Same track, same result: Max Verstappen took pole comfortably from Mercedes for the second round at the Red Bull Ring, though some late brilliance from Lando Norris threatened to upend the form guide for the Austrian Grand Prix.
Indeed Red Bull Racing, despite its comprehensive result in last weekend Styrian Grand Prix, was the most improved of the two title-contending teams. Whereas seven days earlier Verstappen had just shy of 0.2 seconds over Mercedes, this weekend it had grown an extra tenth of a second.
And the grid forms in RBR’s favour too. Excepting Lando Norris, whose qualifying brilliance delivered him his first front-row start and took hi to just 0.048 seconds of snatching a superb first pole, Sergio Perez is next in the order before Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas in fourth and fifth.
Assuming clean getaway for all, as was the case last weekend, Red Bull Racing is poised to eke out a comfortable margin early and cruise to victory — certainly in Hamilton’s opinion at least.
Hamilton is approaching the afternoon as an exercise in damage limitation. Already he sits 18 points behind Verstappen and Mercedes 40 points behind Red Bull Racing. He’ll surely get past Norris before long, but his margin will nonetheless balloon to 28 points, more than a clean race win, if he doesn’t get ahead of Perez.
But Mercedes is simply slower than Red Bull Racing at the high-altitude Red Bull Ring, and though the tyres are a step softer this weekend to introduce an element of the unknown, with a one-stop strategy still on the cards and tyres likely to be used the ones that featured last weekend anyway, there’s little chance of a change in the two cars’ relative form.
Max Verstappen is favourite to sweep the season’s first triple-header in a title hammer blow.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
Distance: 4.318 kilometres
Lap record: 1:05.619 (Carlos Sainz, McLaren, 2020)
Track record: 1:02.939 (Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, 2020)
Lateral load: medium
Tyre stress: medium
Asphalt grip: medium
Asphalt abrasion: medium
Safety car probability: 40 per cent
Pit lane speed: 60 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 359 metres
Pit lane time loss: 18 seconds
Fuel consumption: Medium
Tyres: C3 (hard), C4 (medium), C5 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.5 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.7 seconds
The strategy battle for the podium looks grim on paper. The top five start on the medium tyre, which should comfortably allow them to get to the end of the race with a single stop at around lap 30. The undercut isn’t especially powerful here owing to the short circuit and relatively stable degradation, so podium composition is likely to come down to the start and any delays at the stops.
Sergio Perez demonstrated last week that a well-timed two-stop strategy can be equal to the one-stop strategy, but his late pursuit of Bottas had more to do with the RB16B’s pace advantage over the Mercedes W12 at this circuit than it did tyre life — the option wasn’t available to Lewis Hamilton trailing Max Verstappen, for example.
With Friday practice pace suggesting much the same competitive picture as last week over a race distance, it’s hard to see how Mercedes could wield strategy to jump either Red Bull Racing driver through pit lane alone.
In the closer midfield the picture is more interesting, where the race is delicately poised between one and two stops. Warmer weather will push teams towards a two-stop strategy; however, though the risk of rain has largely dissipated, Sunday is expected to be cool and overcast. The tyres will be in for less punishment than they endured Saturday and last weekend, which means the soft might last long enough to switch to the hard with some management.
That’s good news for the Aston Martin and AlphaTauri drivers, who are the only four to be locked into starting on the C5.
Last weekend the longest stint on the C3, which is this weekend’s hard tyre, was 41 laps, and there is evidence it could have lasted longer still. The soft this weekend will therefore need to run around 25 laps to bridge the gap. Given most drivers engage in management in the first third of the race, this will likely be an option kept open.
But a two-stop, especially if degradation is higher than anticipated, will be more comfortably achievable. A soft-medium-hard strategy could pay dividends given the yellow-marked C4 was around half a second a lap quicker than the white-walled C3 during practice.
As Charles Leclerc demonstrated last weekend, ending the race on softer rubber while the rest of the midfield grinds out the final stint of the race on ageing harder tyres can be a great recipe for gains. The Monegasque starts 12th and teammate Carlos Sainz 10th as the highest placed drivers with free tyre choice; how they use that card will be interesting.
Another interesting less from last weekend came from how few drivers opted to start the race on hards. Kimi Raikkonen was the only one, and the Finn allied his strategy with a great opening lap to end the race knocking on the door for points — he arguably could have scored had he switched a little earlier than lap 36.
Given the hard this weekend is the popular C4 from last weekend, expect more drivers to open the race on the white-striped rubber and wait and see how other compounds fare through the field before committing to a strategy.