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
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