Strategy games, Ferrari’s response, and potential race drama – 5 reasons we’re excited about the Styrian GP
After a thrilling battle for victory that went down to the penultimate lap at Paul Ricard, we don’t have long to wait for more excitement as the paddock heads straight to Austria for another two races. Here’s a few things we’re looking forward to about the next round at the Red Bull Ring…
1. Dramatic racing
A lot has happened in the last 12 months, and this weekend we’re heading back to the venue that re-started Formula 1 after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, with a familiar feel to the races ahead. Just like last year, there will be two races on consecutive weekends at the same track - the first time it’s happened this season - and that’s no bad thing.
On both occasions in 2020 we saw drama and excitement in Austria, with the final laps often seeing something special.
The first race saw late contact between Lewis Hamilton and Alex Albon earn the defending champion a time penalty and leave him vulnerable, with Valtteri Bottas winning, Charles Leclerc being promoted to a surprise second and Lando Norris producing the fastest lap of the race on the final lap to pip Hamilton to third.
Although Hamilton responded with a stunning lap in the wet to take pole for race two and went on to win, another remarkable finish followed when Sergio Perez hit Albon fighting for fourth, broke his front wing, and Norris overtook Daniel Ricciardo, Lance Stroll and then Perez into the final corner to snatch fifth.
More of the same, please.
2. The Mercedes v Red Bull strategy game
Red Bull arrive for their home race in confident mood having won the last three races, with Max Verstappen victorious in Monaco and France and Perez winning in Azerbaijan. They were three different wins, but the latter is the one that we’re most interested in.
That’s because Paul Ricard saw Red Bull turn the tables on Mercedes, learning from recent defeats in Hungary (2019) and Spain this year to deliver what Christian Horner called “payback”. Verstappen went for the two-stop strategy despite giving up the lead, and reeled in Hamilton as Mercedes appeared to get their strategy wrong in the first round of stops.
Red Bull might have won the latest battle, but Mercedes came out on top in Bahrain earlier this year when Verstappen had a quicker car, and in such a close fight between the top two teams the strategic aspect is becoming ever-more crucial.
3. Ferrari’s response
After back-to-back pole positions for Charles Leclerc in Monaco and Baku, it was down to earth with a bump for Ferrari after they really struggled in France.
There weren’t really any signs of what was to come when Carlos Sainz qualified fifth and Leclerc seventh on Saturday, as both had predicted they would be unable to threaten for pole again but still ensured they led the midfield. That didn’t last long on Sunday, though, as tyre issues saw them fade badly and both end up outside of the points.
It was the front tyres that hurt Ferrari in particular in France, so the lack of long, sweeping corners in Austria might play more to their strengths, but they will be worried by how badly they suddenly struggled because even Friday practice at Paul Ricard looked okay for the team.
Ferrari believe they have a particularly small performance window with the Pirelli tyres on their car, and with three races in a row they don’t have a lot of time to work out ways of addressing it.
4. More than two teams in the fight for pole
But if Ferrari can find a fix for Austria, they might be aiming particularly high on Saturday. That’s because 2021 has seen the midfield get closer to the top two teams, and that has been particularly obvious in qualifying.
Norris looked a threat for pole for McLaren in Imola, while Leclerc duly took the two consecutive poles we mentioned on street circuits, where low-speed corners and traction were crucial. In Austria, it’s a slightly similar picture, with long straights and some medium-to-low-speed corners to deal with, although there are a few quicker sections than seen on a temporary track.
Alpine have also been rapid in qualifying trim at times in places like Portimao and Spain, and AlphaTauri similarly tend to be in the mix, with Pierre Gasly threatening to take pole in Baku.
Given the short lap in Austria, there’s every chance Mercedes and Red Bull will have to keep an eye on other teams in qualifying, and predicting the top 10 on the grid this weekend looks harder than ever.
5. Chances for Williams and Haas
If you add all of the above components together, you can see the potential for drama in Austria is even higher than last year, when we saw a remarkable opening race that had just 11 finishers. And in 11th place was Nicholas Latifi for Williams.
It proved to be as close as Williams would come to scoring points last year, but this season they are more competitive and George Russell’s 12th in France moved them back ahead of Haas into ninth in the constructors’ championship.
Russell was actually left frustrated by the fact that such a strong performance came in a race with no retirements, but it's a sign of how strong Williams can be.
They probably can’t bank on as many retirements in Austria this year as last – the opening race of a season tends to see a higher rate of attrition – but then they might not need it given their recent performances.
And Haas will be fancying their chances too. Fewer corners and more straights should bring them a little closer to the rest of the midfield, and Mick Schumacher was particularly quick in qualifying in France, reaching Q2, even if he was aided by his own crash at the end of Q1.
Guenther Steiner sees Russell’s performance at the last race as a source of motivation for Haas because it shows what opportunities can crop up for the slower teams, and they picked up a 12th and 13th in the second race at the Red Bull Ring last year. They might have rookies in the car this year, but back-to-back events on the same circuit should aid their development, and improve their chances, too.