Five things to look out for at the Austrian Grand Prix

The Formula 1 circus will be visiting the picturesque setting of the Red Bull Ring in Austria for round 9 of the 2016 season this weekend.

The Austrian circuit, which is one of the shortest on the calendar, provides a unique challenge for the drivers due to its unique layout, which features a grand total of nine turns for the cars to negotiate.

With the Formula 1 season now fully into its traditional, middle of the year run of European races, there will be several things to keep an eye on during this weekend’s proceedings…

Can Rosberg make it three?

Nico Rosberg

Some drivers are associated with certain circuits. For instance, Monaco is synonymous with Ayrton Senna, whose performances around the streets of the Principality were unmatched and unforgettable. Similarly, Spa is associated with Michael Schumacher, who triumphed no less than six times around the iconic Belgian circuit.

Since its reintroduction to the calendar in 2014, the Red Bull Ring has been a happy hunting ground for current championship leader Nico Rosberg, who has tasted victory on both occasions that he has raced there, with one pole position to boot. In light of this, the German is a strong candidate for victory this weekend, especially given the quality of the machinery he will have at his disposal.

Not only would victory on Sunday stamp Rosberg’s name all over the Austrian circuit (at least in its current form) but it would also allow him to further extend his lead over teammate and rival Lewis Hamilton in the Driver’s Championship.

Williams to fight at the front?

Felipe Massa

Williams have found themselves slowly slipping towards the middle of the F1 pecking order in 2016. While the Grove-based squad were comfortably the third most competitive outfit for much of 2015, they have since been overtaken by Red Bull and find themselves under pressure from a resurgent Force India outfit that is grabbing fistfuls of points every weekend.

However, the Red Bull Ring has been a strong track for Williams since its reintroduction. Felipe Massa secured pole position for the team in 2014, and both Austrian Grands Prix of the “new” era have seen a Williams driver finish on the podium.

Thus, while the team’s FW38 challenger has struggled for performance across several circuits so far in 2016, the success of its predecessors around the Red Bull Ring should give Williams some cause for optimism this weekend.

With Red Bull pulling away and Force India closing in, the Grove-based squad could certainly do with a solid helping of points in Austria.

A new lap record?

Lewis Hamilton Austria GP 2015

Seeing lap records broken is a rare sight in Formula 1 these days, for one simple reason: the cars are not quite as fast as they were a decade ago. This, of course, does not mean that they are slow by any stretch of the imagination, but the lap records around most circuits have yet to come under serious threat in recent times.

In Austria, however, the situation may be slightly different. The official lap record around the current layout of the Austrian circuit is 1.08.082 seconds, set by Rubens Barrichello in 2002. Lewis Hamilton’s 2015 pole time was only 0.4 seconds slower than that. However, things have changed since then. Not only have the teams unlocked more performance from their challengers, but Pirelli are making their ultrasoft tyre available this weekend, which they did not do last year.

Furthermore, the Red Bull Ring has been re-surfaced, and the resulting increase in grip allowed the DTM cars to lap the circuit approximately 2.5 seconds faster this year than in the past. The gains in lap time obtained from the above changes should see the 2016 pole position time comfortably eclipse that of Barrichello in his Ferrari F2002. By how far, however, remains to be seen.

The Halo: Take 2

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Formula 1’s governing body, the FIA, along with certain members of the F1 community, are aiming to achieve the implementation of some form of head protection for the drivers from the start of the 2017 season onwards. A variety of concepts, including a titanium roll hoop and Red Bull’s Aeroscreen device have since been tested.

However, it is believed that at present, the preferred concept is the so-called halo device, which Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen briefly tested earlier this year. Räikkönen’s teammate, Sebastian Vettel, is expected to test the second iteration of the halo during free practice for this weekend’s race.

The second generation halo is constructed of titanium rather than steel and has undergone subtle changes in its dimensions and design. Regardless of this, the new halo is unlikely to receive a significantly warmer reception than its older sibling, which was largely criticised for its unappealing aesthetics and for the possibility of the driver’s vision being impeded. That the halo, or something similar to it, will be introduced in 2017 is fairly certain.

How fans will react to its implementation, however, is up for debate. Formula 1 has always been associated with open cockpits, and the sport’s decision to move in a new direction by implementing head protection is unlikely to go down well with all members of the F1 community.

Little margin for error

Red Bull Ring

As mentioned above, the Red Bull Ring features a grand total of nine turns, and is one of the shortest laps on the calendar. As a result of this, the differences in lap time between the drivers around the Austrian circuit are fairly small, since the faster cars simply have a shorter distance and fewer corners in which to make their performance advantage count.

For example, in qualifying for last year’s race, the top ten qualifiers were covered by roughly a second, with positions 4 to 10 covered by approximately half a second. This means that drivers in faster cars will have to perform to their full potential in order to ensure that they end up ahead of the rest of the field. A couple of small mistakes that cost, say, 0.3 seconds could be the difference between qualifying on the front two rows or the fourth row.

Furthermore, the weather around the Red Bull Ring is expected to be overcast and/or rainy on Saturday. The message to the drivers, then, is simple: get out there, do your lap, and make it a good one. With the Red Bull Ring not being the easiest of circuits to overtake on, a perfectly executed qualifying effort on Saturday could dramatically increase the odds of a strong result on Sunday.

Adriaan Slabbert

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