The hills will be alive with the sound of horsepower this weekend as Formula 1 makes its annual visit to the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg for the Austrian Grand Prix.
Despite only returning to the calendar in 2014 after an 11-year absence – the old A1-Ring fully updated thanks to sizeable investment from Red Bull – Austria has already established itself as one of F1’s favorite European races.
This weekend’s race is the first of four in the space of just five weeks, going back-to-back with the British Grand Prix. A week’s grace follows before another double-header – Hungary and Germany – that takes us to the summer break.
As such, drivers’ championship leader Nico Rosberg will know that this month could prove to be make or break for his title aspirations.
After seeing Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton close to within nine points after victories in Monaco and Canada, Rosberg responded with a dominant display in Baku to open the gap back up to 24 points.
Hamilton, meanwhile, arrives in Austria keen to check the Red Bull Ring off his win list. In both 2014 and 2015, Rosberg dominated, leaving him to settle for second place both times around.
As the summer break nears, now is the time to lay down the foundations for the championship run-in. Here’s what to look out for in this weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix.
Talking Points – 2016 Austrian Grand Prix
Rosberg seeks three-peat in Spielberg
Austria has proven to be something of a banana skin for Mercedes over the past two years. In 2014, mistakes from both its drivers in qualifying handed Felipe Massa and Williams a surprise pole, while last year saw both Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg spin off on their final Q3 laps.
Both times around, the Silver Arrows bounced back to score a one-two, but with Ferrari running close in recent races, such errors cannot be repeated.
Rosberg is chasing a three-peat this weekend after his previous victories, knowing that he can take his lead back past the 30-point mark – by no means a healthy buffer, yet it will put him in control ahead of the British Grand Prix where Hamilton will be expected to dominate.
Hamilton looks to bury his Baku nightmare
Much of the good work that Hamilton did in Monaco and Canada to whittle Rosberg’s lead down from 43 points to just nine was undone two weeks ago in Baku. A string of errors in qualifying left him down the pack for the race, in which he struggled to make light work of the midfield runners as expected.
In many ways, P5 was damage limitation for Hamilton, but he still arrives in Austria knowing that he must bounce back and ensure Rosberg does not begin to run away again at the head of the standings.
The first priority for Hamilton will be to have a trouble-free weekend. Then he can focus on beating Rosberg on-track – a fight we are still yet to have truly enjoyed this season…
Can Red Bull ends its home race hoodoo?
Red Bull may own two teams and have four cars in F1, yet it has never finished any higher than eighth at its home event. Daniel Ricciardo was its sole finisher in 2014, while Max Verstappen led the charge in his Toro Rosso last year.
This year should see the Austrian team fare slightly better, although Verstappen has already admitted that the track does not suit the strengths of the RB12 car. We should therefore expect Ferrari to lead the non-Mercedes charge, perhaps leaving Red Bull to scrap with Williams and Force India behind.
Either way, Red Bull will arrive at its home race feeling more positive and hopeful that either of the past two runnings.
Checo’s roll to continue?
Sergio Perez has been one of F1’s stand-out performers in recent weeks, scoring two podiums in the last three races, taking his tally for Force India to four. He’s responsible for all but one top-three finish in the team’s history.
As such, it’s hardly surprising that the Mexican is being linked to some of F1’s bigger teams for 2017. Ferrari is known to be considering – as it did last year and the year before that – whether to stick with Kimi Raikkonen, while seats may also be up for grabs at Williams and Renault.
Tire management continues to be Perez’s greatest strength, making him dangerous in Austria where multiple stops are expected. The fact he’s now matching that nous with searing pace makes him a definite contender for a top-five finish this weekend.
Brexit and F1
Yes, Brexit. You’ll probably be sick and tired of hearing about it by now – being from the UK, I certainly know that I am. But there will most probably be some more chatter about it this weekend in Austria as the F1 paddock comes to terms with the impact of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.
Already those traveling to Austria for the race will be feeling the pinch following the collapse in the pound and reduction in the exchange rate against the Euro.
The British drivers in the field – Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and Jolyon Palmer – will be hoping to give some joy to the country after a difficult couple of weeks. The running joke after the EURO 2016 defeat to Iceland was that England had left Europe twice in the space of four days.
Let’s see if Lewis can rekindle some sporting joy for a nation in deep need of something to celebrate.
2016 Austrian Grand Prix – Facts and Figures
Track: Red Bull Ring
Lap Record: Michael Schumacher 1:08.337 (2003)
Tire Compounds: Soft/Super-Soft/Ultra-Soft
2015 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2015 Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:08.455
2015 Fastest Lap: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:11.235
DRS Zones: Main Straight (T9 to T1); T2 to T3
2016 Austrian Grand Prix – TV Times
Free Practice 1: NBC Sports App 4am ET 7/1
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 8am ET 7/1
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports App 5am ET 7/2
Qualifying: CNBC 8am ET 7/2
Race: CNBC 7:30am ET 7/3