Austrian Grand Prix Preview: Will the title fight boil over?

The major battle of the 2017 Formula 1 season – Lewis Hamilton vs Sebastian Vettel – has been unusually friendly, but that all changed in Baku with their infamous coming together under safety car conditions. In a race full of incident and intrigue this was undoubtedly the main talking point, and there is a real sense of anticipation heading into this weekend’s race at the Red Bull Ring.

Can Vettel and Hamilton keep their cool?

The two main title contenders appeared to have patched things up at Thursday’s pre-race press conference but time will tell if there is any lingering ill-feeling following the drama at Baku. Vettel has shown over the last year or so an inability to keep a cool head when things aren’t going his way – you may recall the radio rant at last year’s Mexican GP, and various other grumbles during the 2016 season. If Ferrari and Mercedes remain closely matched over the rest of the season then the pressure will undoubtedly ramp up, and it will be fascinating to see how the drivers react.

There is an extra factor in play at this weekend’s race – Hamilton’s five place grid penalty for an unauthorised gearbox change. This is likely to be a damage limitation weekend for the Brit, so he’ll need Valtteri Bottas to at least be on the same pace as the Ferraris.

Red Bull look to build on Baku success

Clearly Daniel Ricciardo did not win the Azerbaijan GP on raw pace alone, but there was some evidence from practice and qualifying to suggest that they are closing the gap on Mercedes and Ferrari. Max Verstappen has had rotten luck in the last six races, retiring on four occasions, and without the power unit failure in Baku he most likely would have taken the victory. If his car remains reliable he may well have the speed to mix it with the front runners this weekend.

Ricciardo may have more than double the points of his teammate, but in no way is that a fair reflection of the season so far. He knows that Max has had the edge at a number of races so far, so the smiley Australian will be looking to build on the momentum gained from his fifth Grand Prix victory.

Force India friendship turning sour?

Vijay Mallya’s team have had a magnificent start to the season, sitting comfortably in 4th place in the constructors’ championship with both Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon both picking up points in most races. The first sign of friction was seen in Montreal, where Perez refused to allow through a charging Ocon. In isolation this wouldn’t have been an issue, but in Baku they shot themselves in the foot by colliding after a safety car restart. Giving everything that happened in that race, they had a genuine chance to win the race if it hadn’t been for that collision.

In terms of raw pace, the Williams appears to be at least on a par with Force India, but a combination of bad luck and the inexperience of Lance Stroll mean they have fewer than half the points of their closest rivals. Prize money is key to the survival of midfield teams such as Force India, so Perez and Ocon need to put Baku behind them and continue what has been an excellent season so far.

McLaren hope for Honda power boost

The Woking-based outfit have had a rotten season thus far, finally picking up their first points at Baku through Fernando Alonso’s 9th place. Three years into the McLaren-Honda partnership, there still appears to be no tangible progress and the rumours of a return to Mercedes power units have begun to circulate. In what could be seen as one of their last chances to rescue the partnership, Honda have brought ‘spec-3′ engines to Austria and the first two practice sessions suggested that there is some sort of improvement – Alonso made it into the top ten both times, on a circuit where engine power plays a key role. It remains to be seen how substantial the improvement is, but Eric Boullier and co will be hoping they can at least get in the points this weekend and start working their way up the constructors’ standings.

Back to business for Stroll after brilliant Baku

Arguably the most surprising result in Azerbaijan was the third place for Williams driver Lance Stroll. The teenager has had his fair share of struggles this season, but was on the pace of his veteran teammate all weekend and drove a mature race to take a remarkable podium finish. He had a private test session with a 2014 car in Austin following the Canadian GP,and time will tell whether this had any real benefit, or if his Azerbaijan effort was a flash in the pan. Williams have been very clear that the first part of 2017 would be a learning phase for the young Canadian, and with successive points finishes there are signs that their patience could start to be rewarded.

The circuit

Few in the paddock will have forgotten the last-lap drama of the 2016 Austrian Grand Prix when Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton collided, allowing the Brit to take victory. In terms of time the Spielberg track is the shortest on the calendar and can be split into two distinct parts. The first half of the track is made up of long straights and slow corners, and the remainder features a number of sweeping, medium-speed corners.

 

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