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IT’S RACE WEEK: 5 storylines we’re excited about ahead of the 2023 Austrian Grand Prix

Special Contributor

Chris Medland
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Following the trip across the Atlantic to visit Canada, it’s back to Europe for the next run of races, and the field appears to be getting closer as we head to Austria. But it’s not just about the frontrunners, so here are some of the main talking points ahead of the trip to the Red Bull Ring.

The second Sprint of 2023

Mark your calendars everyone, because on Friday it's going to be time to set the grid for Sunday’s race as part of the second Sprint weekend of the season.

EXPLAINED: Everything you need to know about the 2023 F1 Sprint format

After the entertaining first event in Baku – which saw Ferrari able to end Red Bull’s run of pole positions courtesy of Charles Leclerc – the Red Bull Ring will see two qualifying sessions taking place. Friday’s session is the usual one-hour shootout to decide the grid for the Austrian Grand Prix on Sunday, and those positions will be locked in.

Then on Saturday, there’s the standalone Sprint day that includes the Sprint Shootout – a shorter qualifying session but still split into three parts – that sets the grid for the Sprint itself.

And all on a track that encourages great racing, plus a venue that often sees tricky weather conditions play a part in the weekend. It’s going to be a fun one!

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Sprint Highlights: 2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

The trio trying to close in on Red Bull

The first Sprint saw Ferrari take the fight to Red Bull, with Leclerc quickest in both qualifying sessions in Baku. But it was Aston Martin and Mercedes who were the nearest challengers to Max Verstappen last time out in Montreal.

Ferrari were right on the pace, too, with Leclerc and Carlos Sainz only losing around a second to second-placed Fernando Alonso in the final 30-lap stint after making their pit stops, showing they had the same competitive level as their main rivals.

READ MORE: ‘Quite an iconic top three’ – Verstappen, Alonso, and Hamilton reflect on sharing the podium together in Montreal

Although Verstappen downplayed the fact that the gap was smaller in Canada than at any other venue this season – suggesting the track layout and weather conditions played a major part – it was also a circuit that wasn’t expected to suit Mercedes, while Aston Martin brought an update that will likely have a bigger impact elsewhere.

Having three teams that were closer to Red Bull on race pace in Montreal is an exciting prospect, as any one of them having a particularly strong weekend could lead to a real battle for victory emerging. And just imagine if it was two or even all three that continued to close the gap…

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Aston Martin and Mercedes were closer to Red Bull last time out in Canada

Can Williams remain competitive?

Another team that had a particularly encouraging weekend in Canada were Williams. James Vowles’ team put in a massive effort to ensure they had a major upgrade ready for Alex Albon’s car at the last race, and Albon duly delivered with a stunning drive to seventh place.

As defensive as Albon had to be for much of the race as he made the one-stop strategy work, it was actually because Williams knew the car was quicker than most of their rivals and needed to find a way to gain track position to exploit that performance, even if it meant completing over 50 laps on one set of tyres.

TREMAYNE: Albon’s Canada drive had me wondering how he’d be doing in the second RB19 if Red Bull had kept him

The target is for Williams to bring the same new parts for Logan Sargeant to be able to use in Austria, and given the performance step the update produced for Albon in Montreal, it will be fascinating to see if that translates to the Red Bull Ring this coming weekend.

Even just a slightly stronger race performance will keep Williams in the frame for points, and they are now just two behind seventh-placed Alfa Romeo in the constructors’ championship.

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Alex Albon impressed with a gutsy drive to P7 at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve

An upgrade for McLaren

But Williams are not the only team looking to heavily update their car at the moment, with McLaren also preparing a major upgrade over the coming races.

Team Principal Andrea Stella made clear at the start of the season that he was not satisfied with the launch specification of car that would begin the year, with the first significant upgrade that was introduced in Baku simply putting the car in the position that he had expected from the opening round.

READ MORE: Norris reflects on ‘unfortunate’ penalty that costs him points after ‘enjoyable’ Montreal outing

The new parts that will be coming to the MCL60 are so vast that they are likely to be spread out over the coming three races, but the first and biggest step is targeting Austria, even with the Sprint weekend format.

McLaren showed that they can prepare and implement an upgrade even with just one practice session to test it in Baku, and are confident it is worth the potential performance gain to do the same in Austria.

After their second double-points finish of the year in Monaco, McLaren haven’t scored a single point in the past two races despite some impressive qualifying pace at times, so not only will they be hoping to move ahead of the rest of the midfield with the latest developments but also capitalise in terms of results on a track where Lando Norris has finished on the podium twice.

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Tributes are set to be paid to Red Bull co-founder Dietrich Mateschitz, who passed away in October

Celebrating the influence of Dietrich Mateschitz

It is perhaps fitting that Red Bull picked up their 100th Grand Prix victory in Canada, and head to their home race in Austria celebrating becoming only the fifth team to achieve the milestone.

On top of the impressive accomplishment, it will be a particularly poignant weekend as F1 returns to the Red Bull Ring for the first time since Red Bull co-founder Dietrich Mateschitz passed away last October at the age of 78.

OBITUARY: Remembering Dietrich Mateschitz, Red Bull and AlphaTauri’s quiet patriarch

Mateschitz played a huge role in upgrading his home circuit so that it could host top level motorsport events such as the Austrian Grand Prix once again – returning to the calendar in 2014 – and has made a huge impact on motorsport through his two teams that are currently on the F1 grid and the numerous young drivers he helped support on their way either to F1 or other racing categories.

This will be the host venue’s first chance to use the F1 race to pay tribute, and is sure to be a weekend that marks everything Mateschitz did for motorsport both locally and globally.

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