Mercedes’ bounceback among key F1 Austrian Grand Prix storylines


As has been argued here and elsewhere, Lando Norris’ frustration following his second-place finish in last weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix told us not just the story of one singular race, but rather the entire 2024 Formula 1 season.

A year ago in Barcelona, Max Verstappen cruised to a 24-second victory ahead of Lewis Hamilton, and the strength of the RB19 was evident in the closing stages of that race. After being given repeated warnings for exceeding track limits, Verstappen had such an advantage on the track that he felt confident enough to post the fastest lap of the race in the closing stages, prompting another legendary request from his race engineer, Gianpietro Lambiase. “Ok,” quipped the engineer known as GP, “now can you bring it home within the white lines?”

Last Sunday in Barcelona was a much different story. Verstappen needed to overtake George Russell — after the Mercedes driver’s stunning double overtake on the opening lap — to get into the lead. And while the Red Bull champion enjoyed an eight-second advantage over Norris in the final act of the 2024 Spanish Grand Prix, the McLaren driver not only got that down to two seconds in the closing laps, but he felt that he had the fastest car, and should have won.

F1 this season is a whole new ballgame.

Teams like McLaren, Ferrari, and perhaps even Mercedes have closed the gap to Red Bull, putting the defending Constructors’ Champions — and Verstappen himself — under pressure. Of course, putting Red Bull and Verstappen under pressure is one thing, but getting that well-oiled machine to crack under stress is another. On a Sunday in Barcelona, Red Bull answered that call, fending off the field for another victory.

But will that be the case this weekend in Austria?

Speaking on Sunday night following the Miami Grand Prix Ferrari Team Principal Frederic Vasseur told the assembled media, including SB Nation, that teams were now able to put some pressure on Red Bull at the front, which could be a “game changer” for the season.

“What is true is that compared to one year ago when we are able to do a good job and to put everything together, we are there, it means that we are putting [Red Bull] a little bit under pressure. They have to take to be a bit more aggressive with the strategy,” started Vasseur in Miami.

“They are not anymore in the comfort zone of last year when last year that doesn’t matter what’s happened after lap two, they were in front and it’s, I think it’s a game changer in the management of the race,” added Vasseur.

“And this, it’s an opportunity for us because that if we are doing another small step, I think that we will be really in a position to fight with them every single weekend.”

That fight continues this weekend, and is one of many storylines to watch.

Have race organizers truly solved the track limits issue?

F1 fans will recall the three most common words used during the 2023 Austrian Grand Prix.

“Track limits exceed.”

Consider these numbers from last year:

During qualifying alone, 47 laps were deleted due to “exceeding track limits,” resulting in a shaken-up field and lots of angry drivers, teams, and fans. Then in the Grand Prix itself a number of drivers were hit with penalties for exceeding track limits, and it even led to a post-race protest from Aston Martin, inquiring whether all the appropriate penalties were levied.

That protest was upheld, and even more drivers were hit with penalties hours after the race concluded. An additional 12 penalties were handed out to 8 drivers, and race officials noted that they still were unable to review all 1,200 potential incidents of exceeding track limits.

Those numbers prompted not just drivers, but prominent figures within the sport to wonder if changes needed to be made at the Red Bull Ring. “The problem is it’s very difficult for the drivers because they can’t see the white line from the car so you’re just purely doing it on feel and the circuit invites you to go there,” said Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner, speaking before the post-race penalties were announced last season. “So I think that it’s something that needs to be looked at for next year to perhaps add more of a deterrent for the drivers to be drawn onto that part of the circuit.”

Now, it seems that that deterrent has been added.

As was reported by Race Fans last year the FIA requested race organizers to install gravel traps at the circuit, focusing on Turns 9 and 10. “In order to address the issue for future events we will renew our recommendation to the circuit to add a gravel trap at the exit of turns nine and 10,” said a spokesperson from FIA to RaceFans last season. “We note that while this is not a straightforward solution in relation to other series that race here, it has proved to be very effective at other corners and circuits with similar issues.”

On Tuesday images surfaced of new gravel traps at the circuit, indeed in the vicinity of Turn 10:

Will these gravel traps solve the issue? That might be difficult to accomplish, given the size of Red Bull Ring. Measuring in at just over 4.3 kilometers and with only ten corners, the circuit is one of the smallest on the calendar. While every millisecond counts in F1, that is especially true in Austria, particularly in qualifying. Consider what Logan Sargeant told me about track limits earlier this season:

“Yeah, the ones that drive me crazy are the, ‘[j]ust keep it on [the track]’ like when we’re talking about track limits,” said Sargeant. “And then you look at Bahrain and first through 20th in Q1 is covered by eight tenths.

“Especially when you’re on the back end of that [lap], trying to make it through Q1 and you’re always on the cusp. Imagine, you know, leaving a bit of time on the table can shuffle you down two or three positions if you’re too safe and then when you add the tires overheating through the lap, the wind gusting and changing throughout the lap. Even just having a slight slipstream from the car had completely changes the corner,” added Sargeant. “You know, I think so much more goes into completing a lot than people realize and also being able to keep it within the white lines and still getting the most out of it. It’s a lot more complex than just, you know, ‘keep it within the white lines.’

“There’s, there’s so many variables and, I think people forget that a lot.”

The presence of the traps might help, but expect to hear those three words often this weekend.

Are we witnessing a Mercedes bounceback?

F1 Grand Prix of Spain

Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

A year ago McLaren delivered a stunning turnaround, rocketing up the standings following a dismal start to the season. In many ways, that turnaround began in Austria a year ago, when a fourth-place finish from Norris banked 12 points for the team.

They entered the Austrian Grand Prix last year with 17 points to their name, tallied throughout eight race weekends.

Are we seeing something similar from Mercedes?

The Silver Arrows got out to a slow start of their own this season, but have certainly shown progress in recent weeks. A series of upgrades the team began to roll out back in Miami have delivered improved performance on the track, and the team is coming off their two best race weekends of the year. In Montreal, they captured their first pole position of the season, thanks to a strong performance from George Russell, and Russell’s P3 gave the team their first Grand Prix podium of the year, to go with a P4 from Lewis Hamilton. (Hamilton notched a podium with his P2 in the F1 Sprint Race at the Chinese Grand Prix back in April).

Last week in Barcelona, the team enjoyed another strong weekend, locking out the second row in both qualifying and the Grand Prix, with Hamilton finishing third and Russell fourth.

Progress has certainly come to Brackley, as well as perhaps the next great F1 meme above. But can they keep this momentum rolling in the Austrian hills?

Frustration at Ferrari

On the other end of the spectrum, we find the Scuderia.

Back at the end of May Ferrari was on a roll. Charles Leclerc finally broke through with a win in his home race, capturing the Monaco Grand Prix. Add in a P3 from teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. — and only eight points for Red Bull on the weekend thanks to a DNF from Sergio Pérez and a P6 from Verstappen — and Ferrari moved 32 points closer to Red Bull atop the Constructors’ Championship standings.

As the grid shifted to Montreal the Scuderia trailed Red Bull by just 24 points, and the talk of a true title fight was on.

Thoughts of a title fight remain, but Ferrari has not helped themselves in recent weeks. A disastrous Canadian Grand Prix for the team saw the team leave Montreal without any points to show for their efforts, and with Leclerc finishing fifth in Barcelona, and Sainz sixth, they have seen Red Bull pull away from them a bit in the standings. Currently, Ferrari sits 60 points behind Red Bull, the gap having more than doubled in recent weeks.

And while Ferrari would love to look ahead, McLaren is now just 33 points behind them, having cut their 68-point deficit to Ferrari following the Monaco Grand Prix by over half.

Here’s what that movement looks like in graphic form, thanks to our friends at Formula1Points:

Screenshot 2024 06 25 at 11.21.06 AM

If you are listing teams in the field that need a bounce-back performance in Austria, Ferrari might just top the list.

What about the back of the pack?

Returning to our friends at Formula1Points, if you look at the standings at the back of the F1 field you might see something interesting:

Screenshot 2024 06 25 at 11.22.36 AM

Alpine? We owe you an apology, we were not really familiar with your game.

Okay, so perhaps apologies are not in order, but it is certainly noteworthy that the team backmarker team having the most success over the past two race weekends is the French-based outfit. While Visa Cash App RB F1 Team managed to leave Montreal with four points thanks to an eighth-place finish from Daniel Ricciardo, back-to-back double-points results from Alpine has seen them add six points to their account, as opposed to the four from VCARB.

Which has seen Alpine climb to seventh in the Constructors’ Championship standings.

Can Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly keep Alpine’s momentum going in Austria? Can VCARB deliver a bounce-back performance of their own? Will Sauber finally break through with points? What about Haas and Williams, can they shock the field in the Austrian hills?

Driver news?

Here is one last storyline as the grid heads to Red Bull Ring.

Is this the week we finally — mercifully? — hear news about Carlos Sainz’s future?

Rumors flew through the paddock as well as the entire F1 world that an announcement on where Sainz would land for 2025 was imminent. Even drivers such as Kevin Magnussen, who is facing his own uncertain F1 future, pointed to Sainz as the “cork in the bottle” regarding the 2025 driver market. But a wrench was thrown into those plans in the form of Flavio Briatore, who recently joined Alpine as an advisor and reportedly made a last-ditch effort to woo Sainz to the French team for next season.

Those talks likely bore little fruit, given yesterday’s news that both Mick Schumacher and Jack Doohan were set to test for Alpine in the coming days, meaning that we may finally hear from Sainz on where his F1 story will be written next.

Watch this space.



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