The hills are alive with the sound of V6 Hybrid Turbos rather than Julie Andrews singing as F1 returns once again to the Stryian mountains and the Red Bull Ring for the Austrian Grand Prix. And after the drama of Baku, it was time to put things to one side as racing resumed for Friday Free Practice.
The Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton got his weekend off to the perfect start in Free Practice One as he topped the time sheets with a 1:05.975, almost two tenths of a second faster than the Red Bull of Max Verstappen in second place, and over three tenths of a second faster than his Mercedes team mate Valtteri Bottas in third. To add insult to injury to the rest of the field, Hamilton’s fastest time was set on the soft tyre compound, the slowest of the three compounds available to drivers here this weekend in Austria. Verstappen’s time however in the Red Bull was impressive, as rather ironically the characteristics of the Red Bull Ring don’t suit the Red Bull racing team at their home Grand Prix.
“This is a very power-sensitive circuit in sectors one and three so hopefully we’re not flattering to deceive at the moment,” admitted team boss Christian Horner. “We keep asking Dietrich [Mateschitz, the owner of Red Bull] to put in more corners, but they haven’t arrived yet!”
Red Bull however will be happy to see that they are ahead of the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel in fourth place, suggesting even though the circuit doesn’t suit them, that they are slowly catching up with Ferrari. It is believed this may be down to the FIA’s recent crackdown on oil burning, though there is no evidence so far to support this theory. The fellow Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo was fifth in the session, with the sister Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen sixth.
It was a positive start to the weekend for the McLaren team following Fernando Alonso scoring the team’s first points in Baku. The team had an upgraded Honda engine for the weekend here, and with the ultrasoft tyres on both cars were able to get into the top ten for once. Stoffel Vandoorne was seventh fastest with Alonso in ninth, with the pair being split by the Toro Rosso of Daniil Kvyat. Esteban Ocon rounded out the top ten in his Force India.
The session saw the usual spins as drivers struggled for grip on the relatively green track. Bottas had possibly the most interesting spin of the session, as he spun into the tricky first corner towards the end of the session. Both Ferrari’s span their cars as well, and even Hamilton wasn’t immune, running wide at both Turn One and Turn Three on his final run.
FP1 also saw Sergey Sirotkin at Renault and Alfonso Celis at Force India take to the track in place of Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez respectively. Both drivers were out performed by their team mates and finished the session 17th and 18th fastest, with only the Sauber’s slower than them.
Free Practice Two was once again a case of the same story as the Mercedes of Hamilton topped the time session again just ahead of the Ferrari of Vettel. Barely a tenth of a second separated the two duelling drivers in the second session, suggesting that the race on Sunday could be yet another tight battle between Ferrari and Mercedes. Only a faulty spark plug, requiring a 15-minute interval in the garage, interrupted Hamilton’s running in the session. And after the two sessions Hamilton seemed to be full of praises for how the car was working.
“The car felt good. It was a pretty good day. We had a good baseline to start with and we kept chipping away at it,” Hamilton told the media following the days sessions. “We are going to work hard tonight to try and find some more performance. I got the car to the limit and we’ll now look at the weaknesses to improve.”
Qualifying could be very interesting though as there are predictions for rain on the Saturday during qualifying. In dry conditions, Mercedes appear to hold a small but significant advantage over Ferrari on all three of the tyre compounds Pirelli have brought this weekend. However, Hamilton will not line up on the front row of the grid in Austria due to a five place gearbox penalty he picked up post practice session.
Bottas finished the session in third for Mercedes, a fraction of a second behind Vettel, despite his rather dramatic spin at Turn Six. While both Red Bull drivers of Verstappen and Ricciardo finished the session fourth and fifth respectively, ahead of Raikkonen in sixth for Ferrari. It was not all plain sailing though for Ricciardo, who had to sit out the majority of the session with an engine related issue.
There were no such engine issues for the Haas of Kevin Magnussen, who finished the session seventh, though there were a few off track moments and lock ups for Magnussen to suggest that once again there is an ongoing issue with the breaks on his car. His team mate Romain Grosjean suffered a similar fate, but was still able to finish the session tenth.
They were joined in the top ten by the McLaren of Alonso in eighth, in what must be one of the most positive starts to a race weekend for the McLaren team this season, despite the small off Alonso had in turn six. Nico Hulkenberg was also in the top ten, finishing ninth after giving his Free Practice One session up to Sirotkin.
It was however a rather disappointing day for the Williams team, despite the introduction of several upgrade parts on their cars. Their drivers, Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll, seemed to really struggle with the set up and balance of the car, leading the pair of them to be a lot further down in the standings at a track they have tended to favour at in the past.
“The car was not good to be honest. We didn’t have a great Friday. We’re struggling with the balance,” admitted Massa after the session.
By far the biggest drama of the session was the Toro Rosso of Daniil Kvyat, who had an urgent cause for alarm when his brakes caught fire as he returned to the pitlane. The Russian was fine, but it capped off a miserable session for Toro Rosso, who had to end Carlos Sainz’s running too following a water leak on his engine.
With rain predicted for tomorrows Qualifying session, which often leads to a topsy turvy grid, this could well be one of the better qualifying sessions of the season.
Free Practice One Timesheet
1. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1:05.975
2. Max Verstappen, Red Bull, + 0.190
3. Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, + 0.370
4. Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, + 0.449
5. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull, + 0.645
6. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, + 0.873
7. Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren, + 1.308
8. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso, + 1.462
9. Fernando Alonso, McLaren, + 1.535
10. Esteban Ocon, Force India, + 1.536
11. Felipe Massa, Williams, + 1.575
12. Kevin Magnussen, Haas, + 1.619
13. Carlos Sainz, Toro Rosso, + 1.658
14. Jolyon Palmer, Renault, + 1.674
15. Lance Stroll, Williams, + 2.066
16. Romain Grosjean, Haas, + 2.099
17. Sergey Sirotkin, Renault, + 2.611
18. Alfonso Celis, Force India, + 3.305
19. Pascal Wehrlein, Sauber, + 3.348
20. Marcus Ericsson, Sauber, + 4.878
Free Practice Two Timesheet
1. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1:05.483
2. Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, + 0.147
3. Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, + 0.216
4. Max Verstappen, Red Bull, + 0.349
5. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull, + 0.390
6. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, + 0.661
7. Kevin Magnussen, Haas, + 1.108
8. Fernando Alonso, McLaren, + 1.249
9. Nico Hulkenberg, Renault, + 1.252
10. Romain Grosjean, Haas, + 1.280
11. Esteban Ocon, Force India, + 1.336
12. Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren, + 1.376
13. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso, + 1.423
14. Felipe Massa, Williams, + 1.582
15. Carlos Sainz, Toro Rosso, + 1.617
16. Lance Stroll, Williams, + 1.985
17. Sergio Perez, Force India, + 2.026
18. Jolyon Palmer, Renault, + 2.140
19. Pascal Wehrlein, Sauber, + 3.299
20. Marcus Ericsson, Sauber, + 3.387
Feature Image Credit: Red Bull Racing Press Release