Formula 1

Austrian GP Preview: Mercedes set to spoil Red Bull party

F1 returns to Austria for the first time since 2003 (©GettyImages)
F1 returns to Austria for the first time since 2003 (©GettyImages).

After an absence of just over 10 years the Formula 1 circus returns to one of its great venues for the Austrian Grand Prix.

Now called the Red Bull Ring, the circuit is one of the most picturesque in the world. Some will remember this track by its former name, the A-1 Ring, but the real history of this race comes from the time when it was called the Osterriechring.

While the facilities have received a $100m makeover, the track layout remains the same as it was when F1 last visited in 2003.

The first creation of current circuit designer Hermann Tilke, the Red Bull Ring features many of the hallmarks for which his tracks have become synonymous.

The original layout was known for been one of the fastest in the world and Tilke’s redesign still offers one of the quickest around. With three long straights, two of which lead into tight corners – one of his biggest hallmarks, power will be important giving Mercedes the advantage.

But the second half of the lap has some very technical corners, particularly the final two right-handers, giving the home team the advantage there.

It is a very short lap, as you would expect for a track with just eight defined corners, with times around 70-75 seconds expected and the race is run over 70 laps.

Of course the main driver behind the return to this great venue was Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz, while the team itself is based in Milton Keynes in the UK, Austria remains very much the home of the company and this weekend’s race is being seen as a celebration of Red Bull’s recent achievements in the sport.

However, the return also comes in a year that has seen Mateschitz’s main team lose its dominance of the past few years and has seen a new force installed in Mercedes.

Ironically the race is a homecoming for Mercedes Chairman Niki Lauda, one of Austria’s most successful sportsman, indeed the triple champion even had a corner named after him until Red Bull sold the naming rights to Pirelli just a few weeks ago.

After the drama at the last race in Canada, which saw Red Bull end Mercedes’ stranglehold at the top as Daniel Ricciardo claimed his first F1 win, the expectation on Christian Horner’s men to win at home will be immense but I think they may need more lady luck for that to happen.

Before their ERS overheating problems, Mercedes highlighted their true pace pulling out over a second per lap over the Force India’s while Red Bull’s lack of top speed almost cost them to chance to capitalise on the Brackley team’s problems.

Therefore anyone other than Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg on the top step on Sunday will be a massive surprise.

Their win in Montreal plus the extra motivation of a home race means Red Bull will be closer on a track that also suits them a little better than Canada did, but without trouble ahead I still think third is the best Ricciardo or Sebastian Vettel can achieve.

The Austrian race became common place for an epic battle between Ferrari and their nearest challengers at the time, it was also the sight of one of the most controversial moments in F1 history as Rubens Barrichello gave the win to Michael Schumacher in 2002 following team orders from Jean Todt, but now in 2014 things are much different at Maranello.

The glory days are very much over and the team finds itself part of one of the biggest midfield battles in recent times.

Looking at their prospects at the Red Bull Ring they once again face stiff competition from the Mercedes customer teams down the long straights. Indeed their Canada result was boosted by crashes and problems ahead otherwise Fernando Alonso and definitely Kimi Raikkonen would have faced failing to score in a trouble-free race.

Similar writing could be on the wall again and this is because Lotus are expecting to be more competitive back in a normal racetrack environment. Toro Rosso too are a threat to their larger Italian rivals as Jean-Eric Vergne’s result in Canada proved.

McLaren are expecting big things from a major upgrade package coming for Spielberg while Williams and Force India will potentially be knocking on Red Bull’s door as they were in Montreal thanks to their power advantage.

Austria marks the nearest race to Swiss team Sauber’s Hinwil base but their terrible season so far shows little sign of picking up, indeed Marussia continue to look more of a threat to the grey cars ahead than they do looking over their shoulder at backmarkers Caterham.

Some reports suggested the Leafield may not even be in Austria, though that speculation has since being squashed. But what it does show is just how serious the problems seem to be at Caterham and certainly something can be read into the issues on track they and Sauber are having because of financial problems off it.

On a driver by driver basis the return of Austria brings a scenario very rarely seen. For those fans who have watched F1 for long enough to remember when it was last on the calendar, they have just as much knowledge of the track as some of the men behind the wheel.

Hamilton himself has admitted he has never raced around the Red Bull Ring and only Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso remain of those who were racing the last time F1 was in Austria in 2003.

The Red Bull associated drivers know more about the track because of the PR events there and potentially that knowledge could give an advantage of sorts to the likes of Ricciardo, Vettel, Vergne and Kvyat.

It is still a race that Lewis Hamilton will feel he needs to win, after retiring in Canada and watch Rosberg pull out a 22 point lead in the championship battle the 2008 champion has it all to do again just as he did following his other retirement in Australia.

For Rosberg there maybe is a sense that settling for second wouldn’t be bad should Hamilton go all out, and providing there is no repeat of the Canada troubles that should be fairly routine.

But one thing that is for sure is the return of Austria to the calendar is one many long-time F1 fans can’t wait for and even if their cars may not be leading on the track, Red Bull will ensure there’s a heck of an atmosphere off it.

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