The third race in three weeks is being held this weekend in Austria at the Red Bull Ring, the same venue as last weekend’s Styrian Grand Prix, with this race referred to as the Austrian Grand Prix. While it may have a different name, few in the paddock will be expecting a different outcome on track with championship leader Max Verstappen looking likely to replicate his victory last weekend on Sunday.
Can Hamilton close the gap?
This season is certainly turning into one of the toughest for Hamilton in his Mercedes career. Normally so dominant at the front of the field, the Briton has a real fight on his hands against a Red Bull team that definitely have the quicker car, with Max Verstappen seizing every opportunity that comes his way. Winless in 4 races, most fans were left wondering at the end of last weekend’s Grand Prix if Mercedes titles hopes were all but over when team principal Toto Wolff admitted that their focus was now on the 2022 car and season when regulations will change again.
Much confusion has reigned in the week since about the possibility of Mercedes adding upgrades to the car, although Hamilton was sounding more optimistic ahead of the Austrian Grand Prix, “Obviously they are continuing to take steps forward. But I can’t get tied up and get into that negative bubble of worrying. All I can do right now is put all that energy into making sure I’m best prepared, helping the engineers be better prepared, lots of great conversations.
“This is the time when we just come together and unite and work as hard as we can to rectify whatever issues we have. That’s what we do, that’s why we are World Champions and I have confidence in the team that we can do that”. It is a fair point when he says it is why they are world champions, because despite Mercedes dominance over the years they have still needed to work hard to be on top of all regulation changes, as well as producing a car that isn’t beset by reliability problems.
It will surely rank as Hamilton’s best championship if he does manage to win it, and Max Verstappen is well aware of how equally hard he needs to work to seal his debut championship, “It’s a still a long season and we need to stay focused. We are at the same track but different [tyre] compounds and it is going to be more difficult with everyone having raced here one weekend already”.
The new compounds he references are a new rear tyre construction that Pirelli have brought to the Austrian Grand Prix, which drivers need to do 12 laps on over today’s two practice sessions to help Pirelli decide whether to bring in a new tyre at the British Grand Prix in a fortnight, as they work on improving tyre safety after those high speed tyre blowouts in Baku last month which cost Verstappen victory. Still Verstappen was having little trouble in FP1 on the new compounds, going fastest by 0.266 seconds ahead of Charles Leclerc as Hamilton only in 7th.
Verstappen will need to perform as consistently as he has all season to take another maximum points haul at the Austrian Grand Prix, and Fernando Alonso, who’s been involved in many title fights, is tipping the Dutchman to take his maiden title victory in 2021, in what has been a hugely exciting title battle thus far, “It is very interesting from the outside to follow and watch,” “At least we don’t have like previous years that it was Lewis against Lewis and sometimes Valtteri [Bottas] but not often. “We have a more interesting championship so we can follow with a little more adrenaline until Abu Dhabi. That’s a good thing.”
Changes to qualifying coming
This weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix will be the last for a few weeks to follow the standard routine. Announced earlier in the season, Formula 1 bosses have decided to trial sprint races at a number of races this season, starting at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in a fortnight, as well as the Italian Grand Prix later on in the year and one race at the end of the season, which is yet to be announced. The knock-on effect of this means qualifying will be moved to a Friday evening after the first practice session.
The grid from this qualifying will be the one that starts the sprint race on a Saturday afternoon, which will take place over a shortened distance of 100km, won’t require pit stops and will last around 30 minutes, about a third of the length of the regular Sunday race. Points will only be handed out to the top three finishers and will only be 3, 2, 1. That might seem like a small amount but like the extra point introduced for fastest lap in 2019, it may well prove be to be the difference especially in a tight battle like the one between Hamilton and Verstappen.
The sprint race will also stand as a secondary qualifying for the regular, full race on a Sunday. This could potentially benefit drivers who have a good sprint race, as it will give them the opportunity to start higher up the grid on the Sunday, as well as redeeming those who qualified badly on the Friday, by giving them a chance to get themselves back up the grid for the Sunday race where the usual top 10 points rules apply.
Like any regulation change there are plenty of positives and negatives, and there is a strong argument that this is merely an artificial change designed to boost TV viewing figures and will not make the racing any closer, because the big teams will easily be able to score the majority of points each weekend. Nonetheless, the fact that this is only on a trial basis and not at every Grand Prix weekend have certainly made the teams more amenable to its introduction, with its implementation getting unanimous approval.
Formula 1 has a history of suggesting new ideas that don’t always have the intended effect, such as Bernie Ecclestone’s infamous idea of adding sprinklers to races because he believed wet races were more exciting for viewers, although that one never actually went ahead. The decision to introduce double points at the final round of the 2014 season in Abu Dhabi, was unpopular since Lewis Hamilton still beat his title rival Nico Rosberg anyway, although no doubt it would have been perceived as unfair had one driver leapfrogged the other as a result of the change.
While the nadir was arguably the tinkering to qualifying at the start of 2016, which was an attempt to introduce a knockout which eliminated each driver one by one instead of a batch at the end of each session. A decent idea in principle but the reality was an anti-climatic event that was so unpopular it was scrapped after two races, with the format reverting to its standard mode still used today. Perhaps its fair though to consider that this current popular format is itself relatively recent, being in use since 2006, replacing the one lap shootout used before which didn’t allow drivers to chance to set another lap unlike the timed sessions in place now.
It is only right then, that Formula 1 occasionally tries out these new innovations in an effort to improve the overall spectacle, and F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali has indicated the early perception has been positive, “When we went public with the news that we wanted to try out a sprint qualification like this, the organisers who are eligible for the test immediately got a lot more ticket requests. And the TV broadcasters were thrilled”.
Keeping attention across the whole Formula 1 weekend has clearly been a challenge over the years, with qualifying revitalised by the move to timed sessions which keeps viewers watching throughout to potentially see a big name knocked out early on, rather than the one shot days when viewers were more likely to tune in at the end of the session when the big teams traditionally set their times.
Now it is Friday sessions which are under scrutiny, but F1 managing director of motorsports, Ross Brawn is adamant that these changes will not have a detrimental effect on the traditional Sunday showpiece event and is not a certainty for 2022, so it is still unclear whether we could see it next year’s Austrian Grand Prix for example, “We want to give fans engagement throughout the whole weekend,” “Sunday’s Grand Prix is fantastic, and we don’t want to cannibalise that, but we want to lift up the engagement on a Friday and a Saturday”
“Friday is really for the aficionados at the moment. Watching practice sessions on Friday is fun but there is no conclusion to it. But on a Friday now, we’ll have the excitement of the qualifying format.” It will definitely be a fun weekend for those lucky enough to have secured tickets to Silverstone, where there will be the biggest crowd in attendance since the pandemic started, and who will now be treated to racing across the weekend.
Whether qualifying is on a Friday or a Saturday, or racing on a Saturday or Sunday though, one thing is for sure right now and that is Max Verstappen is the man to beat. Hamilton topped FP2 at the Austrian Grand Prix to put the pressure back on the Dutchman but unlike these new sprint races, there is nothing new about the marathon one must run to become Formula 1 world champion.
Header image: Pedrik