the 2019 championship-winning Mercedes, providing it was run to its potential.
As Lando Norris said, Perez’s performance “highlighted how good a job we did last weekend or how bad a job they did”, and it could leave the Mexican in no man’s land between Mercedes and Red Bull and everyone else.
Things look closer on the long runs though, with Perez only around a tenth of a second quicker per lap than Carlos Sainz Jr on comparable runs on the soft tyre.
That could be the result of Racing Point cranking its engine up, as at least one team has predicted is the case. – Glenn Freeman
Ferrari trials new parts on a big day
It appeared to have been a difficult Friday for Ferrari – and Charles Leclerc confirmed that was the case after FP2 – as it worked to understand the upgrade package.
This includes some of what was originally planned for Hungary next weekend, which the team says is a change in aerodynamic concepts. But what we’ve seen so far definitely didn’t look like it was going to solve Ferrari’s problems or in reality move them forward.
The Ferrari just doesn’t seem to have any consistency, particularly with Sebastian Vettel. It’s either understeer or oversteer or a bit of both in the same corner. I suspect something aerodynamic-wise is giving up some of the time and it is more critical to Vettel’s driving style.
From what we’ve seen of the upgrades, they aren’t big enough to transform Ferrari’s form.
Yesterday, we had a good look at the front wing with the change to the top flap and the endplate footplate, while today we saw it try out a new floor.
The new floor has multiple louvres at its outer edge whereas the old floor only had three. These louvres are there to help seal the outer edges of the floor. If this airflow is not managed correctly, it compromises the performance of the underfloor and diffuser.
The high rake cars suffer from this more than the Mercedes-style concept with the lower rear ride heights. If this sealing is inconsistent, which I suspect it is, that’s the worst situation as the driver loses confidence – especially on corner entry. – Gary Anderson
Vettel’s much more enthusiastic
Vettel cut a dejected figure post-race last week, saying he was pleased he only spun once in a miserable grand prix.
The four-time world champion looked like he had no confidence in the car and while that continued at times through Friday, matching Gary Anderson’s observations, Vettel himself is in a markedly better mood.
“Much better, all day was straightaway a different car and I was able to get at it,” he said enthusiastically.
“Not really possible to compare the two because there was such a big difference, and obviously now I hope it stays like this.”
If that does stay the same, that means that wherever Ferrari ends up in an unknown pecking order it should have both its cars in the mix.
And that should move the Vettel/Ferrari narrative away from the inherently negative theme it had last week. – SM
Mercedes seems to be avoiding gearbox drama
If ‘normal’ service resumes over the weekend and Mercedes re-establishes its advantage from the Austrian GP, its rivals might be hoping for a repeat of its gearbox problem as well.
But the initial feedback from the team is quite positive after new wiring looms arrived in time for the car build on Wednesday.
The sensor issue, caused by oscillations on the violent Red Bull Ring kerbs and triggering a build-up of electrical noise that interfered with the gearbox system, now appears more under control, although Mercedes will reserve judgement until more running has been completed.
“FP1 was mainly trying to see if we fixed the reliability concerns we had in the race last Sunday,” reported Bottas.
“The team is still looking into that but I think that we made progress on that so that’s good news.”
However, that doesn’t Mercedes is entirely out of the woods.
Team boss Toto Wolff said the gremlins inside the gearbox were “possible to solve” but the loadings through the suspension are not.
The circuit’s still a potential car-breaker, that’s just its nature, and Mercedes is keeping a close eye on that problem area.
“I think we still have to be careful,” said Hamilton.
“You can damage the car quite badly over the kerbs but whether it’ll be as bad as it was on Sunday we’ll find out.” – SM
Sunday star Norris suffered a physical setback
Lando Norris’s return to track action, now as an F1 podium finisher, didn’t exactly pick up where he left off last weekend.
The McLaren driver had to limit his mileage on a “difficult” day because of a pain in his upper body. He wasn’t sure what it was, speculating that it felt like something in his chest, while McLaren believes it was a back problem.
Whatever it was, it left Norris “afraid to brake” because of the spike in pain caused by any compression in the cockpit. The decision was taken to reduce his mileage to aid his chance of recovering for the rest of the weekend.
To make matters worse, he picked up a three-place grid penalty for overtaking under yellow flags in FP1.
Norris clearly slowed for the yellow flags for Nicholas Latifi’s stricken Williams, but he cruised past Sergio Perez and Pierre Gasly in the process.
“It was my mistake, a bit stupid of me,” he said. “There was no risk, I lifted, but I just carried that little bit more momentum and passed them. It was a silly move.” – GF
Renault drivers have traded fortunes
For the second week in a row Renault’s had some repair work to do on a Friday but Daniel Ricciardo’s car is much more of a fixer-upper than Esteban Ocon’s a week ago.
Ocon lost track time last Friday when he suffered some bargeboard damage on the kerbs, and it was a small setback that trailed through his debut weekend with the team, ultimately amounting to a generally unsatisfactory return after a season on the sidelines.
Ricciardo didn’t even finish the race, but this time his grand prix’s off to the bad start – shunting heavily early in FP2 and bruising his knee – while Ocon’s ended the day quite happy.
“It was a mistake, it all happened very quickly so I’m not sure what went wrong,” admitted Ricciardo.
“I turned in and just lost the car straight away. I know these things happen with cars and in Formula 1, so it’s not out of the ordinary.
“I’m OK, however, I feel bad for the guys.”
Ocon, on the other hand, had a “very productive afternoon” according to the team, while the driver called it “a great day in terms of learning”.
A rainy Saturday put a premium on dry track time today, and it’s Ocon who has the internal advantage this time.
“I have a lot more understanding how the car has to behave and how we improve it as well,” said Ocon.
“I’m very much happier with Friday compared to last weekend.” – SM
Haas has less downforce this week
The Austrian Grand Prix weekend was a bad one for Haas, and on outright pace Styria could be worse.
Thanks to brake cooling problems that put both cars out of last week’s race, it has had to switch to what Romain Grosjean described as the “emergency” spec to maximise cooling at the expense of a little downforce.
“Looking at numbers, roughly it’s a few points on the rear axle that we are losing,” said Grosjean. “Not the end of the world. It’s not quite a wing level step but it’s not been designed around that solution.
“We knew it was there in case we really needed it. If we could avoid running it we could but at the minute there’s no point having 10-15 points more downforce if you can’t finish the race.”
This is a positive step for the prospects of finishing the race, although Grosjean did say that extra lift and coast will still be necessary to manage the brakes.
But it’s bad news for qualifying, with FP2 pace suggesting Haas could slip from the front of the group of three teams at the back to the back.
As Kevin Magnussen put it, “it didn’t look like we had a lot to shoot with in qualifying spec”.
That could be good news for Williams. It was only late improvements by the Haas drivers that kept George Russell out of Q2 last weekend. If Haas is slower and he extracts the most from the car, he could beat the American team and the Alfa Romeo drivers and make his first Q2 appearance. – Edd Straw
Qualifying will be wet, or may have already happened
Rain always spices up a grand prix weekend so forecasts of thunderstorms on Saturday in Spielberg throw a guaranteed differential into the mix compared to last week.
The second part of Red Bull’s double-header is likely to be disrupted by bad weather on Saturday.
Race director Michael Masi issued a “pre-warning” regarding the forecast, raising the possibility that the third free practice session and qualifying would be rained out, which put teams on alert that FP2 could count as qualifying.
That’s only the worst-case scenario, as if Saturday qualifying can’t happen F1 will try to reschedule it for Sunday morning, then use FP3 as the fallback and only resort to FP2 times if Saturday practice doesn’t happen either.
But it at least guaranteed a more hectic FP2, which was underlined by the Racing Points setting the third and fourth-fastest times.
And it should give everyone someone to look forward to, whether that’s a wet qualifying session, the oddity of a Sunday morning shootout – or a jumbled-up order based on FP2 times.
If the worst-case scenario becomes reality, the grid will be: Verstappen, Bottas, Perez, Stroll, Sainz, Hamilton, Albon, Norris, Leclerc, Ocon.
Sebastian Vettel? He’d be 16th… – SM