The Formula 1 paddock has headed straight from the south of France to the Styrian Alps for another event in the countryside. Motorsport Week takes a look at some of the key talking points ahead of the Austrian Grand Prix.
Can Mercedes exorcise 2018 demons?
It seems almost impossible to recall that at last year’s Austrian Grand Prix Mercedes found itself in something of a funk. It had dominated qualifying but Valtteri Bottas suffered a gearbox problem that caused a Virtual Safety Car period. Mercedes did not pit Lewis Hamilton, compromising his strategy, accelerating the tyre blister process, before a fuel pressure problem halted his W10. There was near disbelief that Mercedes’ race had collapsed in such a manner.
Accidents aside, Mercedes had not suffered so much through the hybrid era. Any schadenfreude directed towards the team did not last long as the team has bounced back in fairly convincing fashion. It has won 16 of the 20 races held since its double disaster and is firmly en route to a sixth straight title, its lead over Ferrari now a mammoth 140 points. But there will be a determination to hit back at Spielberg after last year’s drama.
Is this Ferrari’s best chance yet?
Ferrari’s title hopes have already perished and at several circuits, it has sustained a substantial pummelling from Mercedes. But at power tracks it has been a figure, given the progress it has made with the engine in the back of the SF90. It should have won in Bahrain, could have won in Azerbaijan, and crossed the line first in Canada.
The layout of the Red Bull Ring is not exactly tailor-made for the SF90 but it is one of the circuits at which engine prowess is keenly felt. It could, potentially, also be aided by the fact that the Red Bull Ring is – comparatively speaking – one of the weaker circuits for Hamilton, who has never truly gelled with the venue. Ferrari came close at the venue in 2017 and 2018, while Charles Leclerc has typically performed well, and regards it as one of his favoured circuits. Could the barren run finally end this weekend?
Can Red Bull deliver on home turf?
Red Bull’s home event joined the calendar just as its period of supremacy in Formula 1 was replaced by Mercedes dominance. But at the fifth time of asking it triumphed at, effectively, its own grand prix courtesy of a brilliant display from Max Verstappen, who pounced on every opportunity that came in his direction.
This year is likely to be a sterner challenge, for Red Bull has largely held the third-fastest package, and the podiums have been down to Verstappen extracting every inch.
“We'll probably finish fourth or fifth, though that depends on Ferrari making mistakes,” he said on Red Bull’s Austria prospects. “Maybe even third if both Ferrari's make a mistake! We're just lacking pace at the moment, you have to accept that and in the meantime keep working hard on the car and mostly the power unit, too. You can see Ferrari and Mercedes have made another step and Renault too, I think ours was just not big enough here so we have work to do.”
Will McLaren strengthen its position?
Make no mistake – McLaren is on an upwards trajectory. After years of struggle, and an embarrassing realisation of its predicament in 2018, the green shoots of recovery are firmly visible. In Carlos Sainz Jr. and Lando Norris they have a fresh and hungry driver line-up who gel well off-track, in the MCL34 they have a solid foundation of a car which is responding well to set-up changes and new components, while in Andreas Seidl they have a boss with a clear vision of the future and unafraid to shed certain aspects of the past.
McLaren has been efficient so far this season but in France, for the first time, it had the fourth-fastest package, with its improvements through the medium- and high-speed corners, compared to its China malaise, particularly notable. The ‘midfield’ battle is gradually turning into a McLaren vs Renault affair, and at this stage in time, it’s the guys and girls in orange who have the upper hand.
Will past form pay dividends for Haas?
Haas had one of the fastest midfield cars through 2018 and it still believes its 2019 package is potent – but it is struggling to extract its potential and is now languishing ninth in the championship. It would be fanciful to pin all of the blame on the VF-19’s use of tyres, even though that is not helping, but the team is baffled by why its car is currently so slow.
“What is bizarre to me, a car that was good enough to qualify seventh and eighth in the first race and then all of a sudden be second-last,” said boss Guenther Steiner in France.“ Don’t ask me what it is, I don’t know. Don’t ask me please because I wouldn’t know. We need to find out, it’s very disappointing, ending up in this situation but also not having an understanding of it, that’s the worst of it all.”
Haas last year took fourth and fifth in the Austrian mountains; it could dearly do with a repeat result this weekend.