With the tension of their clash in Baku two weeks ago apparently defused, Formula 1 title rivals Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are set to write the latest chapter of their rivalry in Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix (CNBC, NBC Sports app from 7:30am ET).
Vettel arrived in Austria leading the drivers’ championship by 14 points, and will be keen to extend his advantage after Hamilton hit trouble earlier in the week.
A gearbox change meant that Hamilton was forced to drop five places on the grid, leaving him eighth for the start in Spielberg.
All the while, Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas was quietly going about his business, building confidence with every lap en route to his second F1 pole position in qualifying.
Following his breakthrough win in Russia earlier this year, Bottas will be looking to follow it up with a second success on Sunday and strengthen his case for a 2018 seat with Mercedes.
You can watch the Austrian Grand Prix live on CNBC and the NBC Sports app from 7:30am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.
Here’s what to watch for in today’s race at the Red Bull Ring.
2017 Austrian Grand Prix – What to watch for
Bottas and Vettel set to fight it out up front
Valtteri Bottas has been pretty much perfect for Mercedes since joining the team as a late replacement for Nico Rosberg in January. Not only has he defused much of the tension at Brackley lingering from the previous rivalry, but his on-track displays have shown the F1 world what he is truly capable of.
Quick and dependable, Bottas came good for Mercedes in qualifying on Saturday by denying Ferrari pole, ensuring that Sebastian Vettel will not have it all his own way at the front of the pack as Lewis Hamilton tries to claw his way back up the order.
With Hamilton seemingly out of the picture for victory, the race should boil down to a battle between Bottas and Vettel at the front, the pair appearing to have a clear step over the remainder of the field.
We saw in Russia just how good Bottas can be under pressure. But with the stakes even higher as his teammate bids to avoid losing more ground in the title race, the Finn arguably faces one of the most important races of his career today.
Can Hamilton fight back?
Hamilton’s not had much luck in recent weeks. From his headrest coming loose in Baku to the lack of severe penalty for Vettel for his side-swipe, the three-time champion hasn’t had a great deal fall in his favor.
His struggles continued when he was hit with a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change earlier in the week, and when he only took P3 in qualifying after failing to match Bottas or Vettel for pace, eighth place on the grid was his final standing.
The silver lining for Hamilton was his alternate tire strategy. He will start on the longer-lasting super-softs, with his rivals all on ultra-softs.
With most noting an insignificant difference between the compounds this weekend, Hamilton may be in the box seat to make some gains, even if the pack between him the leaders will make victory difficult.
That said, throw in a safety car or two, and Hamilton’s luckless run may finally turn around.
Home race hopes look dim for Red Bull
Since the Austrian Grand Prix rejoined the F1 calendar back in 2014, Red Bull hasn’t enjoyed the best record at its home race.
A fortuitous podium for Max Verstappen is as good as it has got, and judging by the team’s pace through qualifying on Saturday, it seems unlikely that a top-three finish under regular circumstances will be in reach on Sunday.
Daniel Ricciardo will start fourth ahead of Verstappen in P5, both gaining a spot after Hamilton’s grid drop, and both will know that their chances of a stand-out result really hinge on another crazy race like the one we saw in Baku two weeks ago.
The grandstands may be packed with Red Bull fans, but it is unlikely they’ll have a great deal to celebrate on Sunday night.
One-stop race in store, but many different options
The more conservative nature of Pirelli’s tires in F1 this year has made a one-stop race the norm, and while another is due in Austria today, drivers will have a number of different options.
The ultra-soft is the fastest compound, but not as long-lasting as the super-softs or the softs despite the latter two not appearing to offer an enormous pace advantage as at other tracks.
So will ultra-soft/super-soft, ultra-soft/soft or super-soft/soft be the best strategy? The numbers will have been crunched overnight by the engineers – and all of it might not even matter if rain falls.
Rain could spice things up
The weather in Spielberg has been weird all weekend long. In the surrounding area, conditions seem to vary from valley to valley between the hills and mountains, making showers sharp yet fleeting.
Rain has been brewing for much of the weekend, with only a smattering falling on Thursday, meaning that we could be set for a deluge come the race if some of the forecasts are to be trusted.
A wet race on such a short, challenging circuit would be particularly entertaining and give Hamilton a good chance to battle his way back up the order, something Mercedes team boss Mr. Wolff will be keen to see.
Toto will blessing the rains down in Austria…
2017 Austrian Grand Prix – Starting Grid
1. Valtteri Bottas Mercedes
2. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
3. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
4. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
5. Max Verstappen Red Bull
6. Romain Grosjean Haas
7. Sergio Perez Force India
8. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes*
9. Esteban Ocon Force India
10. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
11. Nico Hulkenberg Renault
12. Fernando Alonso McLaren
13. Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren
14. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
15. Kevin Magnussen Haas
16. Jolyon Palmer Renault
17. Felipe Massa Williams
18. Lance Stroll Williams
19. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
PL. Pascal Wehrlein Sauber**
* Lewis Hamilton received a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change, confirmed on Friday.
** Pascal Wehrlein is to start from the pit lane after Sauber broke parc ferme rules after qualifying to change an engine.