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Six key questions ahead of the Austria race

03 Jul 2016

A sudden downpour in Spielberg led to one of the most dramatic qualifying sessions so far in 2016, and one of the most mixed-up grids to boot. So which drivers are best placed to take advantage - and are there a few surprises in store for during the Formula 1 Grosser Preis von Osterreich 2016?
Will Hamilton finally make pole count?

With Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg in the wars, joining challenger Sebastian Vettel with a five-place grid drop for a gearbox replacement, Lewis Hamilton finds himself in the pound seats for a race he has never previously won. 

He needs a 46th success too if he is to close down the 24-point gap to Rosberg in the standings. Before he starts thinking about the finish, however, he needs to address his starts - and the fact that from four poles this year, he is still yet to lead past the first corner.

Hamilton, though, is rightly positive. He was very happy that he'd had the patience and fortitude to ease back on his penultimate qualifying lap, risking all but buying track space for his final run. And he was much happier with the way he was driving.

"It was a little bit the car but mostly I just had to find time today," he admitted. "Nico had been performing well all weekend and it was just chipping away at improvements, constantly looking at my data, trying to figure out where I was losing the time and how I could improve. Bit by bit, corner by corner… at one point there's five corners where I'm down, then it's four corners I was down, then two, then just one corner where I was down. Then it rained and I was thinking ‘Jeez, I've finally got into this position where I can perhaps battle for pole with Nico' and then it rained… But fortunately those are conditions I like as well, so it made it a little bit easier, because it's then a bit more about who takes the most risk."

Risk Hamilton did, and it paid off. If it's wet again on race day - and the forecast is for showers about the time of the start - he will be in very good shape indeed.

Have Ferrari and Red Bull been smarter on strategy than Mercedes?

Observers believe that both Ferrari and Red Bull may have pulled off a trick in qualifying after opting to use the supersoft tyres for Q2 - meaning they will start on the red-marked tyre. Mercedes, on contrast, will have to use the purple-marked ultrasoft.

The significance of that shouldn't be understated. Mercedes have struggled with serious blistering and graining on the ultrasofts during the weekend, suggesting they won't be able to run very long on them. That might also force Mercedes down a two-stop route - while Red Bull and Ferrari might just be able to gamble on only stopping once. 

"I think the ultrasoft is not a good tyre for the race," Hamilton explained after qualifying. "It's going to be a struggle to get a lot of laps out of it so the strategy will be interesting tomorrow. Obviously those guys are starting behind me so I'm hoping I have a bit of an advantage at the start just from being on the softer tyre. But in practice my ultrasoft tyres lasted for four laps, so it'll definitely be tricky, but we'll do the best we can."

Ricciardo in contrast thinks Red Bull made the 'right decision' to use supersofts in Q2, adding: "We knew we wouldn't be fighting for the front row. But if it's mixed conditions again tomorrow, I think being able to adapt quickest will be key. The smartest, most switched-on guy can win tomorrow, you don't necessarily need the best car."

And therein will lie the secret to success. If it's significantly cooler - and the forecast says 21 degrees Celsius instead of 24/25, which will make a big difference - Mercedes are expected to check out and disappear. If it stays the same as it was today, Ferrari and Red Bull will be looking good. 

Pirelli believe a two-stop strategy will be fastest in theory, but estimate that starting on the supersofts will be a few seconds faster. Of course showers are also predicted - and if it rains, everything goes back into the melting pot...

Can Hulkenberg break his podium duck?

Nico Hulkenberg evoked memories of his 2010 pole position in Brazil as he twice went fastest in Q3 in Spielberg - and while he was denied pole, this is nevertheless the second-best starting spot of his career. The German was made to sweat a little as stewards investigated him for improving his time under yellows in Q1, but the telemetry confirmed he had backed off enough and his front-row grid spot was confirmed.

So what can he make of it - and can he realise the prospect of finally securing a first Grand Prix podium after more than 100 attempts so far?

"The car performed well, we put it together, so a very solid job and a very good starting position for tomorrow," the delighted German said.

"First of all I'm happy and excited about qualifying. Special circumstances obviously with the rain in Q3 and then the drying-up track, but for sure second is a very good starting position. 

"In the race we'll do what we can. I'm not thinking too hard about that now. We'll do that in the next couple of hours and tonight and tomorrow but our car has made huge steps forwards since Barcelona really and ever-since we've scored a lot of points and a few podiums so yeah, we're on a good slope, we have good momentum and just try to carry it into tomorrow and make it into another good Sunday."

What can McLaren do from third on the grid?

12th, 14th, 12th, 12th, 12th, 13th, 12th, 19th... Jenson Button's starting spots so far in 2016 didn't exactly suggest he would be in the fight for the front row in Spielberg. Little wonder that he said it was crazy to be starting so high.

"P5 in qualifying, starting P3, it's madness!" he said. "P3 is luck, but P5 wasn't luck, we did a really good job. I'm so happy. It feels like a pole position for me. Whatever happens tomorrow we'll enjoy today."

So what will happen? Realism has to prevail, at least if it stays dry, with Button admitting: "We're not fighting for a podium here. I'm not being pessimistic, I'm a realist. I understand it's going to be a difficult race for us wherever we start, but hopefully it will be a lot more fun than we are used to."

A decent helping of points, for perhaps sixth or seventh place, may be about the best they can hope for - unless fortune has other plans...

How will grid drops affect Rosberg and Vettel?

Nico Rosberg's pace in qualifying was indication that he was suffering no ill effects from his accident in FP3, and apart from the question mark over the performance of his ultrasoft tyres in the opening laps, he is expecting to have a decent chance in the race.

"Second not first, but it's okay," he said after qualifying. "But the five places will be very costly, of course, unfortunately. I'll make the best of it anyways and try to get a good race from there."

With Vettel being the first to receive his grid place drop, Rosberg won't suffer quite as much because he will start sixth rather than seventh.

"The tyres are going to be tough tomorrow but the thing is we don't really know because the temperature is going to drop so much, so who knows...," he adds. "For sure in the hot it was really tough, but maybe in the cold it's going to be better."

Vettel, meanwhile, believes Ferrari have very strong race pace up their sleeve. "The feeling was very good, the car was very good," he said of his run in FP3. "It should be good news for tomorrow that the race is quite strong. And we think our strategy is an advantage."

Such is the pace of both cars that both drivers should be able to fight their way through for possible podium positions, all things being equal. It helps, of course, that overtaking is possible at Spielberg - although it can be very tricky if following a car of similar speed...

Will the new kerbs cause further problems?

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was no fan of the Red Bull Ring’s new yellow ‘sausage’ kerbs after FP1, but it was the jagged red ones which created more problems as Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg, Force India’s Sergio Perez and Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat all suffered a different kind of suspension failure over them in FP3 (Rosberg) and qualifying (Perez and Kvyat).

Those on the receiving end of breakages were understandably unhappy, with some even calling for changes to the kerbs. Others, however, agreed with the FIA that they are not unduly dangerous and that they are merely doing their job - forcing drivers to respect track limits.

“I’m honestly treating it like a wall,” said Verstappen’s team mate Daniel Ricciardo. “I know that if I hit the yellow kerbs I’m going to damage my car. It’s not a bullying scenario, I’m not laughing at them, Dany [Kvyat] or anyone that’s crashed. For me I like it that it’s black and white.

“At so many modern circuits us drivers complain that you can run off and not pay a price, so this weekend we are paying a price. Sure, the damage to the cars is quite severe, but it’s the same if you hit a wall on a street circuit - I tore the rear off my car in Baku!”

Many believe that the problem is caused not so much by impact loads but by an unusual frequency or oscillation on the tyre that the jagged kerbs create, which could be sufficient to break suspension components.

"It's a vibration, a very unusual never seen before vibration, which comes when you're on the throttle when you're on that kerb,” Rosberg explained. “So that's a worry, because it's not something that we've planned for building the car, so not straightforward. They reinforced our car before qualifying, in those fragile areas."

With no changes expected to be made to the kerbs before Sunday’s race, the message to drivers will be clear - respect track limits and stay off them!