F1 Preview: 2017 Austrian Grand Prix

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After flyaway races in Canada and Azerbaijan, Formula 1 returns to its European heartland this weekend with the Austrian Grand Prix to start a stretch of races on the continent taking us to the beginning of fall.

Austria returned to the F1 calendar in 2014 after an 11-year absence at the redesigned and rebranded Red Bull Ring, with the race since becoming a firm favorite among drivers, fans and teams.

While it may be Red Bull Racing’s home race, it is Mercedes who has ruled the roost in recent years with three straight victories between Nico Rosberg (2) and Lewis Hamilton (1).

Hamilton arrives in Austria looking to bounce back from a difficult Azerbaijan Grand Prix weekend that saw him lose more ground on title rival Sebastian Vettel following a controversial clash.

Contact between Hamilton and Vettel behind the safety car saw the latter receive an in-race penalty for dangerous driving, but escaped further punishment after making a formal apology.

Hamilton was unimpressed by his rival’s actions, acting as the first needle between the title contenders in 2017 after a cordial start to their battle through the opening seven races.

With a 14-point lead, can Vettel kick on and extend his advantage in Austria? Or will Hamilton bounce back and cut the gap at the top? All will be revealed in Spielberg this weekend…

2017 Austrian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Will the Hamilton-Vettel fight rumble on?

The clash between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel caused shockwaves in the F1 world, with the aftershock even being felt across global sport, such is the interest in having a sporting rivalry boil over in such fashion.

The parties involved may have said that it is case closed and moved on from the incident, but Hamilton and Vettel will both be barraged with questions over the Austria weekend – as, most probably, will the rest of the paddock – and their responses will be of interest.

Vettel has fulfilled the FIA’s requests by issuing a public apology, although he is yet to speak about it on the record. The first opportunity will come during the press conference on Friday, where he will be sat alongside – you guessed it – Hamilton.

Hamilton made his feelings clear about the incident speaking to NBCSN after the race in Baku, believing it to set a “dangerous precedent” for future clashes. Mercedes’ F1 chief Toto Wolff may have moved on, but will Hamilton toe the party line?

Mercedes looks to pull clear after Baku pace advantage

Away from the clash, Mercedes and Ferrari have been going head-to-head all season long, seemingly level-pegged and only experiencing a performance swing depending on circuit or tire characteristics.

But Baku appeared to change that. Mercedes finished a full second clear of Ferrari in qualifying, and Hamilton rarely looked challenged in the race up front. Mercedes had an advantage that was perhaps only neared by Ferrari in Monaco, and even that was circuit-specific.

So can Mercedes kick on in Austria? The German marque has a 100 per cent record since the race’s revival to defend, and will want to send out a statement to its rivals by taking another victory on Red Bull’s home turf.

Red Bull looks to build on Baku victory

Daniel Ricciardo’s victory in Azerbaijan two weeks ago may have marked a big breakthrough for Red Bull as its first win of the season, but the team is under no illusions about where it stands in the F1 pecking order.

Clearly Mercedes and Ferrari remain the teams to beat in F1, so Red Bull’s challenge will be to once again pick up the pieces if either of them drop the ball. It worked a treat in Baku.

The Austrian Grand Prix has been a strange race for Red Bull in recent years though. Despite being a promotional goldmine for the brand and a celebratory event for the team, its results have been left wanting, scoring just one podium finish from a possible six in the last three years through Max Verstappen last year.

While a repeat result may prove difficult this year given Mercedes and Ferrari’s advantage, it will be interesting to see just how close Red Bull can get.

Fractures at Force India?

The clash between Hamilton and Vettel was not the only one of note in Baku, with a tangle between Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon on one of the safety car restarts costing Force India a shot at a podium finish – or perhaps even bigger things.

The pair made contact while running third and fourth respectively, with Perez pointing the finger at Ocon. Force India said earlier this week that it would not change its approach in regards to letting its drivers race, although it did take steps to remind its drivers that the team result must not be hurt by their own on-track battles.

Ocon and Perez are yet to talk about the incident, with a meeting scheduled for later today, but after two straight races with clashes, both will need to be careful if they want to capitalize on the team’s growing ability.

McLaren hopes to impress with Spec 3 power unit

Some rare good news for McLaren arrived earlier this week: Honda’s ‘Spec 3’ power unit update that was tested in Baku is now ready to go in both cars this weekend in Austria, giving Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne a boost for the Red Bull Ring.

McLaren arrived back in Europe on a high after scoring its first points of the year in Baku, with Alonso getting two on the board for ninth place. While it was by no means representative of where the team stands, it was progress nonetheless.

Honda has so much ground to make up that a single upgrade is likely to make a world of difference to the team. That said, McLaren will hope to take a step forward against its rivals and maybe get in the mix for points once again in Austria, should signs of improvement come from Honda.

2017 Austrian Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Red Bull Ring
Corners: 10
Lap Record: Michael Schumacher 1:08.337 (2003)
Tire Compounds: Ultra-Soft/Super-Soft/Soft
2016 Winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:07.922
2016 Fastest Lap: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:08.411
DRS Zone: T10 to T1, T3 to T4

2017 Austrian Grand Prix – TV/Stream Times

Bottas feels at home at Mercedes as a challenger, not No. 2

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) Valtteri Bottas feels like he finally belongs at Mercedes, and that is not as a support driver to Lewis Hamilton.

The Finnish driver has exceeded expectations since joining from Williams as an emergency replacement for Nico Rosberg, who dramatically retired days after winning last year’s Formula One championship.

“I feel very much part of the team, I feel I can definitely perform at my best level,” Bottas said Thursday ahead of this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix. “(There is) plenty more to come.”

The widely held perception was that Bottas, who had never won a race before this season, was clearly arriving as the No. 2 behind Hamilton, a three-time F1 champion.

Yet at the halfway point of the 20-race season, Bottas is in third place overall, 22 points behind Hamilton and 23 behind four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari. That puts him within touching distance.

Bottas won in Russia and Austria, and finished second in Canada, Azerbaijan and Britain. With four straight podium finishes, he has good momentum for the Hungarian GP, the last race before a month-long summer break.

If not for his failure to finish the Spanish GP in May, Bottas could be even closer to Hamilton and Vettel.

“I feel like I am getting up to speed now. In a way I hope there wasn’t a break,” Bottas said Thursday. “I always set targets higher. I didn’t expect myself to be behind (Hamilton) all the time. I’ve shown it is possible to battle and show my skills.”

Asked if he thinks he can win the title, the 27-year-old Bottas says “everything is wide open,” adding “I believe I can fight for the pole (position) here.”

The twisting nature of the 4.4-kilometer (2.7-mile) Hungaroring circuit may favor Ferrari more than Mercedes, however.

Mercedes struggled at this season’s Monaco GP, which is a similarly tight-turning track where overtaking is much harder. Vettel won in Monaco from pole, while Bottas was fourth for Mercedes and Hamilton managed only seventh spot.

“We’ve learnt a lot since Monaco,” Bottas said. “I think it will be a good test for our car, we’re expecting a close battle.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Hungarian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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Formula 1’s final race before the summer break takes place this weekend with the Hungarian Grand Prix from the Hungaroring in Budapest.

It’s a busy time of year and a highly important weekend on the calendar, with the two championship combatants only separated by one point and all the silly season talk about 2018 heating up – particularly with the two-day young driver test set to run on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week after the race.

And with the confirmation the Halo device is set to be introduced next year, what are the drivers thoughts on that?

All that makes for ideal timing of this weekend’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass with Will Buxton checking in from the ground in Hungary.

Here’s the pre-race episode, below.

Drivers divided over F1 halo cockpit device

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) The “halo” cockpit head protection system that will be mandatory on Formula One cars next season protects drivers from the potentially fatal impact of objects like a loose wheel traveling at up to 225 kph (140 mph).

Motor sport’s governing body, FIA, has been looking at ways to improve cockpit protection and limit the risk of head injuries, after French F1 driver Jules Bianchi died in July 2015 and British IndyCar driver Justin Wilson died a month later.

“The halo will become the strongest part of the car, a secondary wall structure (along with the helmet) and can take about 15 times the car’s weight,” FIA safety director Laurent Mekies said at a news conference Thursday. “We know that our resistance against small objects has stepped up.”

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY – JULY 27: FIA Race Director, Charlie Whiting and Laurent Mekies, FIA Deputy Race Director and Safety Director talk in a press conference regarding the halo device during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 27, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Drivers remain divided over the move.

The halo design forms a semi-circular barrier around the driver’s helmet in the front half of the cockpit, protecting against debris without completely closing the cockpit. When first tested ahead of 2016, drivers were split as to whether they liked it with some – such as three-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton – criticizing it on aesthetic grounds.

Tests were done from the front and side of the car with a loose wheel weighing 20 kilograms. Researchers took in various factors: car-to-car contact, car-to-environment contact and external objects, such as a wheel. They also analyzed real-life accidents, including those with fatalities.

In terms of manufacturing design, FIA race director Charlie Whiting said “it’s going to be a one-part (piece) made by one company, so they all have to fit the same one.”

The device is expected to weigh about 8 kilograms, Whiting said. The manufacturer has yet to be decided, although several companies have been contacted. Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas both expressed concern that the extra weight will impact driving, particularly on cornering speeds.

Other safety devices were considered before the halo was approved by the FIA last week.

At the British Grand Prix two weeks ago, a transparent open canopy system constructed using polycarbonate, and known as the “shield,” was tested at Silverstone by four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel.

The Ferrari driver was critical.

“I wasn’t a big fan of the shield,” Vettel said. “For sure you need to get used to the halo, but at least it didn’t impact on the vision.”

Bianchi died at the age of 25, several months after massive head injuries sustained at the Japanese GP in October 2014.

Bianchi’s accident at Suzuka occurred at the end of the race in rainy, gloomy conditions, when his Marussia team car slid off the track and ploughed into a crane picking up the Sauber of German driver Adrian Sutil, who had crashed at the same spot one lap earlier.

Wilson died in August 2015, a day after being hit on the helmet by debris from another car at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania.

“We believe (the halo) would have changed dramatically the outcome of the accident,” Mekies said.

Vettel, who emotionally dedicated his 2015 win at Hungary to Bianchi, said the change was justified.

“We would all take it, to help save his life. We can’t turn back the clock,” the German driver said. “But knowing something is there that would help us is stupid to ignore. Overall it’s supposed to help us, so that’s what we should remember.”

While Hamilton and others have been critical of the halo’s appearance, Vettel championed it.

“Times are changing and moving forward,” Vettel said. “It helps us in the car in case something goes very wrong.”

Two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso is also in favor.

“If we could go back in time and save lives we would all be happy,” the Spanish driver said. “That’s the first and only thing we should talk about. The aesthetics I don’t care too much (about).”

Several drivers disagree.

“Doesn’t look too good,” Renault driver Nico Hulkenberg said. “Not sure that this additional protection is necessary because all the other areas (of safety) are improving.”

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, and Haas drivers Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean are also against it.

“I didn’t like the visibility and the thing in front of you, it’s not great,” the 19-year-old Verstappen said. “I don’t think you will lose the wheel very easily (anyway) and when there are parts flying around the car it’s not going to protect you. So I don’t know why we need it.”

Magnussen took a sarcastic tone.

“F1 cars aren’t meant to be ugly. That is the reason that a Ferrari is more exciting than a Mazda,” the Danish driver said. “I think there is a limit where it becomes too safe to be exciting. We could make the cars go 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour and it would be boring.”

Grosjean said “it was a sad day for Formula 1 when it was announced, and I am still against it.”

Sergio Perez wants 2018 F1 contract secured by Spa

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Sergio Perez is keen to swiftly define his Formula 1 future and secure a contract for next season by the time the paddock reconvenes in Belgium at the end of August after the summer break.

Perez has been one of the stand-out drivers in F1 this year, sitting seventh in the drivers’ championship as the leading midfielder behind those racing for Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull.

The Mexican’s future has become a regular talking point during F1’s ‘silly season’, with links to Ferrari being thrown about for 2018 as it mulls over Kimi Raikkonen’s position.

Force India has been punching well above its weight in F1 this year, much to Perez’s delight, and he hopes to have a new contract with the team sorted for next year within the next month.

“I think the team has been moving forwards every year. Although last year we achieved the same position which we have now which is fourth, I think we have consolidated that fourth place,” Perez said.

“I think the team is moving forwards; there is a lot more interest in terms of sponsorship into the team, more investment but it’s not easy to make the next step with the big boys, with the big teams, it’s not easy.

“In terms of my future, I just hope that once I come back to the next race, after the summer break, I can have a new contract.”

When asked if he meant a new contract with Force India, Perez said: “That would be good you know, but you never know what will happen.”