Austrian practice promises perplexing weekend

Lewis Hamilton edged title rival Sebastian Vettel in an uneventful Friday of practice for the 2017 Austrian Grand Prix.

The Briton set a new all-time lap record for the Red Bull Ring — a time of 1 minute 5.483 seconds — which bested the German’s time by 0.147 seconds after three hours of free practice.

Valtteri Bottas set the third-fastest time, less than one-tenth of a second behind Vettel, but the Finn picked up floor damage after losing control of his Mercedes early in the session and spinning through a gravel trap.

Red Bull Racing duo Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo finished fourth and fifth respectively and 0.15 seconds further back.

Less than 0.4 seconds separated the top three teams — excluding Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen, whose sixth-fastest time was off the pace.

The results are not a straightforward form guide, however; Pirelli’s ultrasoft tyre, which for much of the season has proved almost too hard for most circuits, was too soft at the Red Bull Ring, with the yellow-striped soft compound instead proving the best suited to the Spielberg track.

With ambient temperatures hovering at around 30°C and with the increased downforce generated by the 2017 regulations allowing for faster speeds at this circuit, the ultrasoft tyre appeared too delicate to sustain competitive pace over a useful number of laps.

Indeed, Hamilton set the fastest time in the morning practice session on the soft compound, improving by only 0.4 seconds by the afternoon on the ultrasoft compound.

“It’s a bit surprising,” Red Bull Racing’s Ricciardo said. “The soft doesn’t look to bad.

“This morning Lewis was quickest with the soft. Obviously they’ve got a good car, but to be quickest on that tyre is showing it’s pretty durable and strong around here.”

Underperforming ultrasoft tyres would cause a significant twist for the race — each team is able to choose how many soft, supersoft and ultrasoft tyres comprise its 13-set allocations for the weekend, and all teams have stocked up on ultrasofts, with most drivers holding fewer than five sets of any other compound, some of which were used during practice.

“I think a lot of teams tonight will be looking at their options for Sunday and probably not thinking it’s a clear one stop with an ultrasoft and a supersoft anymore,” Ricciardo noted.

Practice pace suggests the battle for pole and victory will come down to the three front-running teams, but Mercedes is expected to be able to extend its slender Friday margin come qualifying — though Lewis Hamilton will carry a five-place grid penalty for making an unscheduled gearbox change during the week.

Not only does the Mercedes engine have its powerful qualifying mode, but pace-setter Hamilton was using an old-specification power unit, which the team noted was down on power for much of the day, hinting that the Silver Arrows still has the weekend under control, leaving Ferrari and Red Bull Racing to battle for the second row.

“We look close,” observed Ricciardo. “I expect the normal situation with Mercedes — they’ll have a bit more for qualifying — but hopefully Ferrari don’t have too much more and we can try to be in that battle.

“We’re in between Seb [Vettel] and [Kimi] Räikkönen at the moment, so we’ll hopefully hang in there tomorrow.”