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IT'S RACE WEEK: 5 storylines we're excited about ahead of the 2024 Austrian Grand Prix

Special Contributor

Chris Medland
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The unpredictable season continued with another close fight for the win in Spain that points to competitive races on each and every circuit, and there’s no need to wait for another edition. Plus there’s even more racing to look forward to as the Sprint format returns in Spielberg.

Picking a favourite is becoming tougher

Heading into the last race in Spain we focused on the performance of Red Bull and the fact they would likely have the quickest car, but would they have as significant an advantage as they did at the start of the season?

READ MORE: 5 Winners and 5 Losers from Spain – Who’s up and who’s down after a barnstorming Barcelona?

One week later and the question is very different, as Max Verstappen managed another victory but it was Lando Norris who once again looked fastest over the race distance. Norris couldn’t convert pole position into a win after dropping to third at the start and struggling to pass George Russell in the first stint, but his raw pace was impressive and McLaren believe it was only small details that saw the win get away.

Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing Honda Team and Lando Norris of McLaren F1 Team are speaking

Verstappen won in Spain, but it was Norris who again looked fastest over the race distance

McLaren have either won or been second in each of the last six races and are showing great consistency, with a car that was arguably quicker than the Red Bull in the majority of the past five rounds.

Red Bull’s execution perhaps keeps them as the favourite heading into the upcoming weekend at their home track, but it’s the venue where McLaren’s resurgence really started last year and Norris has always gone well at, so it's another tough race to call.

READ MORE: ‘We need Checo in the mix’ – Horner calls on Perez to re-find his form as Red Bull rivals turn the screw

Fluctuating form

McLaren’s consistency has been impressive but so too have been the gains made by Mercedes in recent weeks, with a growing momentum and confidence within the team. But from challenging for the win in Canada they were a little further off the pace in Spain, and will look to make further progress at the Red Bull Ring.

Similar could be said about Ferrari, although with a slight reversal in form after a surprisingly tough Canada that saw them fail to score. Last weekend was a return to the fight near the front but fifth and sixth in both qualifying and the race suggested there is a little bit more work to do to truly challenge.

That was despite an upgrade that was introduced in Spain, but the two drivers were unable to quite threaten for the podium. They were able to threaten each other, though, with some close racing early on seeing Charles Leclerc criticise Carlos Sainz for his overtaking move.

2024 Spanish Grand Prix: Ferrari team mates Leclerc and Sainz make contact

After the race, the pair were also seen having an animated discussion in parc ferme, and then Sainz fired back at Leclerc, saying “I think too many times he complains after a race about something”.

That dynamic will need watching as much as what’s going on at Alpine, where the drivers raced cleanly and brought home double points for the second race in a row in Spain. And that hints at a changing of the competitive order as Aston Martin dropped out of the point-scoring positions. Has that been a track-specific development recently, or are Alpine moving ahead?

Then there’s the curious case of RB, where a strong Canada gave way to an underwhelming Spanish Grand Prix despite more upgrades being brought to the car. All of the teams are so closely-matched, there are no guarantees for anyone anymore.

READ MORE: ‘He complains too much’ – Sainz and Leclerc at odds over Barcelona clash

Another Sprint weekend

On a run of four different drivers from four different teams taking pole position at the last four races, a race weekend with even more competitive sessions than usual could not be better timed.

Austria will see the third Sprint weekend of the year – following China and Miami – and with it just one practice session before Sprint Qualifying and the Sprint itself, perhaps opening up even more opportunities for the run of different pole-sitters to continue.

MIAMI, FLORIDA - MAY 04: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (1) Oracle Red Bull Racing

The Sprint format returns in Austria following its last appearance in Miami

Given how close the field has been for a number of races now, the Sprint takes in an added attraction with two opportunities for some more epic battles for points compared to the normal race schedule.

With a threat of rain at different points of the weekend as well, it could be another Grand Prix that throws plenty of challenges at the teams and drivers and only adds to the unpredictability we have now been seeing on a regular basis.

READ MORE: McLaren and Red Bull performance levels now ‘very, very close’ says Stella as Verstappen praises rivals

Driver market movement

The tension between the Ferrari drivers that was referenced earlier saw Leclerc suggest Sainz was trying “to do something a bit spectacular” at his home race, with his future still up in the air.

Sainz stated over the Spanish Grand Prix weekend that he wants to make a final call soon because he’s had enough of it being an issue weighing on his mind, but that he is still to make a decision on where he races in 2025 and beyond. The main two destinations have appeared to be Williams and Sauber/Audi, but Alpine has remained an outside option and could still be in play.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JUNE 23: Carlos Sainz of Spain and Ferrari prepares to drive on the grid prior

Carlos Sainz's future remains up in the air

After Kevin Magnussen said a lot of movement would happen once Sainz made up his mind, Valtteri Bottas suggested on Sunday night that there will be firm decisions made and contracts signed over rate coming days.

“I’m ready for next week, there’s one certain date apparently that’s going to decide some things,” he said, adding he’d rate it as a 50% chance that his own future would be confirmed and revealed by the end of the Austria race weekend. Stay tuned.

READ MORE: The key factor distracting Sainz from his massive 2025 decision

Track limit changes

As brilliant as the Red Bull Ring is for racing, a major talking point after last year’s race was the number of track limits penalties that had to be handed out, with the race result changing a number of hours after the chequered flag.

That delay was because of the sheer number of incidents of drivers exceeding track limits – over 1200 for race control to look into – that meant it wasn’t possible to keep up and make decisions within the race itself.

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JULY 02: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the Oracle Red Bull Racing

Track limits was a major talking point after last year's Austrian Grand Prix

In order to try and avoid a repeat, the FIA and circuit have worked hard together to implement new solutions, with gravel traps installed on the outside of Turn 9 and Turn 10 – the last two corners – and the gravel moved even closer to the exit of Turn 4 to remove the chance of exceeding track limits but still gaining an advantage.

There will also be AI technology implemented, with a blue line on the exit of certain corners – between the white line that defines the track limit and the exit kerb – allowing the automated flagging of potential incidents. That should speed up how quickly decisions can be made, with the intention of dealing with them all in real time and lowering the likelihood of post-race changes being needed.

None of the changes impact the actual track layout, though, retaining its character but also meaning there are still likely to be plenty of occasions where drivers are caught out.

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