Will the Austrian heat put the brakes on Hamilton’s runaway title bid? A team-by-team preview of the 2019 Formula 1 Austrian Grand Prix
Scorching Austrian sun could prove a challenge for teams this year Photo: Motorsport Images
So many questions, so little time: Who can stop Lewis Hamilton’s seemingly inexorable charge to a sixth world title? Will we ever have an interesting race again? Has Valtteri Bottas run out of porridge? Will Ferrari ever get its upgrades right? Can Honda actually propel Red Bull closer to the ‘big two’? And, as ever, will Lance Stroll ever actually turn up on a Saturday..?
With so little time between the instantly forgettable French Grand Prix – it’s debatable that a race even actually happened between laps 0.5 and 53, so probably best it doesn’t linger long in the memory – we’re unlikely to get many meaningful answers to any of the above this weekend, on a track that should very much suit Mercedes and could well punish the under-performing Ferrari.
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“He’s not unbeatable… but he’s quick on a Sunday and very efficient on the tyres… it’s my race pace that needs working on.” Bottas’s very astute summary when asked if he could, in fact, recover to take the fight to Hamilton in what has very much become a two-horse title race even before the summer break arrives
With Hamilton having won each of the last four grands prix, and six of the last seven, the writing is very much on the wall that Britain could well be celebrating its first six-time world champion well before the December finale in Abu Dhabi. On current form Hamilton could have things wrapped up by September and embark on an autumn sun holiday should he choose to.
Mercedes will likely be strong in Austria, a track that mixes fast, flowing corners with the sort of tight, slow turns the W10 eats for breakfast. But it’s also the site of a rare double retirement for the team, where Bottas suffered a gearbox issue and Hamilton a fuel system problem last year. A big concern for Mercedes could be cooling, with temperatures predicted to be in the 30s for race day and the Mercedes has occasionally suffered with overheating.
Toto Wolff says: “Austria predicts high temperatures, combined with the reduced density owing to the track’s location at altitude, this means that cooling could be a real challenge. Add to that the short lap and it’s clear we must stay humble. This year our finishing record has been good, but we’d be fools to ignore that for the last two weekends our mechanics have had to perform the equivalent of ‘open-heart surgery’ on our cars.”
Reliability concerns aside, Paul Ricard exposed the main weaknesses of Ferrari against the Silver Arrows, and the Red Bull Ring will likely do the same unless the Scuderia has an ace up its sleeve.
The straighter sections of the track should suit Ferrari Photo: Motorsport Images
Actually, make that two aces required. France wasn’t a good weekend for Ferrari, but there is hope. Ahead of the weekend, talk suggested the team had identified an anomaly in its car’s aero mapping, meaning upgrades hadn’t been working as intended. Mattia Binotto denied it (as you’d expect him to). In France, Ferrari brought a new floor, brake ducts, trimmed wings and some additional aero appendages. And guess what… they didn’t work as intended…
Mattio Binotto says: “We are happy to be getting back on track so quickly, because it’s the best way to put ourselves to the test again to try and understand the elements that did not go according to plan in France. We have various test items to evaluate, mainly in order to give us a clearer picture as to why some of the updates we brought to Le Castellet did not work as expected.”
The first ace is needed to figure out what’s going on with the team’s aero data, and the second to create a quick fix to help the SF90 generate more downforce through the slower turns, where it really gives away any straight-line advantage its holds over the Merc.
Ferrari’s issues were exacerbated when its lead driver, Sebastian Vettel, struggled with a power unit problem – diagnosed as an intercooler leak – and wasn’t allowed to use all of his engine’s potential power. It likely wouldn’t have saved him from a trouncing by Lewis, but it might have got him onto the back of Bottas along with Charles Leclerc.
Being Austria-specific, the first sector should be all Ferrari – straight, straight, brake. The middle on however is where it will likely give away that advantage with the blend of medium-slow-speed turns as the SF90 still struggles for traction and front-end grip.
Regardless, Ferrari is finding answers and acting on the information, but Austria may just come too soon for any magic bullet to be fired.
Verstappen on the top step of the podium last year Photo: Motorsport Images
Disappointing. That’s pretty much the one word to describe Red Bull’s performance in France. A performance-focused Honda engine upgrade didn’t really get the chance to show what it could do, due to the RB15s struggling with its tyres in the higher temperatures at Ricard, plus occasional throttle issues for Max Verstappen.
Austria is also likely to be a warm one, but the track layout at Spielberg will better suit the Red Bull. Verstappen won against the run of form in the race last year, and if the team can get on top of the issues with Pierre Gasly’s car that seem to be stifling the Frenchman, the blue cars could well prove a problem for their red counterparts.
How long has it been since we got to enjoy a genuinely competitive McLaren? Answer: the 2014 Italian Grand Prix. That’s the last time two McLarens featured inside the top six on a Sunday morning.
With that in mind it was great to see both Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz play starring roles in both qualifying and the race at Ricard. Had it not been for Norris’s last-lap technical issues, the team would have had its best finish combined finish (6th & 7th) since Russia in 2014. The chassis is clearly working well and is showing good response to upgrades, so I’d expect to see another strong performance from the Woking contingent.
The one unknown is whether or not the team will deploy Renault’s new, more powerful Spec B engine, as doing so would require one of its drivers (Sainz) to take one of F1’s frankly stupid engine-related grid penalties. Is the extra grunt worth the grid drop?
The team’s huge upgrade package in France didn’t work out as planned, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t come good.
According to Daniel Ricciardo the recently resurfaced Paul Ricard track caught the team out. “To be honest, I don’t think we’ve seen the full potential [of the upgrades] this weekend,” he said. “I feel we missed a bit of set up, basic stuff. I think because of the new Tarmac we didn’t excel as we could have. It was shiny and really slick but with high grip, so quite unique. I think we’ll see more from it in Austria.”
Nico Hülkenberg added: “I think we definitely got something out of it. There’s a lot of information after a race to go through and hopefully we can extract more over the next few weeks.”
After a tough acclimatisation period, Ricicardo is beginning to edge clear of Hulkenberg in the intra-team battle, helped last round by the fact he had the slightly more potent B spec engine and Hulkenberg didn’t – to avoid previously mentioned stupid engine grid penalty. But Ricciardo is still struggling to get the front end to his liking, especially to suit the late-braking style that made him a star with Red Bull.
The rest of the grid
Gunther Steiner: not depressed, not angry… don’t ask Photo: Motorsport Images
Haas team boss Gunther Steiner wasn’t a happy bunny after France, a weekend when both of his drivers were basically nowhere. Haas’s car this year is about as unpredictable as its team radio exchanges, one minute looking like the class of the midfield and finishing a handful of laps down the following day. Again, it’s the usual story that it can’t work this year’s tyres well.
Steiner said: “In our four-year history I think that was our worst weekend. What is bizarre is our car is good enough to qualify seventh and eighth in the first race and sixth in Monaco and all of a sudden we’re second last. Don’t ask me what it is, I don’t know, so just don’t ask. It’s not depressing, and angry isn’t the right word…”
The Racing Points didn’t fare well in France, with its low-drag setup ultimately costing too much on Ricard’s curvy bits. Even Sergio Perez struggled not to join the Stroll club in the bar early on Saturday, but did eventually scrape through to Q2.
The team was strong in Austria last year – sixth and seventh – and will be hoping to get someway close to replicating that this season. But having Lance fighting through from 18th will make it tough to do so.
Toro Rosso only had one of Honda’s upgraded power units in France, with Daniil Kvyat given the nod over Alex Albon to carry it, seeing as he’d worked his way through his allocation of old ones nicely. Both drivers struggled with compromised starts in France, not helped by the intra-team duel that ensued, which masked much improvement. Austria hasn’t been the strongest of hunting grounds for Red Bull’s junior team, having not scored a point there since 2016.
Alfa Romeo returned to the points in France, with Kimi Räikkönen looking very competitive and making the top 1- for the first time since Baku in April. Antonio Giovinazzi is still point-less. Despite showing good pace by making Q3 in France, his race was compromised by an unfavourable tyre strategy. Regardless, the Italian has shown significant improvement over the year’s early races.
And finally, to Williams. In the battle for F1’s wooden spoon, George Russell was bested for the first time this year by Robert Kubica in France, even if he had to make a second stop to change a deteriorating front wing. The two cars at least enjoyed a good battle between themselves, but they’re sadly still some way off being able to race anybody else. As Russell so succinctly put it “not satisfied, not disappointing, just normal.”