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Austria preview - can Red Bull find a home advantage?

30 Jun 2016

Make no bones about it - the Formula 1 Grosser Preis von Osterriech 2016 is a very big deal for Red Bull. Not only is it their ‘other’ home race (after Silverstone), thanks to owner Dietrich Mateschitz’s nationality, but of course he also owns the track, the Red Bull Ring. Since the race returned in 2014, the Milton Keynes-based squad have never been able to challenge for victory, but there’s reason to believe that could change this year…

Ricciardo eyeing breakthrough…

Daniel Ricciardo would love nothing more than to make his 2016 breakthrough here, after his disappointments in Spain and Monaco. And the aerodynamic excellence of the Red Bull RB12, and the recent improvement of Renault’s powertrain, will give him a powerful weapon with which to challenge Mercedes and Ferrari. After all, if he put the car third in qualifying in Baku, with its long main straight…

“Spielberg always has a pretty awesome atmosphere, and the setting is pretty amazing - the Austrian backdrop and the countryside is quite beautiful. The circuit is quite short but is also fun. I would love a few more corners but it is a fun track for what it is, quite flowing and fast.

“We haven’t had the results we would like there in the past but I think we’re coming there with our best package yet so hopefully that can put us up into the top five.

Team mate Max Verstappen is also back on a roll after the disasters in Monte Carlo, and will likewise be on his mettle to perform at his best for the boss.

“In Austria you don’t have so many corners but the elevation changes makes it pretty special, and now driving for Red Bull you feel that even more as it’s our home GP so you feel very welcome by the fans. I think this year there are a few Dutch fans who are coming over so I’m looking forward to it.

“It might not be the most ideal circuit for our car in terms of performance but it’s still very enjoyable."

…but Rosberg eyeing a hat-trick

With their superior power, Mercedes have dominated at Spielberg for the last two years with Nico Rosberg beating Lewis Hamilton to victory in both races. This weekend the championship leader could join Alain Prost as a three-time Austria winner (the Frenchman won the 1983, ’85 and ’86 events on the old Osterreichring), and is in buoyant mood after rebuilding his points lead so effectively in Baku.

“That was a good weekend for me,” Rosberg says. “I really felt at one with the car, so that's a big positive looking ahead to the next races. Now we go to Austria, which has been a real strength for us as a team in the past two years.

“It'll be tough against the Williams cars in particular, as they've pushed us hard there before. But I think our Silver Arrow is still definitely the best package on the grid and I can't wait to see what it can do in Spielberg.

“To have two wins from two races at any track is pretty special, so if I could make it three in three that would be awesome. It's a short run to the first corner there and generally my starts and first corners have been strong this season, so if I can qualify well there's a good chance of a top result. I'm looking forward to the weekend.”

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff admits that the Silver Arrows underperformed in Baku - yes, despite Rosberg’s stunning victory!

“Our priority is to eliminate the small errors which have cost points here and there,” he says, referring to the set-up changes that upset Hamilton’s rhythm in qualifying there, and his engine mode problems during the race.

“We need every weapon at our disposal operating at maximum capacity to fight off the opposition at the front, who are growing in number. Force India have been very strong recently, Williams are always quick in Spielberg and, of course, there is the constant threat from Ferrari and Red Bull - particularly at a home race for the latter. It should be an exciting weekend.”

A record-breaking weekend in store?

All the leading teams expect to see the qualifying lap broken comprehensively - assuming that Pirelli’s ultrasoft rubber can be used, as there is a strong chance that qualifying will be upset by thunderstorms.

If it stays dry, however, expect fireworks. The circuit has been completely resurfaced this year, and though the new asphalt is said to have a similar level of abrasion, several unsettling bumps have been removed and the grip level could be higher.

The qualifying record stands to Rubens Barrichello and Ferrari at 1m 08.038s from 2002, though team mate Michael Schumacher turned a lap of 1m 07.908s on the Friday a year later.

Last year Lewis Hamilton took pole position with 1m 08.455s, and lap times this year have been tumbling thanks to the ultrasofts and general development. And the track itself has, according to DTM runners, improved by some 2.5s due to the resurfacing alone…

WATCH: Your guide to the Spielberg circuit

Ferrari hunting for the sweet spot

Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne has reportedly made it crystal clear to Kimi Raikkonen that he needs to bring home results if he wants to be driving a Ferrari in 2017, while team principal Maurizio Arrivabene has been explaining that the problem the team have been having of late with the SF16-H is that it is extremely sensitive to set-up.

Despite a lot of optimistic predictions race by race, Ferrari have failed to win a Grand Prix so far in 2016, and they need to turn that around soon if they are to remain genuine title contenders. You can only keep talking about finding the elusive sweet spot for so long.

“After eight races I think it is wrong to think of the next year, leaving aside the present,” Arrivabene says. “We are approaching the Mercedes, and we must not miss the chance offered in this world championship.”

A win here would make a huge difference to the Scuderia.

McLaren hopeful

Having done a lot better in Baku than they had expected to, even though the very long straight hurt their lap times, McLaren head here optimistic of showing their true mettle. ERS demand is high here even though there are only nine corners, but Honda believe that their system - which let them down so badly in 2015 - is now as good as Mercedes’.

“The Austrian Grand Prix is an event in which McLaren has enjoyed a lot of success,” racing director Eric Boullier says. “After returning from the last two races without a top 10 finish, our immediate aim is to get back into the points. In Canada, Fernando finished 11th, and Jenson achieved the same result in Azerbaijan. Neither track best suited our car’s characteristics, so we’ll be hoping to do a little better in Austria this weekend.

“We also need to address the reliability issues that accounted for one of our cars in each of the last two races. We’ve been worked hard since we got back to Woking to pin-point the problem and try to ensure that there isn’t a recurrence.”

Fernando Alonso, who was eliminated here last year in a big collision with Kimi Raikkonen, says: “After the unique demands of the Baku City Circuit, we return to a more conventional race track in Austria. It’s a much shorter track than Baku, but it’s still very challenging because you cannot afford to make any mistakes. A lap takes less than 70s, which squeezes the grid closer together and there are only a few tenths of a second between rows.

“To be fast you need good traction and efficient aero, which we have. For that reason, I hope we can be more competitive than we were in Baku - and I hope to have a longer race than I did last year, which was over on the opening lap!”

Pirelli braced for unpredictability

Only Monaco, the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez and Interlagos are shorter than the compact, nine-turn Spielberg track. The prime overtaking zone is on the entry to Turn 2, which requires heavy braking and either first or second gear. At the other end of the track, the fast sixth-gear Turn Eight sees drivers pushing at the limit.

Overall, it’s a track which demands good traction, which is why Pirelli have brought their three softest compounds here: the yellow soft, the red supersoft and the purple ultrasoft.

“Austria is one of the most picturesque and individual tracks on the championship, which asks a lot from the tyres in terms of all-round mechanical grip and performance,” says motorsport director Paul Hembery. “That’s why the ultrasoft has been resoundingly favoured here. As a result, we may have a two-stop race this time, even though last year was a one-stopper.

“However, this venue is always quite unpredictable: we had a safety-car period right at the beginning of the Grand Prix last year, while rain as well as bright sunshine seems to be an equal possibility. The ultrasoft compound should be well-suited to the Red Bull Ring, which means that we will almost certainly see the fastest laps ever of this current circuit configuration this weekend.”

Last year Rosberg started on the supersofts and then switched to the softs on the 38th of the 71 laps.

A fickle forecast

The last two Austrian Grands Prix have been run in perfect weather, but conditions could be different this year with the forecast looking unsettled and showers in the region all weekend.

Thunderstorms are predicted during qualifying and a temperature of just 21 degrees Celsius is expected for race day, when there is a chance of light rain.

Sunday’s race will run over 71 laps or 307.020 kilometres (190.776 miles) and starts at 1400 hours local time (1200 GMT).