Could Austria be the F1 title tipping point?

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    So busy was the Azerbaijan Grand Prix that almost two weeks later we’re still unpacking all of its implications.

    First there was the on-track passing, in particular between Force India teammates Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, whose collision — a cardinal sin in motorsport — triggered a series of events that led to Daniel Ricciardo becoming the unlikely victor.

    Then there was that incident between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, which not only dominated post-race discussion owing to its role in deciding the fate of the race but also caused a week of perturbation in the paddock in anticipation of the FIA opening its own post-race investigation into the matter.

    Had a disqualification or race ban ensued, the impact on the title race would be self-explanatory; in the end Jean Todt decided that public contrition on the German’s part and a community service order would be sufficient in the circumstances, as was suggested in this column last week.

    But somewhere in the culmination of Sebastian Vettel’s hotheadedness and Daniel Ricciardo’s win are hints at what could be to come in the next phase of the season, beginning with this weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix.

    What was perhaps most interesting about the relative performances in Baku was the pace of Red Bull Racing, which typically expects to endure a torrid time at this part of the year featuring power circuits in Canada, Azerbaijan and Austria in quick succession.

    Sebastian Vettel rounds a corner at the Austrian Grand Prix in his Ferrari.

    (GEPA Pictures/Red Bull Content Pool).

    Azerbaijan’s infamously long straight — at 2.2 kilometres, the longest on the calendar — in particular strains the team’s Renault power unit, which remains a touch off the pace of the Ferrari and Mercedes models, leaving RBR outclassed.

    It wasn’t the case in 2017, however, with Max Verstappen coming agonisingly close to qualifying third on the grid but for a gearbox sync issue in Q3 and with Daniel Ricciardo’s charge from P17 to first, albeit after Vettel and Hamilton put themselves out of victory contention.

    “When you look to Mercedes, still we need to improve,” Verstappen said after qualifying. “We are again up close to Ferrari or even in front, so that is good.”

    Could the three-way battle for the championship — or at least for wins, given Ferrari and Mercedes have created a comfortable points buffer to the third-quickest team — at last be on the cards after preseason testing offered so much promise?

    Not so fast — Formula One was never going to get what it wanted so easily.

    The reverse side of this Azeri coin is what we will momentarily call Ferrari’s underperformance, worryingly in some of the areas in which the team has excelled compared to Mercedes so far this season.

    The first of these is tyre usage. On the Baku City Circuit, which was extremely dusty and yielded limited grip, Mercedes was expected to struggle in the same ways it did in Russia and Monaco, where surfaces were similarly slippery.

    But in Azerbaijan Ferrari struggled with its tyres while Mercedes, after Friday practice suggested its same problems were rematerialising, mastered the Pirelli rubber.

    Second to that, and of longer term concern, is the FIA technical clarification sent to the teams ahead of the Azerbaijan weekend to emphasise for the second time this year its opinion that burning oil with fuel in the engine for extra power is impermissible under the regulations.

    At no point before or after either clarification has any power unit manufacturer suggested it was the example under scrutiny — but in Azerbaijan Ferrari’s engine was off the pace of the Mercedes, begging the question: was it Ferrari underperformance or something more permanent?

    “You never have these kind of discussions and clarifications from the FIA if something hasn’t been done,” said Renault engine boss Remi Taffin.

    It is illustrative to consider this development alongside Vettel’s midrace brain snap in Baku after a weekend of agitation at Ferrari.

    “I did sense there was a bit of a persecution complex around Ferrari of the weekend. There were lots of questions about this oil burning,” Sky Sports F1 pundit Ted Kravitz told this writer on the Strategy Report podcast.

    “Kimi [Räikkönen] said, ‘You wouldn’t believe it, it’s like World War III going on. It’s very intense’.

    “It might explain why Vettel had a ‘we’ve got to make the most of this’, putting-up-a-good-fight mindset, perhaps.”

    These seemingly disparate factors could be poised to come together to alter the complexion of both world championship battles, and with Mercedes at last successfully grappling with its difficult-to-set-up-car, any slip backwards — or worse, slip into the clutches of Red Bull Racing — could be disastrous for Ferrari’s renaissance 2017 campaign.

    The Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring may be worlds away from the layout of the Baku City Circuit, but it too rewards engine power and tyre warm-up, creating a perfect test to conclude whether 2017 is truly at a tipping point.

    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart — but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.

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    The Crowd Says (7)

    • Roar Guru

      July 7th 2017 @ 9:33am
      Bayden Westerweller said | July 7th 2017 @ 9:33am | ! Report

      Red Bull’s belated emergence as a contender has come through stealth, though it shouldn’t be surprising considering Verstappen’s woes, whilst Ricciardo has continually maximised opportunities and didn’t purely luck into victory at Baku, he had to work for it with some of his desperate overtaking.

      I can foresee the RB13 as the superior package in the back half of the season, a la 2009, even if they’ve left their title run a little too late.

      Ferrari musn’t lose momentum as the mid season break approaches, and can’t afford to rest on their laurels as Mercedes are displaying glimpses of 2014-16 renaissance.

      • July 7th 2017 @ 11:44am
        Bamboo said | July 7th 2017 @ 11:44am | ! Report

        Agreed 100%. If you look at some of Vettels titles the 2nd half of the season, especially post Singapore, the Red Bull comes into a class of its own.

        Renault (sorry TAG) seem to think they have their reliability under control now, with an engine now within .2sec of the Mercedes. Furthermore, ExxonMobil think they have found .2 of a second of performance for the rest of the season. Combine that with Red Bulls rate of development, made a steeper rate of development as this car was designed without Adrian Newey, but now has his input, and I think the car is the dark horse of the season.

        Perhaps wishful thinking at my end….but during the red flag at Baku Ricciardo was paying £25 for the win, which I placed £5 on. With the £125 winnings I’ve placed it on Ricciardo to win at WDC with odds of 440/1.

        Only 8 races down, 12 to go.

      • Roar Rookie

        July 7th 2017 @ 8:25pm
        Chancho said | July 7th 2017 @ 8:25pm | ! Report

        that’s an excellent point re the stealth of RBR and I think we were robbed of seeing what they can do as early as Canada with Max’s DNF… that was a blinding start he made there!

        Just on Ferrari’s momentum issue, I don’t think they are losing it… the last 2 races Seb was cruelled with unfortunate stops for new nose cones, they botched the timing under the safety car in Canada by not realising till the race was back on, and then of Seb’s own doing in Baku – but they certainly had the race pace. The problem for Ferrari that I see is that they’ve realised they cant match the Merc’s on power and quali but they have got the start mapping and race pace, so while they know they wont be in front at lights out they’ll be mixing it by the first stop. What appears to be happening to me though, is that RBR have lifted their quali performance, to the point where they can regularly challenge for the second row which would push Ferrari back. The problem here is 2 fold for Ferrari; obviously a car or 2 more to pass on the track/pits, and if a Ferrari is stuck behind a Red Bull in the race then this gives the Mercs the opportunity to pull away at the front and they do love the fresh air of the front.

        How good is it to have some competition to the Mercs dominance!?!?

        • July 7th 2017 @ 8:51pm
          Bamboo said | July 7th 2017 @ 8:51pm | ! Report

          I don’t know about Ferrari moving forwards. They are introducing an updated engine at Silverstone with more grunt, yet they are the team that have been getting the greatest gains from this whole oil burning issue.

          My biggest concern, and this is Ferrari simply being Ferrari, is they have just got rid of the chief engineer for power units in the last few days.

          • Roar Rookie

            July 7th 2017 @ 9:21pm
            Chancho said | July 7th 2017 @ 9:21pm | ! Report

            Has that been confirmed though?

            • July 8th 2017 @ 7:18am
              Bamboo said | July 8th 2017 @ 7:18am | ! Report

              All of the above, yes.

    • July 7th 2017 @ 6:19pm
      Simoc said | July 7th 2017 @ 6:19pm | ! Report

      I think Nico Hulkenburg blew a huge opportunity in the last race. He was in the mix for a podium and planted the wall showing the difference 6mm or so can make.

      Ricciardo held his breath and planted his foot; it worked out this time but either Williams cars could’ve blown it for him in a millisecond. Thems the breaks and the confidence which Daniel has compared to the others is, I believe, the difference.

      It’s a vintage F1 season and luckily the officiating is playing along with it.

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