Austrian GP Paddock Notebook – Friday

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The sound of Formula 1 returned to the Styrian mountains for the first time in over ten years today as practice for the Austrian Grand Prix took place at the Red Bull Ring. Predictably, Mercedes ruled the roost once again, with Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton sharing the spoils on Friday.

However, much of the talk in the paddock had little to do with the on track action. In a rather tenuous team principals’ press conference, some tough topics were tackled including cost cutting and the need for fan engagement. Predictably, little appears to have moved on; action is needed, not more meetings that go nowhere.

Here is the full Austrian GP paddock notebook from Friday in Spielberg.

SESSION REPORTS

  • First blood went to Nico Rosberg at the Red Bull Ring, as he edged out Lewis Hamilton by 0.140 seconds in the opening practice session.
  • However, Hamilton redressed the balance in FP2 to finish over three-tenths of a second clear of his German teammate. Mercedes finished over half a tenth clear of the rest of the field.

NEWS FROM THE PADDOCK

THOUGHTS FROM THE TRACK

A busy day in Austria today, both on and off the track. Let’s start with the drivers themselves and how they fared out there on the circuit.

First up, Mercedes. I’m desperately trying not to re-use old headlines when surmising the Silver Arrows’ dominance, but after a while it can prove to be difficult. It was honors even between Lewis and Nico on Friday in Austria, taking one session each, and both drivers will be in the hunt for the race win on Sunday. Hamilton appears to be a little more at ease with the W05 car, but as we saw in Canada, Nico has the ability to spring a surprise and edge out his teammate when it matters.

Trailing in the German marque’s wake were Red Bull, Ferrari and Williams. After a poor first session, Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo hit back in FP2 to finish inside the top ten. Although their one lap pace may not be too promising, Ricciardo’s long runs were impressive. He could be in the running to reach the podium on Sunday. Fernando Alonso finished third in both sessions for Ferrari, and he too will be in the hunt for his second podium finish of the year, while the Williams duo of Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa should vie for the British team’s first of 2014.

Now to the off track stories…

The word “crisis” is being thrown about quite a lot in Formula 1 recently. A crisis in terms of costs, a crisis in terms of fan engagement, a crisis of viewing figures… the list goes on. However, whenever efforts are made to resolve these crises, there always appears to be something in the way.

In the team principal’s press conference, the topic of cost cutting came up again. Five of the teams present – Mercedes, Red Bull, McLaren, Toro Rosso, Ferrari – have financial security and can willingly spend as much as they need to fight for championships (within reason, of course). The sixth, Sauber, was the only outfit that needs a cost cap or something of a similar ilk. The S.O.S signals have been sent out time and time again.

When a question about cost cutting was put to Toto Wolff of Mercedes, he reacted by asking why it had been asked at all. He preferred to focus on the fact that F1 had returned to Austria after so long away, and was shaping up to be a great event. Of course, from the top of the pile, the problems for those lower down are irrelevant. It is nice to be back in Austria, though.

Reports in the paddock today suggested that as of next season, restarts following a safety car period will come from a standing start. Once the issue has been resolved, the drivers will line up on the grid and start from there. Immediately, it received snorts of derision and exclamations of “seriously?” from members of the paddock. Why not just red flag the race every time that there is an incident warranting a safety car? It would have the same effect.

For all of the talk about fan engagement, the steps that are being taken appear to be doing quite the opposite. The political landscape in Formula 1 is a muddy one at the moment, especially with the abyss between the F1 Strategy Group members – Red Bull, Mercedes, Ferrari, Williams, McLaren, Lotus – and the rest of the teams seeming to grow by the minute.

Tomorrow should see focus switch back to what is happening on the track. That’s definitely for the best.

You can watch qualifying for the Austrian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 8am ET tomorrow. We will also be live streaming FP3, which will be online at 5am.

Wehrlein not concerned that Sauber performances are overlooked

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Sauber Formula 1 driver Pascal Wehrlein has no concerns that his performances for the backmarker team are being overlooked as he bids to secure a seat further up the grid in the near future.

Wehrlein is part of Mercedes’ junior program, and was an option for the championship-winning marque for 2017 following Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement.

Mercedes eventually signed Valtteri Bottas from Williams, placing Wehrlein at Sauber after his 2016 team, Manor, folded during the off-season.

Wehrlein has led Sauber’s charge through 2017, taking eighth place at the Spanish Grand Prix despite racing in a car lacking upgrades and with a year-old engine.

While a career haul of just six points may seem paltry, Wehrlein is comforted by the fact he has lacked the car with which to fare much better.

“My target is to one day be in a team where I can win races, get on the podium regularly and fight for championships,” Wehrlein told the official F1 website.

“Right now I don’t have these tools to make it happen. The weekends where we score points are very, very special for us because we don’t have the car to finish in the top ten often, only if the stars are in the right place!

“And then we have to take the opportunity and bag the points. I am very happy that when the chance was there I was able to grab it. I want to be there when it counts.

“I think it gets noticed that I have scored points in cars that under normal circumstances don’t score points. I don’t worry about that.”

Bottas has flourished since joining Mercedes, taking two race wins and becoming an unexpected contender in the title race alongside teammate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.

When asked if he was worried about Bottas’ success, Wehrlein said: “No, because I cannot influence such a decision.

“Worrying about things that you cannot influence is wasting your time and wasting your strength and efforts.

“Yes, Valtteri is doing a good job and he deserves it.”

Dixon hopes Rosenqvist gets IndyCar drive in the future

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Scott Dixon would like to see Felix Rosenqvist get a full-time Verizon IndyCar Series drive in the future after enjoying a successful second test with Chip Ganassi Racing at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course earlier this week.

Rosenqvist, 25, raced briefly in Indy Lights – among a number of other series – at the start of 2016 before shifting his focus to DTM and Formula E, sitting third in latter’s standings heading into the final round of the season.

After a successful maiden test with Chip Ganassi Racing last summer, Rosenqvist was invited back to Mid-Ohio to conduct some running with four-time champion Dixon and offer the current IndyCar points leader some feedback.

The Swede put in another impressive display, much to Dixon’s delight, who would like to see Rosenqvist join the IndyCar grid in the future.

“Right now, I think he’s got a lot of options, whether it’s Formula E or racing in Japan or throughout Europe,” Dixon told the official Verizon IndyCar Series website.

“Hopefully he can make it to the IndyCar Series at some point.”

Rosenqvist’s current program sees him balance drives in both Formula E and the Japanese Super Formula series, as well as a variety of other ad-hoc appearances in events ranging from the 24 Hours of Le Mans to the Scandinavian Porsche Carrera Cup.

Dipping to Mid-Ohio between the Formula E rounds in New York and Montreal, Rosenqvist was happy with how the test went and the contribution he was able to make.

“I think we had a really good test last year where it was probably more easy to evaluate my performance because there were more cars on track and so on, and it went really well,” Rosenqvist said.

“This year they entrusted me to do the test with Scott to get the free test day that the team gets. I think it was probably more for the preparation of the Mid-Ohio race.

“What I wanted to do was to prepare physically to drive, which I think I was, and just give good data, good feedback and constant lap times. I think it worked really good.”

Renault still chasing top-five F1 constructors’ championship finish

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Renault Formula 1 chief Cyril Abiteboul remains confident that the team can secure a top-five finish in this years’ constructors’ championship despite sitting eighth with half of the season complete.

Renault returned to F1 with a works team in 2016, but struggled to make much of an impression on-track as it recovered from the financial difficulties that blighted the Lotus team it took over.

While progress has been clear through 2017, the team already more than tripling its points total, it has still struggled to make much of an impact on F1’s midfield.

Nico Hulkenberg has led Renault’s charge, scoring all 26 of it points so far this season, taking an impressive sixth-place finish at Silverstone last weekend.

Renault boldly stated in pre-season that it was targeting a top-five finish in the constructors’ championship, and while it may still be three places shy heading towards the summer break, Abiteboul’s goal remains unchanged.

“We have shown at Silverstone that we are continuing to improve. Chassis developments, in particular the new floor, proved to be positive exemplified from Nico’s eight points and both cars showing strong qualifying pace,” Abiteboul said.

“It’s critical to back up this improvement with both cars finishing in the top ten in Hungary – we want to finish the first half of the season on a positive note.

“To achieve this, we need to put behind our reliability problems. We know our situation and the areas which require more attention.

“Our targets remain unchanged: we want to be sixth by the end of play on 30th July and fifth by the end of the season. A double-points finish is well within our reach.”

Renault currently sits seven points behind sixth-placed Toro Rosso in the constructors’ championship, and 15 shy of Williams in P5.

FIA: Halo the best cockpit safety solution ‘currently in existence’

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The FIA has released a statement explaining the decision to introduce the ‘Halo’ cockpit safety device to Formula 1 in 2018, saying it is the best solution “currently in existence”.

The F1 Strategy Group pushed through the introduction of Halo for 2018 at a meeting earlier this week, having last trialed the cockpit protection system last November in Abu Dhabi.

Evaluations of the ‘Aeroscreen’ and ‘Shield’ systems proved unsuccessful, the latter being criticized by Sebastian Vettel following a one-lap test at Silverstone last Friday.

The decision to introduce Halo for 2018 has divided opinion in the racing world, but the FIA has now moved to explain the decision in a statement issued on its website.

Here is the explanation in full.

Why Halo Is The Best Solution

Safety in motorsport is a paramount concern for the FIA and while great strides have been made in many areas of motor sport, head protection in single-seater competition has been an area of concern for many years.

Motor sport by its nature involves risk but it is the mission of the FIA, as the sport’s governing body, to continually strive to minimize that risk through the constant pursuit of greater safety on the track through sound research and technological development.

Over the past decade motor sport has witnessed serious incidents that affected drivers. The severity of the incidents made it clear to the FIA that developing a solution to mitigate against frontal impact in the area of the cockpit is a research priority for the FIA to address this existing weak point. They were also a number of near misses accidents that highlighted the need for action.

Following several incidents, the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association also expressed to FIA President Jean Todt in July 2016 a request that some form of frontal cockpit protection be “implemented as swiftly as possible”.

A month later, following meetings of the F1 Strategy Group and the F1 Commission, the Commission confirmed a commitment to introduce “some form of cockpit protection from the 2017 season”, assuring that “all stakeholders are working together to make this a reality, with the ‘Halo’ concept currently the preferred option.”

While static tests of the device continued, other solutions were simultaneously explored, particularly the ‘Aeroscreen’, a windshield mounted on twin pillars attached to the coaming on either side of the cockpit. The system was tested in free practice at the 2016 Russian Grand Prix but while it was successful in some areas, further testing raised concerns as to the effectiveness of the device.

By contrast, tests of the Halo continued to prove successful. Centering on three significant major risk types, car-to-car contact, car-to-environment contact and external objects, tests revealed that in the case of car-to-car incidents the Halo was able to withstand 15x the static load of the full mass of the car and was able to significantly reduce the potential for injuries.

In car-to-environment tests it was established that the Halo was able to prevent helmet contact with a wall or a barrier in many cases, using a selection of previous incidents as a reference.

Finally, in the case of external objects, the Halo was found to successfully deflect large objects away from the cockpit environment and also demonstrated an increased net level of protection against small debris.

Furthermore, feedback from extensive track testing revealed that visibility was substantially unaffected, and there was no significant visual obstruction due to the central strut. Track testing also revealed no issues regarding egress from the cockpit and multiple extrication tests were conducted with the Halo in place, with a revised procedure formulated to ensure safe extrication.

Despite the success, in July of 2016 the F1 Strategy Group agreed to defer the introduction of a cockpit protection system in order to provide more time to conduct track testing with the Halo device and to explore emerging alternative solutions.

However, while implementation was deferred, the Strategy Group reaffirmed its commitment to the introduction of a protection system by stating it was “agreed unanimously that the 2018 season will see the introduction of frontal cockpit protection for Formula One cars in order to significantly enhance the safety of drivers.” The Halo remained the preferred option.

Intensive track tests took place across the second half of the 2016 Formula One season with a wide number of teams and drivers assessing the impact of the device on visibility. Simultaneously the FIA maintained its commitment to the introduction of a device for the 2018 season.

Following these track tests and analysis of emerging alternative systems the F1 Strategy Group and F1 Commission decided, in April of this year, to “give priority to the transparent ‘Shield’ family of systems. The FIA aims to carry out track tests of this system during this season in preparation for implementation in 2018.”

After static testing, the Shield system was given a short track test at the 2017 British Grand Prix, with the device fitted to the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel. Feedback from this test concerned a number of limitations around such a system.

In light of this and cognisant of the successful deflection tests conducted with the Halo system, the multiple successful track tests conducted with a wide variety of drivers and teams in the latter half of the 2016 season, and the need to implement regulations for the desired deadline of the start of the 2018 season, the Halo system represents the best solution to the issue of frontal cockpit protection currently in existence.

The latest design of the Halo will now be further refined ahead of its introduction in 2018 in a joint effort between teams, drivers and FIA.

The Halo’s introduction to F1 for 2018 still requires approval from the World Motor Sport Council, but this should be a formality given its support from the FIA and the Strategy Group.