Austrian Grand Prix Preview: F1 is back, but not as we know it

112 days after the opener in Melbourne was supposed to get underway, the Formula One season will finally begin in Austria this Sunday.

As with the return of most sport during the COVID-19 pandemic however, things will work a little differently in the F1 paddock. Media presence will be lower, the freedom of the drivers to roam around the surrounding area during race week will decrease and, perhaps most prominently, there will be a complete absence of fans.

The Austrian Grand Prix will mark the first of two races at the 4.3-kilometre Red Bull Ring, with the Styrian Grand Prix following just a week later. This is all part of the FIA’s plan to satiate the year with as many races as possible so as to create as exhaustive a calendar as possible for the world championship season, which needs to be at least eight races long to classify as such.

Normally by this point of the year, we would know who is competitive and who is not, but the cars have not run since testing in Barcelona at the beginning of the year and, as we learned last year especially, testing pace is little to go by.

It is therefore quite difficult to determine who the favourites are going to be, but the same could generally be said in Spielberg last year. Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari were all competitive last season, with Max Verstappen narrowly beating Charles Leclerc to victory following a controversial overtake at the end of the race, the investigation for which was not concluded until hours after the drivers had stepped off the podium.

Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

One of the major points of interest is the perennially fascinating midfield battle. The Racing Point, designed on last year’s Mercedes, is tipped to be one of the major challengers to fourth place in the Constructors’ as they look to knock McLaren off their perch as best of the rest. Renault’s inconsistencies over the past couple of seasons will need to be rectified by their new driver-pairing of Daniel Ricciardo and Esteban Ocon, as the French team consider their future involvement in the sport they have failed to re-master since their return in 2016. Alpha Tauri – rebranded from Toro Rosso – and Alfa Romeo will also have an eye on challenging for the best of the midfield teams.

Haas are understood to be the only constructor not bringing upgrades to this race, as uncertainty looms about their interest in F1 too. Their upgrades last year affected them adversely rather than helping them progress after the first race, and they will look to avoid further regression this year. They managed a fourth and fifth-placed finish in Spielberg in 2018, while Kevin Magnussen qualified an impressive fifth last season. A gearbox penalty and the Haas car’s ghastly race pace saw him finish behind both the Williams cars.

Speaking of which, Williams’ car was three seconds quicker in testing in Spain than it was in the 2019 Spanish Grand Prix, which will lead the British team to believe they can climb off the bottom of the championship table and relieve some of the immense pressure currently on Claire Williams’ shoulders.

One of the shortest tracks on the calendar follows the longest wait for a Formula One season since the World Championship’s inception. The Styrian mountains will not be alive with the sound of fans, but they will still be alive with the sound of Formula One cars.

 

[Featured image – Matthias Heschl/Red Bull Content Pool]

Raikkonen fastest on second day of testing as Mercedes cause intrigue

Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen topped the timing sheets on the second day of pre-season testing ahead of the 2020 F1 season, but all eyes were on Lewis Hamilton as Mercedes debuted a new steering wheel system.

Raikkonen posted his fastest time – a 1m 17.091 – during the final hour of the day’s running whilst on the soft tyre, displacing Sergio Perez, who had topped the timing sheets for much of the day. He completed 134 laps, but also brought out the first red flag of the test when he stopped on approach to Turn 9 with less than 15 minutes left on the clock.

The day’s headlines, however, were stolen by Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes, after it was noticed that the German team had introduced a new adjustable steering wheel system – called ‘DAS’ – to the W11. Technical director James Allison said that the FIA was aware of the system and was confident it was within the regulations, but declined to explain for what reason it was added to the car.

Hamilton completed 106 laps in the morning and posted the ninth fastest time before handing over to Bottas in the afternoon. The Finn turned in 77 laps before an electrical problem forced him to miss the final hour of running.

On the whole though, it was another day of noticeably strong reliability and high mileage.

Sergio Perez finished in P2 having been on top of the timing sheets for much of the day, with Daniel Ricciardo a further +0.4s back and Albon and Gasly rounding out the top five.

Sebastian Vettel made his first appearance on track and finished P6 with 73 laps to his name. He had been due to drive yesterday but pulled out at the last minute owing to illness.

George Russell completed a healthy 116 laps on his way to P7, with Charles Leclerc, Hamilton and Lando Norris behind him in P8, P9 and P10 respectively.

Romain Grosjean completed 158 laps and finished in P11 despite a spin at Turn 5 that left him with damage to the rear-wing and floor. Behind him were Esteban Ocon and Bottas.

 

[Featured image – LAT Images]

Hamilton fastest on first day of pre-season testing

Lewis Hamilton has finished fastest on the first day of pre-season ahead of the 2020 F1 season, three tenths ahead of team-mate Valtteri Bottas.

Hamilton set a 1m 16.976 on the hard tyres during the afternoon session, making him the only driver to break into the 1m 16s. He completed 94 laps, having taken over the wheel of the W11 from Bottas – who had led the morning session – after the break for lunch. The pair completed 173 laps between them, the most of any team.

Sergio Perez of Racing Point finished an impressive third with 58 laps to his name, almost four tenths behind Hamilton.

Verstappen completed the most laps of any single driver with a whopping 168 on his way to fourth in the timing sheets. He suffered a couple of spins on his way into the final chicane in the afternoon, but suffered no damage.

(Photo by Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images)

Daniil Kvyat finished fifth in his team’s first outing as AlphaTauri ahead of Sainz and the Renault duo of Ricciardo and Ocon. Ricciardo was delayed in leaving the garage at the start of the afternoon session due to continuing work being carried out on the R.S.20, but eventually completed 54 laps.

George Russell finished an encouraging P9 for Williams, who are looking to recover from a miserable 2019 season, while Lance Stroll rounded out the top ten.

It was a late call-up for Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc. Sebastian Vettel was originally slated to drive today, but he was feeling unwell and opted to leave the circuit early to recover. Leclerc stepped in in his place and finished P11 on 131 laps.

Williams’s Nicholas Latifi finished P12 in his first official outing as an F1 driver, with Alfa Romeo’s reserve driver Robert Kubica in P13, and Kevin Magnussen and Antonio Giovinazzi rounding out the timing sheets.

In something of a rare occurence, not a single red flag was shown all day. Every team completed over 100 laps and there were no issues or incidents aside from Verstappen’s spins, and a relatively small off for Magnussen.

Testing continues tomorrow morning.

 

[Featured image – Wolfgang Wilhelm]

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