Lewis Hamilton installed himself as the favourite heading into this weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix by leading both practice sessions on Friday.
The Briton posted a 1:09.542 on the super-soft tyres in the afternoon as the two Silver Arrows were the only cars able to go sub 1:10.
The return of the refurbished Red Bull Ring was a welcome one and. despite the short lap & only nine corners, the drivers found learning this track much harder than most thought.
With the key to a good lap time being carrying speed through the corners the day was characterised by driver’s running wide as the explored the limits of the circuit.
The most spectacular error of the day belonged to Sebastian Vettel as the German ran onto the Astroturf exiting turn nine and losing the rear of his Red Bull.
However, the areas of most trouble, as is historically the case at this venue, were into turn one, as drivers locked up, and into turn eight as those with less downforce struggled to keep the rear under control through the downhill, swooping right-hander.
Because of the short lap, the gaps between the drivers are usually smaller than at other tracks, however, after practice Hamilton seems to have a bigger advantage over team-mate Nico Rosberg than at previous races.
Despite being separated by mere thousandths in the morning, the 2008 champion held a four tenths advantage over his German teammate over both a single lap and throughout the race simulation.
Surprise strugglers on the day was the local team Red Bull, with Vettel and Canada winner Daniel Ricciardo both outside the top 10 in the morning, the two drivers were a little more competitive in the afternoon but still over a second slower than the seemingly invincible Mercedes’.
That left the ‘best of the rest’ slot to be taken by Fernando Alonso who was third in both Friday sessions. The Ferrari was a car most thought wouldn’t suit this circuit so whether he can continue in that place or, as in Montreal, he slips back later in the weekend will be a story to watch.
With the long straights in the first half of the lap, the Red Bull Ring was also set to be a strong track for the three Mercedes customer teams.
As in Montreal the Williams again look the most likely to take the battle to those normally in front of them with both Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa ending Friday in the top five, however, also like in Montreal, Force India again look weak on single lap pace.
McLaren have brought a raft of upgrades to Austria and general signs were positive with both cars in the top 10, but much like Ferrari, seeing if they can maintain those positions will be interesting.
The two Renault powered team of Lotus and Toro Rosso are also part of the huge midfield battle with Marussia again pressuring Sauber as Caterham continue to languish at the bottom of the timings.
For the first time in several races, tyres look to be an issue this weekend. Pirelli have brought the softest compounds, as they did in Monaco and Canada, with the red-ringed super-softs showing high degradation thanks to the number of traction zones.
The soft tyres are certainly looking the better race tyre with the yellow-marked tyres lasting for over 30 laps.
After the troubles in Canada, reliability look to be the only thing stopping Mercedes from reasserting their place as the team to beat.
A few problems did linger for Rosberg in particular and Hamilton appears the clear favourite to make up for his Montreal retirement.
As for the battle behind I expect Red Bull to improve and a battle to develop with Williams for the final podium place and then come Sunday, maybe Force India can use their better tyre conservation to move up and make up for their poor qualifying pace.
It promises to be a fascinating weekend.
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