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Austria - What to Watch for...

22 Jun 2014

From Williams’ race hopes hinging on tyres to rookie drivers bidding for big points, and from a host of drivers looking to make amends for poor qualifying showings to the ever present risk of penalties, we preview the key themes to look out for in Sunday’s Formula 1 Grosser Preis von Osterreich 2014…

Tyres key to Williams’ race performance

Throughout practice Williams hinted at their potential to cause an upset during qualifying - and on Saturday they put in one of the shocks of the season by seeing off the challenge of the much-fancied Mercedes cars and locking out the front row of the grid. But can polesitter Felipe Massa and team mate Valtteri Bottas stay ahead in the race?

Over shorter runs, the white machines have proved they’re more than a match for their silver rivals, but over longer race stints they may well be vulnerable to attack, particularly from championship leader Nico Rosberg who starts third. And ironically, one of the factors that helped them in qualifying - the FW36’s ability to get the tyres quickly up to temperature - could prove an Achilles heel in the race.

On numerous occasions this season Williams have suffered with excessive rear tyre wear - it cost them a shot at the podium in Bahrain - and in a head-to-head battle with Mercedes - a team who use the same power unit as Williams and have exhibited similarly decent fuel economy - that could make all the difference in terms of strategy.

Another important factor will be Williams consolidating their lead at the start, but even if Rosberg does slip ahead, the Grove-based team will still be in prime position to score their first podium of 2014. After letting so many other golden opportunities slip away this season, they’ll be determined to make their best qualifying performance since the 2003 German Grand Prix count.

Drivers straying off-track risk incurring a penalty

‘Track limits’ and ‘white lines’ are two phrases that have been regularly uttered in Austria - and that trend could be set to continue on race day. All weekend drivers have strayed off the road at Turn 8, either in a deliberate attempt to carry more speed through the corner or because they’ve made an error.

Before qualifying race director Charlie Whiting decided enough was enough and issued a ‘zero tolerance’ directive to the drivers: put all four wheels across the white line governing the edge of the track and your lap time will be deleted. Adrian Sutil was the highest profile casualty of the hard line policing, the German driver missing out on Q2 after seeing his best time wiped off the board.

But what will happen if the Turn 8 trend continues in the race? The normal procedure is to give a driver a warning after his first offence and then to hand out a more severe penalty if he repeats the misdemeanour. Therefore, given the number of cars that have taken to the Turn 8 run-off area so far this weekend, we could see a lot of penalties issued on Sunday.

In further guidance issued by Whiting ahead of the race, drivers have been told they must not gain an advantage by going off at T8 - for example, anyone doing so should not then use their added speed to attempt a pass on another driver into the Turn 1. One thing is clear - the stewards are going to be busy…

Rookies Kvyat and Magnussen to benefit from ‘local’ knowledge

Entering this weekend, only four drivers on the grid had taken part in a Grand Prix at Spielberg - Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and polesitter Felipe Massa. But the two men with the most recent race experience at the track were McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen and Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat - both of whom put that ‘local knowledge’ to terrific use in qualifying.

Magnussen - who bagged a pair of podium finishes when he raced at the Red Bull Ring in the Formula Renault 3.5 series last year – out-qualified more-experienced team mate Jenson Button by six places on Saturday. Meanwhile, Kvyat - who scored three second-place finishes in three races when he took part in the Euro F3 round at the track in 2013 - qualified eight places ahead of team mate Jean-Eric Vergne.

Will familiarity with the circuit continue to work in the rookie duo’s favour on race day? It certainly won’t be a disadvantage, particularly at the start and when attempting to overtake, although both drivers will have to go some if they want to add to their Red Bull Ring podium tallies…

Lotus in points contention, despite qualifying struggles

On the face of it, Lotus are rank outsiders for the points in Austria. Pastor Maldonado was the team's highest representative in qualifying, setting the 14th fastest time in Q2, while Romain Grosjean was two spots and 0.7s further back - a significant margin, particularly over a lap consisting of just nine turns.

There is cause for both men to be optimistic, however, of cracking the top 10 in Spielberg, and not just because they both gain one grid spot as a result of Sergio Perez's post-Canada penalty. The E22 has been consistently poor on low fuel runs, meaning qualifying was always likely to be problematic. On higher fuel, by contrast, Lotus are far more competitive, even hinting at being best of the rest behind Mercedes over representative runs in FP2.

"We found it very difficult to get the tyres into their optimum temperature operating window," trackside operations director Alan Permane admitted after qualifying, "[but] the E22 is much more stable and happier in high fuel conditions so our relative race pace should be better."

Of course, qualifying down the order might mean both Maldonado and Grosjean are bottled up by traffic and unable to exploit their relatively superior race pace. But if either driver can cut through the field - or if Lotus can find gains in an alternative strategy - points remain possible for the black and gold cars.

Recovery drives from Hamilton, Vettel and Perez

Williams' front-row lockout was not the only shock of qualifying: Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton made mistakes on both of his Q3 runs and was left without a time, while Red Bull's defending champion Sebastian Vettel failed to even make it into the final knockout stage. Cause, then, to expect both men to be on the charge on Sunday.

Hamilton should be the chief attraction. The Briton had controlled proceedings on Friday, and was once again prodigiously fast in qualifying - indeed his second sector time on his first abandoned run was mighty. Had he matched team mate Rosberg in the final split, he would almost certainly have been on pole. Hamilton has genuine frontrunning pace, therefore, but he will need to be at his spellbinding best to scythe through the field and prevent Rosberg from gaining yet more ground in the championship fight.

Vettel, meanwhile, finds himself once again playing second fiddle to rookie team mate Daniel Ricciardo, but the latter's qualifying performance demonstrated the underlying pace of the RB10. The team expect to be even more competitive over a race distance, so look out for a charging Red Bull.

One man accustomed to coming through the field is Force India's Sergio Perez, and his progress will be another fascinating element to the Grand Prix. The Mexican has made up ground in every race he has finished this year, notably gaining six spots in Australia and jumping from 13th to challenge for the lead in Canada. He'll have it all to do in Spielberg, where he starts from 16th - the result of his Canada penalty - but with strong race pace and the potential to gamble on strategy, Perez could be a wild card on Sunday.

Strategy again open - and safety cars could turn race on its head

As was the case in Canada, a two-stop strategy is expected to be the preferred choice for the majority of teams, but one-stopping remains a possibility, throwing up the chance of another dramatic finish between cars running on different plans.

Being flexible and responding to changes in temperature and conditions will therefore be critical, particularly as teams have just two days of data to call upon at the revamped circuit. Given the tiny percentages that split the field in qualifying, making the right call at the right time could shape a driver's race. That is particularly true of any potential safety-car period, which could permit teams to switch from a two- to a one-stop strategy. There is a high instance of safety cars in Spielberg too, with four in the last four races held at the Austrian track.