RACE DEBRIEF

    While some drivers like Valtteri Bottas opted to head home to switch off and grab some downtime between races at Austria’s Red Bull Ring, others decided to stay put and make the most of the luscious Styrian countryside.

    Carlos Sainz played golf with Ferrari team mate Charles Leclerc and old cohort Lando Norris, Daniel Ricciardo hiked up into the hills while green-fingered Sebastian Vettel – who studied organic farming during last year’s Covid-19 lockdown – helped build and paint a ‘Bee Hotel’ in the form of a racing car with a group of kids as part of a local initiative.

    Championship leader Max Verstappen said he had time to celebrate his third win in four races “a tiny bit” but that he didn’t get carried away as “it’s still a long season and we have to stay focused and keep looking ahead”.

    READ MORE: Verstappen expects ‘tougher fight’ in front of fans at Austrian GP after dominating last weekend's race

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    Can Verstappen make it two from two in Austria?

    After the Dutchman’s dominant performance at the Red Bull Ring on Sunday, which extended his lead over Lewis Hamilton to 18 points, many will feel he’s an overwhelming favourite to make it a double given F1 is staying at the same track for round nine of the 23-race World Championship.

    But there are a couple of variables that mean the Austrian Grand Prix is far from a forgone conclusion. The tyre compounds are one step softer this weekend, Pirelli bringing the C5 – the softest in the range – to the venue for the first time.

    WATCH: Lauda wins at home and a first podium for Norris – 5 Austrian GP feelgood moments

    The top teams were keen to avoid using the soft (C4) last weekend – which will be the medium for this weekend – because they didn’t feel they could do a one-stop strategy. They’ll be forced to use the C4 this weekend, though, and that could mean a two-stopper is required.

    The weather remains uncertain, with the conditions currently significantly cooler and while it is expected to warm up slightly, forecasted temperatures are still set to be 10C lower than last weekend.

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    With the tyres set to be one step softer than last weekend, who does that favour?

    And while rain has been forecast for the duration of the time we’ve been in Austria but rarely fallen as anticipated, the location of the venue deep in the Styrian Hills has an unpredictable climate – and it wouldn’t take much of a shift to bring in a rain shower. It is this uncertainty that means Verstappen is not getting carried away.

    “Of course, we are at the same track again, but we have different compounds and we don’t know what the weather is going to do,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be more challenging than last week with everyone having driven a full race here and we need to be back on top of it.

    “Last weekend was very enjoyable but it’s not a guarantee that it will happen again, you know? We have to make sure that now with the softer compounds we again have a good car with a good balance. And people learn from their mistakes last week. Probably I expect it to be a tougher fight. There are no guarantees in this sport and we have to keep improving.”

    FORM GUIDE: Can anyone dislodge Verstappen in the Austrian GP as battle resumes at the Red Bull Ring?

    Mercedes left the Red Bull Ring on Sunday night licking their wounds after a comprehensive defeat by their championship rivals. But we’ve seen plenty of times that when the Silver Arrows are down, they are not often out – but rather the opposite, and they come back fighting.

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    Verstappen has been playing down his chances of a repeat win - but cut a relaxed figure on Thursday

    The team have confirmed that upgrades are in the pipeline – so there remains the potential to add more pure performance to the car this season – and it was all hands on deck in the three days between events with Lewis Hamilton so determined to find more speed, he even made an extremely rare appearance in the team’s simulator.

    “I can’t say that I am necessarily enjoying it,” joked reigning seven-time world champion Hamilton. “Particularly after those few difficult races that we had, I went in to try and see if there's any way I can try and help the team be better prepared. I think there’s been a couple of good things from it but not life-changing.

    READ MORE: Unpredictable weather, Mercedes’ response and more fans – 5 reasons we’re excited for the Austrian GP

    “I will continue to work with Anthony [Davidson, Mercedes’ simulator driver] still and we have got drivers on there that do a lot of work. Just working on the processes on how we communicate with them on their programme so we are getting the right things tested. I think overall it’s been positive.”

    Hamilton is refusing to let his head drop despite Red Bull’s rampant run of form. He’s never been short of confidence in his own ability and that of the team – and it’s for that reason, the Briton still believes they are well and truly still in the fight.

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    Hamilton has plenty of races left to close the gap in the championship - if he can find some extra pace

    “I don’t really find myself being concerned as such,” he said. “We are all pushing as much as we can, we would love to have more pace at the moment to be able to really challenge, not only in qualifying but in the race. They’re continuing to take steps forward but I can’t get tied up and get into that negative bubble of worrying.

    “All I do right now is that I am trying to put all the energy into being the best prepared, helping the engineers be best prepared, lots of great conversations and this is the time we come together and we unite and we work as hard as we can to rectify whatever issues we have.

    READ MORE: Hamilton reveals he’s ramped up Mercedes simulator sessions as he seeks edge over Red Bull

    “That’s what we do, that’s why we’re world champions and I have confidence in the team that we can do that.”

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    Hamilton and Bottas were both on the podium last weekend as they tried to limit any championship losses

    His team mate Bottas has demonstrated renewed vigour after one of his strongest all-round performances of the season, bar that spin in the pit lane that cost him a three-place grid penalty.

    The Finn needs to make that performance a turning point, not only for his own ambitions in the drivers’ championship, but also given he needs to impress as his contract expires at the end of the year and for the Silver Arrows as a whole in the constructors'.

    READ MORE: Stick or twist? David Tremayne on Mercedes' big decision – and where Bottas could go if he does leave

    When asked if he can take the fight to Red Bull and beat them, he replied: “We can and we have been working hard for it.”

    His rival counterpart Sergio Perez has got his feet under the table quickly at Red Bull, which means the second car is operating at a considerably higher level to give Red Bull a force that has not been this strong since Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo – who celebrated his 32nd birthday today – paired up in 2018.

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    Perez finding his feet at Red Bull is also causing headaches for Mercedes

    And encouragingly for championship leaders Red Bull, the Mexican feels like there is plenty more to come. “I’ve found it harder than expected, the change of team,” said Perez, who secured his first win for Red Bull in Baku. “The fact that I came to such a different team in terms of power unit, car and so on.

    “It was a big change so it took me longer than expected to get up to speed. I am just getting better. I hoped for more by now but still the season is very long.”

    READ MORE: Perez praises ‘very intelligent’ Hamilton as he says fighting with top drivers has pushed him to ‘a new level’

    Everyone will have learned plenty of lessons from the opening weekend in Austria, which means they should be sharper and more efficient heading into this weekend. With softer tyres, cooler conditions and two title-contending teams with four drivers operating at a high level, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about the Austrian Grand Prix.