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.

Marchionne: ‘About time’ Ferrari returned to winning ways in F1

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Ferrari president and CEO Sergio Marchionne was quick to congratulate Sebastian Vettel on his victory in Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix, saying it was “about time” the Italan manufacturer won again in Formula 1.

Vettel fought from second on the grid to leapfrog Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton through the pit stops and win the opening race of the 2017 season by almost 10 seconds.

The result marked Ferrari’s first victory since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix, and the team leads the constructors’ championship for the first time since the start of 2013.

“It was about time,” Marchionne said in a statement issued after the race.

“I am delighted for the team and for our Tifosi who stood by us throughout this whole period. We’ve been waiting for this victory for almost a year and a half. Hearing the Italian national anthem again was very moving.

“Sebastian delivered a great race and I am sure Kimi [Raikkonen, P4] will be soon up there battling alongside his teammate.

“Of course, this victory is something to share with the entire team, both at the circuit and back in Maranello, because teamwork is the only way to achieve major goals.

“Now, however, it is absolutely essential to remember that this is not the destination but the first step on a long road that must see us all focused on improving each and every day.”

Bottas takes podium on Mercedes debut, eyes room for improvement

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Valtteri Bottas claimed a comfortable podium finish in his first Formula 1 appearance for Mercedes on Sunday in Australia, but has already identified areas for improvement in his display.

Bottas joined Mercedes for 2017 following world champion Nico Rosberg’s shock decision to retire at the end of last season, making his first race appearance this weekend in Australia from third place on the grid.

Bottas ran a trouble-free race en route to third, catching Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton towards the end but falling 1.2 seconds shy of the Briton. Race winner Sebastian Vettel was a further 10 seconds up the road for Ferrari.

“I think it is a start and there’s always things that could’ve gone better, but you know I think it is a good starting point for the jorney for me driving for Mercedes,” Bottas said.

“I think the main things were obviously yesterday in qualifying I didn’t get everything perfect, but it was the first qualifying with the team and this track hasn’t really been fantastic for me ever in qualifying.

“There’s a long season ahead and today I think the race was good I think we as a team we did a good job with the car we had. I think Ferrari was quicker today, there’s no doubt about that. So they’ve obviously done a great great job as well and a better job for this race.”

Like Hamilton, Bottas struggled in the early part of the race on the ultra-soft tire, but hopes to learn from the difficulties ahead of the next race in China on April 9.

“I struggled a lot with the ultra-soft tires, and it felt like I was sliding around and always missing front grip and rear grip especially after ten laps of the first stint.

“So that wasn’t easy but once we’ve put the soft tires on it was actually quite a good feeling with the car, the car was behaving really nicely. It was really nice to drive. Just a bit too late and still missing a little bit of pace.

“But overall I think not a disaster for a first race weekend with the team, but I do have my points I will take and I will be better next time. Looking forward to that.”

Lewis Hamilton: My decision to make early pit stop in Australian GP

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Lewis Hamilton has revealed it was his call to stop early during Sunday’s Formula 1 season-opener in Australia, having struggled to hold on to the lead of the race due to his fading tires.

Despite tipping Ferrari to be the team to beat in Australia, Hamilton took the 62nd pole position of his career on Saturday, beating Sebastian Vettel.

Hamilton retained his lead in the early part of the race from Ferrari driver Vettel, only for the German to turn in a sequence of quick laps ahead of the first round of pit stops.

Fearful of losing the lead on-track to Vettel, Hamilton opted to pit early at the end of Lap 16 so that he could put his fresh tires to good use and try to get the undercut on his rival.

Ferrari did not react immediately, keeping Vettel out until Hamilton hit traffic, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen holding the Mercedes driver back and creating a bigger gap between the two victory contenders.

Vettel was able to pit and come back out ahead of Verstappen and Hamilton, immediately forging a buffer that would sustain until the end of the race.

Hamilton explained after the race that he decided to come in early due to his tire concerns, believing that Vettel would have overtaken him anyway.

“We had a really good start, which is fantastic, it’s great to have a good getaway – but then we were struggling with the grip from the get-go,” Hamilton said.

“Sebastian was able to always answer in terms of lap time and the majority of the time do faster lap times. Towards the end I got a bit in traffic and overheated the tires and was struggling with grip, so it was to the point that I needed to come in.

“The gap was closing up and I was sliding around so it was my call, because otherwise he probably would have come by anyways. I came in and then I obviously got stuck in some traffic, which was unfortunate but that’s motor racing.”

Hamilton congratulated Vettel on his success, and said the result boded well for a close championship fight between Mercedes and Ferrari.

“A big congratulations to Sebastian and Ferrari, I know it’s been a long time coming to get a result like this,” Hamilton said.

“It shows we’re going to have a race on our hands, which we’re happy to have. I think it’s great for the fans.

“Unfortunately it’s harder than ever to get closer to cars, which is a shame because we can’t have an even closer battle. Who knows, maybe in the future we will.”

Vettel: Australia F1 win ‘a big relief’ to Ferrari after barren 2016

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Sebastian Vettel said his victory in Sunday’s Formula 1 season-opening Australian Grand Prix came as “a big relief” to the Ferrari team following a winless year in 2016.

Vettel qualified second in Melbourne before jumping Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton through the pit stops when Ferrari opted to keep him out longer on the ultra-soft tires.

Vettel opened up a sizeable lead over Hamilton soon after his pit stop, eventually crossing the line 9.9 seconds clear of the Briton to win the opening race of the year.

The result marked both Ferrari and Vettel’s first win since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix, showing the work that the team has done over the winter to turn things around after struggling last year.

“If you’re not part of the team it’s difficult to realize, but what this team has done in the last six months has been really tough, rough as well, not easy to manage,” Vettel said.

“Today is fantastic, a big reward and big relief for everyone. It’s just the tip of the iceberg though, the foundation has been laid a long time ago.

“I’m sure we’ll have a great night, create some great memories tonight and take it from there. We enjoy what we do, the spirit is great in the team and it’s up to us to keep it up.”

The result marked Vettel’s first win in Australia since 2011 and Ferrari’s first at Albert Park since 2007. In both years, they went on to win the drivers’ title, Ferrari taking the 2007 crown with Kimi Raikkonen.

History may be on Vettel’s side, but the German is not turning his attention to a fifth world title yet.

“No, I’m not interested in that point to be honest,” Vettel said when reminded of Raikkonen’s Australia win and title success in 2007.

“Obviously I was very fortunate so far in my racing career that I had some very good races and good years, but definitely after the first race is not the time to look at the table. We really have to go step-by-step.

“It’s good to know we have a great car but it’s just the beginning. New regulations, new generation of cars so there will be a lot of progress.

“These guys [Mercedes] have proven to be the ones to beat in the last couple of years more and more. We know they have a great engine but they’ve had a great car the last couple of years and they made good steps forward so we’re the ones who need to catch up.

“For today I’m just very happy and for sure whatever happens this year, the race today doesn’t hurt.”