After the delights of Canada two weeks ago, Formula One heads back to its traditional roots of Europe this weekend, returning to Spielberg, Austria after an absence of 11-years to the renamed Red Bull Ring, the venue for the 27th Austrian Grand Prix.
The Red Bull Ring, which sits on the site of the once mighty Osterreichring circuit, the home of the Austrian Grand Prix for 17 years between 1970 and 1987, and known for its high-speed before it fell off the F1 calendar owing to safety concerns, will play host to round eight of the 2014 Formula One season this coming weekend, in what is expected to be a party like atmosphere as Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso both celebrate something of a homecoming event.
The two teams may well be based in Milton Keynes in the UK, and Faenza in Italy respectively, but both are bankrolled by the might of Red Bull co-founder Dietrich Materschitz, the Austrian businessman with whom thanks must lie for Austria’s return to the Formula One calendar, having financed the regeneration of the former A1 Ring circuit – home to the Austrian Grand Prix between 1997 and 2003 – into its current guise, whilst also dipping into his own pocket to stump up FOM’s required race fee.
While the circuit may well have a new name, the layout is very much the same as the truncated layout devised by Herman Tilke ahead of the circuits debut as the host of the 1997 Austrian Grand Prix, so older F1 fans can expect to see some familiar sights this coming weekend. For those not old enough to remember the sports last visit to Spielberg back in 2003, you will be treated to views of one of the last truly beautiful race tracks still left on the Formula One calendar, the circuit itself nestled into the idyllic Styrian Mountains.
But what of the racing itself? The Red Bull Ring may be something of an unknown quantity to the vast majority of the current Formula One field, but the evidence from Canada suggests that the all-dominant Mercedes team, as has been the case all year long, will once again be the squad to beat this coming weekend. As long as their reliability – which seemed worryingly circumspect last time out – can hold out, expect to see Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg head the field come Sunday.
With a track that plays to the strengths of the W05 and two drivers hungry to stamp their authority on the current battle for the drivers’ championship, a sixth Mercedes 1-2 of the year could well be on the cards?
Rosberg himself comes into the Austrian Grand Prix in fine form, and will be buoyant to have seen his lead at the head of the drivers’ championship stretch to 22-points after a quiet special drive to second in Canada, as he nursed the sick Mercedes home, despite being down on power and struggling with the brakes to collect what could prove to be a crucial 18 points.
As with the vast majority of the rest of the field – Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso Felipe Massa and Jenson Button aside – Rosberg has no prior F1 experience at the Red Bull Ring, so it is difficult to predict just how he will go there this weekend, but with form currently on his side after two fine drives he will be difficult to beat.
A touch of form is certainly something that Lewis Hamilton could do with finding this weekend. After four consecutive wins on the trot, which wiped out Rosberg’s early points advantage in the championship, defeat in Monaco followed by a retirement in Canada has left Hamilton now 22-points adrift of his team-mate in the drivers’ standings.
With the British Grand Prix looming on the horizon, Hamilton will be keen to reverse the tide within the Mercedes team. Only an outright win against Rosberg can do that. Expect the battle between the Mercedes pair to be as close as it has been all season. As was the case in Bahrain and Spain, it could well come down to mere tenths.
Despite the heroics of his maiden Formula One win in Canada two weeks ago, the likelihood of a repeat performance from Daniel Ricciardo and his Red Bull team will be slight this weekend. It may well be the team’s adopted home race, but the Red Bull Ring, like the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is a circuit where power – or lack thereof as is the case of the Renault power unit that sits in the back of the two RB10s – will be key. The failures that hit both Mercedes cars last time out flattered Red Bull, who I suspect will encounter the very same issue with passing cars as they did in Canada. As was the case last time out, expect Red Bull to battle for the final podium position with Force India and Williams.
Both of the aforementioned teams will be looking to make amends this weekend for what was has to be considered a lost opportunity in Canada as the two teams squandered the chance for a valuable hoard of points after a last lap clash between Sergio Perez and Felipe Massa, who had been running fourth and fifth at the time.
Force India will be hopeful that Nico Hulkenberg, who has been ever-present in the points this year, can continue his fine run of form this weekend with an eighth consecutive points finish. While over at Williams the aim will almost certainly be for a solid run to the points for both Valtteri Bottas, who faded badly in Canada, and Massa, a victim of – according to the FIA stewards anyway – a shoddy bit of driving from Perez, who is likely to be hamstrung by the five-place grid penalty he carries into the weekend.
Ferrari may well be the last team to win a grand prix in Austria, but any hopes of a repeat win here this weekend seems downright absurd. Canada proved to be a dreadful weekend for Ferrari, who may well have missed out on points entirely if not for the high rate of attrition. Despite claims of minor improvements, the likelihood is that, as was the case at the high-speed Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, the Scuderia will struggle. Ferrari hold one minor advantage over the rest of its rivals in that both Alonso and Raikkonen have raced at the Red Bull/A1 Ring in the past, but still, it is unlikely to get either driver onto the podium.
While all evidence hints towards a Mercedes white-wash on F1’s return to Austria, some question marks still remain over the reliability of the two Silver Arrows after the double MGU-K failure in Canada. Red Bull remains the team best placed to pick up the pieces if Mercedes falter and expect Force India and Williams to once again be in the mix for the big points.
Mercedes domination or not, it is good to be back in Austria.
Featured image courtesy of World Series by Renault Media. Text images courtesy of Mercedes AMG PETRONAS and Red Bull Media/Getty Images