Race Review: Austria 7th-9th Of July, Round 9

Introduction

High in the Austrian mountains is where we find the next encounters in this ever evolving F1 2017 season. Last time out in Azerbaijan the championship stepped up a level in intensity with the two leading protagonists Vettel and Hamilton coming to physical blows in their car. The stakes got personal. I am sure that we will see other controversial happenings before the season is done; no matter what the drivers say out of the car, when they get into the cockpit the decision making process is entirely different. In such a tight championship battle tensions will be even higher than usual. However, that being said I am not going to devote any more words to Vettel and Hamilton’s collision in Baku. I didn’t make a separate post about it and it won’t be allowed to dominate how I see the occasions of this race either. The story is being talked to death and as far as I am concerned the correct punishment has been served. The one thing I will say is that I am worried that with Vettel being chastised and less confident that the championship fight will be less exciting because of it. If that were to happen, or if he had been punished further then the real loser would have been F1. That is just a fact. We want to see two drivers at the top of their game and as history suggests when they are operating so highly these little misdemeanours happen and they increase the spectacle of the sport as long as no one is hurt. No one was hurt and that is the end of it. The story is over: It would be nice if certain mainstream broadcasters, which will remain un-named, thought the same and stopped their obvious milking of the situation; often with clear bias in Hamilton’s favour to boot.

So, moving swiftly on. Today there is plenty to look forward to. I am most interested in how the new McLaren ‘spec 3’ engine will fare: it is suggested that there could be as much as 0.4 seconds difference between the old unit and this one, which is a sizeable chunk. Alonso unfortunately had to revert to the old ‘spec 2’ engine to avoid grid penalties, but it does give us a chance to compare the two power units. Although Fernando will doubtless over-achieve as usual, so it might be hard to tell. Regardless, it is thought that the spec 3 could be Honda’s last chance to show McLaren that it is going in the right direction: there will be a few eyes on how Stoffel fares in this race. Another thing I have my eye on is the developing stress of the relationships over at Force India: for two races in a row now the ‘pink panthers’ have had disagreements both physically and verbally. In the run up to this weekend Perez went as far to suggest that Ocon is damaging the team with his driving; however the team themselves see the incidents as 50/50 between the two. My diagnosis is that Perez is feeling incredibly threatened by Ocon’s inherent natural pace and as the elder statesman of the team is trying to impose himself as the number 1 driver once again.

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Race winner: Valtterri Bottas

Other topics of conversation include the various rumours of Alonso’s future, specifically the rumours of a return to Ferrari that won’t go away; we can also explore both the thoughts of Vettel and Hamilton in perhaps sharing their team with Alonso, both dismissed the idea which to me suggests they would be scared of going up against him one on one. Speaking of heroic returns, Robert Kubica is reportedly testing an old Renault for the second time this season which begs the question whether we really could see him make a come-back. There are also reports of a planted story from the unsettled Carlos Sainz camp, starting rumours that Verstappen wants to leave to Red Bull for Ferrari. Join me on my ramble around the Austrian mountains, as I pay close attention to all the race happenings and what they might mean for all the topics discussed above.

Mercedes (1st & 4th)
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Valtteri Bottas P1: Bottas’ race started with an odd question over a jump-start of the lights. This was subsequently investigated by stewards, but no further action was warranted and it seems at the time of writing that it was just an amazing start. It took Bottas’ reactions just 0.2 seconds to get the car going. From there the race was relatively straight-forward as he roared into the distance in the early stages. However, after the pit-stop phase the Ferrari of Vettel seemed to have the better pace and at the end of it all only  0.6 seconds separated him and Sebastian. Good job his start was so good then! His second win brings him into reaching distance of Hamilton ahead of him in the table; prompting many to think that he will certainly be offered a new deal with Mercedes for the 2018 campaign. It is hard to argue with that viewpoint at this present moment.

Lewis Hamilton, P4: Hamilton’s 5 place grid penalty for a gearbox change meant that he started 8th on the grid. As such he began the race on the super soft tyre has he attempted to go longer into his first stint and gain time. However, after making up a three places into 5th by lap 10 he began complaining of over-steer on the car and subsequent blistering on the front tyres. In response he elected to under-cut Raikkonen in the pitstop phase and to ultimately settle for 4th as he was unable to catch Ricciardo in 3rd, despite lowering the gap to under a second by the chequered flag. Lewis needs to get back to winning ways in Silverstone should he not want his title fighting momentum to slow down and for Vettel to slowly pull away.

Team Summary: As in Russia, Mercedes have Valtteri to thank for being able to win the race as their usual front-runner Hamilton was not in a position to do so. The best thing of course was that once again they extended their lead at the top of the constructor table. Silverstone also usually suits the characteristics of their car, with Hamilton winning the last three races, so they have plenty to look forward to next time around.

Ferrari (2nd & 5th)
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Sebastian Vettel, P2: Really this was a quiet race for Vettel as he got on with the job that he needed to do. By lap 28 he was already 7.5 seconds behind the Finn. But this was rectified during the pit-stop phase as Vettel made up some time due to a slightly botched pit-stop for Bottas. After that, the Ferrari showed better pace than the Mercedes and Vettel began to claw back time. By lap 51 the gap was 2.9 seconds and it kept going down; allowing Sebastian to finish just behind Bottas with the gap being just under a second. Another handy result for Vettel who again ekes out a little bit more space at the top of the table.

Kimi Raikkonen, P5: Raikkonen was in a close battle with Hamilton from around lap 20 onwards to the near end of the race. The strategical decisions were hard for Raikkonen’s management as whatever Kimi decided to do Hamilton seemed to be in a position to do the opposite. The Brit could have gone long or short with his strategy due to his super-soft tyres. Ferrari ultimately decide to leave him out on a one stop strategy; to push Bottas back into Vettel: this also allowed him to take the lead of the race for one lap. During the final encounters of the race he tried to gain on Hamilton for 4th, but went wide at turn one while lapping Palmer and lost a lot of time. For me Raikkonen needs to up his game again or risk being swapped for a new Ferrari driver for 2018; as at the moment he seems to be the only reason why Ferrari cannot challenge for the constructors trophy as well.

Team Summary: Ferrari are in a way better position than Mercedes in terms of what their strategy is for the rest of the campaign. It seems to be clear that Vettel is the main man and that everything Ferrari do is bent on getting him his 5th world drivers title. Whereas at Mercedes they are stuck between two drivers, both who are performing very well and giving their all to be top dog in the team. For Ferrari this year is simple; get Vettel the most points possible at every race until the very end in Abu Dhabi. Anything else would be a bonus for them.

Red Bull-Renault (3rd & DNF)
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Daniel Ricciardo, P3:
For the majority of the early race Daniel was aiming to finish above Vettel in 2nd but any challenge he might have posed was undone as he failed to over-take during the pit-stop phase. His battle at the end with Hamilton was rather worth the watch though as both were sliding around on old tyres and just trying their hardest to eke out the milliseconds as they came in just a second apart. More champagne for the honey badger as he cemented his place in 4th even further than before.

Max Verstappen, DNF: Incredibly this is the young Dutchman’s 5th retirement in 7 races. This result even allowed Sergio Perez to jump him into 6th place in the rankings as his points tally also slipped to not even half of his team-mates. Obviously none of this is Max’s fault, but this time he did have a bad start which meant anti-stall kicked in; pushing him into the rushing pack. This meant the was in a position to be hit by Alonso after Spaniard was himself hit up the back by Kvyat. Red Bull need to provide Max with some luck to stop this worrying trend; after all his father seems to think that he is going nowhere, despite rumours to the contrary created in the Spanish media. Verstappen also needs to be careful that in his frustration he doesn’t start to push his luck with the car.

Team Summary:
 Another podium, this time at their home race, will come as a much welcomed addition to the Red Bull trophy cabinet. What is even more encouraging is that this time Daniel Ricciardo seemed to have the genuine pace to be able to finish in the high position rather than slightly lucking into the place during over in Baku. Once both their cars get enough luck to actually finish races together then we might see even more improvement in pace as the engineers begin to work out their own machine.

Force India-Mercedes (7th & 8th)
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Sergio Perez, P7: A great come-back from what was shaping up to be a bad weekend in practice started in qualifying. He out-paced Ocon in both Saturday and Sunday which will be very welcome for Perez, given that he has been rather rocked by Esteban’s arrival in the team. He will want to assert himself even further as the number 1 driver, especially after his words about their Baku incident during the build-up to this weekend: “He (Ocon) was over aggressive – and the team’s point of view is that he is lacking experience, and so on and so forth” which seem to suggest the team favour him. However they themselves said the incident was 50-50…interesting…Maybe Perez is beginning to feel threatened? Rightly so in my opinion; Ocon is very handy.

Esteban Ocon, P8:
 Another quietly confident race from the young Frenchman will do wonders to help his image in the sport and with the team following some loud verbal and physical altercations with his team-mate in the previous rounds. Now is the time to settle down again and restart chalking up the points as he has done consistently from the beginning of the year. To be so close to his much more experienced team-mate at this stage, roughly half-way through the year, indicates that he has a huge future in F1 if he plays his cards right with his team choices and etiquette.

Team Summary:
 A quiet weekend for Force India as they got on with their business. They will know that trying to keep Perez in 6th place in the drivers table will be pretty difficult once Verstappen finally stops retiring left, right and centre. The team might be rubbing their hands at the prospect of Silverstone in glee as their engine might deliver them to higher positions than today.

Williams-Mercedes (9th & 10th)
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Felipe Massa, P9: Massa ran very long into the race today and was yet to stop by lap 47 whilst he was all the way up in 6th: the idea was to jump Esteban Ocon into 8th place, but it wasn’t quite possible. This was the best that was possible for Williams, after their car seemed very difficult to handle during practice and qualifying, as shall be explored further below. He out-qualified and outscored his team-mate yet again though; so will be happy for that. I think that we might see Massa stay beyond his contract this year.

Lance Stroll, P10: Stroll was in a tight battle with Kevin Magnussen for last points place up to lap 30 until the Dane had to bow out with a gear-box failure. This is again, like his team-mate, quite impressive given that he started in 18th on the grid. A positive follow-up from his podium last time around; he might hope for better again at Silverstone given the slippery characteristics of the Williams’ chassis.

Team Summary: This weekend was pretty weird for Williams. It appears on the surface that their new new ‘upgraded’ aero package actually created much more problems than it fixed. The car was incredibly ‘pointy’ or loose at the back end: during practice and qualifying they suffered massively. But they did supremely well well to fix the problem and score what is incredibly their first double points finish of the season. Apparently the car was very handy on old tyres compared to the field around them so that is a cause for happiness as well.

Toro Rosso-Renault (16th & DNF)
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Daniil Kvyat, P16: Finishing as last of the cars was probably due to the damage that he sustained whilst clumsily hitting Alonso up the rear at the start; a double brake lock-up kind of left him nowhere else to go in truth both brakes. For his pain he also suffered a drive through penalty for causing the collision. Daniil will want to move on quickly as rumours again begin to circle about Pierre Gasly being after his seat for next year.

Carlos Sainz, DNF: The young spaniard is obviously very unhappy with his lot in life over at Toro Rosso. One only needs to look at how he dealt with his retirement on lap 46 of this race, saying “What a glorious race” through the tongue in his cheek, to know that. But he has actually been making a lot more noise than just the usual driver complaints: recently he said that he might be looking elsewhere for his drive in 2018, with McLaren being mooted as a very real possibility. However Helmut Marko, the man in charge of the Red Bull programme, quickly put a stop to all of that by saying that they are going to be taking up their option on Sainz for next year. Obviously if McLaren really wanted Sainz then I am sure money could persuade Marko otherwise, but it is clear that they still see the Spaniard as a potential future Red Bull driver if Ricciardo or Verstappen move on.

Team Summary: This was a messy weekend on and off the track for Toro Rosso, as zero points were scored and with both drivers going through some unrest regarding their position in the team for next season. They would do well to put those issues to one side as soon as possible in order to not lose touch with the Williams team above them.

Haas-Ferrari (6th & DNF)
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Romain Grosjean, P6: 6th placed on both the grid and the end of the race was hugely impressive for Grosjean and it was probably much helped this weekend by the fact that the circuit has the highest average speed on the calendar; resulting in less heavy usage of brakes. He overtook Magnussen in the championship standings this weekend too; so will be very happy with his day overall.

Kevin Magnussen, DNF:
Had a power steering problem with the hydraulics and also a suspected subsequent gearbox problem on lap 30 after a long battle with Stroll for the last points. Retires whilst saying “Oh I cannot believe this, **** this” which is pretty usually for a driver I would say. He probably would have got 10th in the end as well.

Team Summary: This is the 5th consecutive  points scoring race for the team and it brings their total points to the same number as the amount they achieved for the whole of last year! It really shows that if teams are going to enter F1 that they should seriously consider adopting the kind of strategy that Haas did, in effectively beginning as a Ferrari B-spec team and then working from there. I think if teams like Manor had adopted that approach then they would still be with us today even though they had such a small amount of cash-flow input.

Renault (11th & 13th)
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Jolyon Palmer, P11:
Arrrrgh. So close for Palmer! He did very well to capitalise on some of the carnage and poor starts ahead of him to climb up to 11th from his starting position of 16th on the grid. Whilst still not showing the raw qualifying pace of his team-mate he was able to pass him in the race and then also hunt down Stroll to fight for the final point by lap 54 after Magnussen had retired and got within 0.5 seconds of him. Points might be on the way soon and hopefully will re-ignite his self-belief and abilities to try and make a good fist of staying in F1.

Nico Hulkenberg, P13: Hulkenberg was another who made a bad start, getting the car into anti-stall on the grid and ending up essentially last on the first lap. He then pitted early for the soft tyres to try and go long into the race and build to finish well. However, I think Renault made a bit of a mistake in their strategy as Hulkenberg was actually lapped by lap 26 and it didn’t get much better than that.

Team Summary:
 Renault are not showing too many signs of being the team they promised to be during pre-season. However, they have made slight improvements for last year as you would expect and have recently said that they are in F1 for the long-haul. Perhaps it is a question of years before we see the kind of form and pedigree that won Fernando Alonso his two titles in 2005 and 2006. But they are a big outfit with plenty of financial backing and will have every belief that it will one day be possible if they focus.

Sauber-Ferrari (14th & 15th)
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Pascal Wehrlein, P14:
Pascal started from pit-lane after changing the turbo-charger on his year old Ferrari engine. As such, and with the cars lowly pace the best he could do was profit from retirements and try to keep quiet and efficient in the race. 14th is not a surprise as Sauber probably felt the strain at the circuit with the highest average speed on the calendar. Finishing ahead of his team-mate is the only achievement that he could have hoped to achieve and will be welcome after being off the pace from Ericsson during qualifying.

Marcus Ericsson, P15: At least he didn’t finish last, I suppose. That honour was for Kvyat. Perhaps the most summarising thing I can say is that when the time came Vandoorne pretty much breezed past the Swede’s Sauber; which is a damning verdict of the car. As for Marcus himself he didn’t beat his team-mate and that is kind of how things are judged when down low in the field.

Team Summary:
 After the happy points scoring finish in Baku we have had a much more representative view of Sauber’s actual pace. Again this is due to their low income prompting them to the decision of a year old Ferrari engine at the beginning of the season. But that is a whole different post I could write on how they are pressured into uncompetitiveness by the whole dynamics and costs of the sport.

McLaren-Honda (12th & DNF)
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Stoffel Vandoorne, P12:
During the race there was a rare moment for Vandoorne to be able to show his ability as he overtook Ericsson around the outside on lap 36. However, later on whilst being lapped by Raikkonen he came under investigation for ignoring blue flags. In the end the stewards awarded him a drive through penalty, which completely stopped him from being able to finish in the points.

Fernando Alonso, DNF: Fernando’s race came to an incredibly pre-mature end as he was hit into retirement by a rather clumsy Kvyat into turn 1: “They cannot play bowling balls” he said over the radio. Instead it is more pertinent to talk about the Spaniard’ amazing qualifying pace on Saturday. He managed to out-pace his team-mate by 0.2 seconds despite having the allegedly inferior ‘spec 2’ engine from Honda.

Team Summary: This is a big shame for McLaren; as during practice and qualifying their ‘spec 3’ engine seemed to be doing a very good job for them. Indeed they were firmly both in Q2 for one of the few times this season. A double points finish could have been on the cards had Alonso and Vandoorne not had their respective misdemeanours. This is made all the worse by the fact that Silverstone might prove to be a slightly more meaty challenge for their under-powered car than the Austrian circuit which is heavily dependant on momentum rather than acceleration.

Race Review & Analysis

The race was comparatively very boring to Baku, but then it was always going to be. However, what can be said was that whilst stately we did have a lot of intrigue at the beginning and end of the race. A messy start for Kvyat and Verstappen sandwiched Alonso into an early retirement, which also claimed the young Dutchman. It also massively compromised Kvyat’s pace in the race and I think that in the wide picture that is basically fair enough. Towards the end of the race we had the excitement of both Hamilton and Vettel chasing down the podium and race-win respectively. Both managed to get within a second of their targets as well; though both proved unsuccessful.

What seems to be getting clearer is that Mercedes are not going to be under too much pressure to retain their constructor title should everything go according to plan and no strange races occur. The reason for this seems to be Raikkonen’s relatively poor performances compared to his team-mate. Ferrari just don’t seem to be able to get Kimi to rack up the points for them to challenge: as such I would not be surprised to see them opt for a different driver to get them closer in 2018. For me the only serious option would be Fernando Alonso. His talent is undisputed and all other options seem exhausted: Jos Verstappen seems to have confirmed that Max will be remaining with Red Bull, I seem to recall that Ricciardo is under option over there also. Elsewhere I cannot see how either Perez or Grosjean would provide any more than Raikkonen does, plus Bottas is surely making a good stake for keeping his seat at Mercedes so wouldn’t be available either. Unless of course Mercedes themselves fancy Alonso to partner Hamilton for the coming year. It is all getting very interesting and I might ply my hand at some predictions for the 2018 season closer to the time.

Elsewhere we had an odd weekend for Williams, who having scored a podium in Azerbaijan decided to introduce some new aero upgrades. They seem to have failed miserably during qualifying by making the car incredibly ‘pointy’ at the front with lack of grip at the back. I wouldn’t be surprised if they changed back to the old package for Silverstone. McLaren were unable to see the full benefit of their new ‘spec 3’ Honda engines either, as they couldn’t compare to the old model because of Fernando’s early retirement. However, it is clear they have made up a lot of ground from the season’s start as proved by their much greater pace over the Saubers, including Vandoorne’s over-take around the outside on Ericsson.

Drivers & Constructor’s Standings (BBC Infographics)
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Next Time Out: British Grand Prix

In a weeks time we return once more to the heartland of Motorsport; the holy ground of Silverstone. It is amazing that half of the teams of the grid have their headquarters within a short drive of Silverstone, in the ‘motorsport valley’ of Britain. However, as much as we can celebrate the return of the F1 circus, yet again we arrive to England in another cloud of uncertainty over the future of the British Grand Prix. Supposedly the organisers are looking to end their deal in 2019 as the event has become incredibly hard to generate profit from. Maybe the new type of event that Liberty Media want to promote, with a weeks festivity surrounding the racing, might help convince that the British Grand Prix in Silverstone is worth saving. If not, then allegedly there is an option being explored for a Grand Prix on the streets of London which would certainly be good fun as well. It is all up in the air, as the championship still is too; hopefully some more questions will be answered next time out. I hope you join me then.


 

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