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The Ferrari threat to Verstappen and Norris in the mix – What To Watch For in the Austrian GP
From Ferrari putting the pressure on Verstappen to Lando Norris excelling in Austria again, and from Sergio Perez needing another fightback drive to question marks over what the race conditions will be, we highlight some key areas to look out for when the lights go out at the Red Bull Ring…
1. A Ferrari threat to Verstappen
Max Verstappen continued his dominant run of form with a fourth consecutive pole position on Friday, but his biggest challenge comes from a team that were also strong at the previous Sprint event in Azerbaijan.
On that occasion, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was on pole for both races, but this time round he has to settle for second place and a spot alongside Verstappen on the front row after falling just 0.048s short of top spot on Friday.
What is more encouraging for Ferrari is the fact that Carlos Sainz joined his team mate in the top three and gives them extra strategic options against Verstappen, while there is reason to believe they will be more competitive than in the race in Baku.
That’s because an updated car showed very strong race pace in Montreal, and Ferrari have brought even more new parts to the Red Bull Ring this weekend.
In the Sprint, Sainz was competitive against Sergio Perez and followed him to the flag to finish third, so there were hints that the pace from Canada might have carried over.
2. Norris in the mix at his strongest track
There just seems to be something about Lando Norris and the Red Bull Ring, with the McLaren driver once again excelling in Austria this weekend.
Ever since he sat in the gravel trap at Turn 4 after retiring when chasing the 2017 European F3 title, Norris has enjoyed stunning results at this track. He was second in the F2 feature race, sixth on his first visit in an F1 car and then picked up his first podium here a year later, backing it up with last-lap moves for P5 a week later as part of a double-header.
In 2021, he reversed those results, with fifth in the first race in Austria and third the following week as two events were held back-to-back once again, before picking up seventh place last year in a less competitive McLaren.
Armed with an updated car this weekend, Norris has delivered eye-catching pace throughout, resulting in his fourth-place start for the Grand Prix having been third on the grid for the Sprint. Like Ferrari, if those upgrades have improved McLaren’s race pace then Norris might just have his eye on a third podium at this venue.
3. Perez and Russell out of position
And Norris’ cause is helped by two drivers who could have been threats starting so far out of position.
Sergio Perez has had a tough run ever since his pole position in Miami, failing to make Q3 at every round since then (although it must be said he was second in the Sprint Shootout on Saturday). He lines up 15th in a car that is certainly capable of climbing through the field, but with the likes of Ferrari and McLaren showing stronger pace with their updates so far, the Mexican won’t have it easy trying to fight his way forward.
And the same can be said of George Russell, who joined Perez in dropping out in Q2 on Friday. The Mercedes driver admitted he was simply not comfortable with his car and didn’t have the pace to reach the top ten, but he only needs to look to team mate Lewis Hamilton’s race last year for inspiration.
Although Mercedes were still struggling to overcome a difficult car, Hamilton originally qualified in ninth place and then went from eighth on the grid to third in the Grand Prix, picking up a podium behind Leclerc and Verstappen.
It’ll be well worth watching both Perez and Russell as they try to work their way up the order once the lights go out.
4. Albon chasing more points
While the likes of Ferrari and McLaren were hoping for stronger performances in Austria, the same can’t be said of Williams despite Alex Albon’s stunning result in Canada. That was a circuit that really suited the FW45, and the update that Albon had was boosted by a fresh power unit to try and take advantage.
Team principal James Vowles was focused on the likes of Spa-Francorchamps and Monza as being strong venues for the car, but it has worked well all weekend and in Albon there is a driver who seems to have huge confidence at the moment, securing himself another Q3 appearance and top 10 start.
One thing that is very clear is that the Williams is an extremely tough car to overtake and is particularly quick in the first sector thanks to its aerodynamic efficiency, meaning Albon will have high hopes of holding onto his starting position at the very least, and perhaps picking up even more than a solitary point of he can gain spots at the start.
Even just one more position could prove crucial to ninth-placed Williams, who are only two points behind Alfa Romeo in the constructors’ championship.
5. Unknown weather and strategies
All of the above comes with the caveat that the weather – which played such a central part in Saturday’s thrilling Sprint – could also be a key factor in the Grand Prix.
The forecast at present is for a 20% chance of rain during the race, but that was the same prediction that was in place for the Sprint, which saw conditions wet enough for some drivers to only use the intermediate tyre for the entire race, while others risked switching to slicks and reaped the rewards if they got the timing right.
With the Sprint Shootout taking place on a damp but drying track, Friday is the only representative dry weather running that teams have had, so in the event that it does stay dry then teams will be working with limited data to approach the race with, and have a decision to make over whether they opt for one or two stops.