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2018 F1

Friday Practice Analysis: 2018 Austrian Grand Prix

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While the weekend at the picturesque Red Bull Ring circuit in Spielberg marks the second race weekend of the first triple header in Formula 1, Mercedes team drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valterri Bottas lead the top two slots in the time sheets for both sessions. The Austrian circuit represents the typical characteristics of an old school F1 track, with its undulation and long radius corners, making it one of the specialties on the calendar. It is a combination of driving skill, tyre management and efficient engineering that produce a great result here.

Hamilton lead both sessions with the fastest lap in FP1 clocked at 1 minute 04.839 seconds on the ultra-soft compound, while his fastest best in FP2 was 1 minute 04.579 seconds on the soft compound. In the sprint runs while Mercedes looked best, in FP1 Red Bull Racing driver took the third spot with a time of 1 minute 05.072 seconds, while in FP2 Sebastian Vettel took the third spot with a quick lap of 1 minute 0.815 seconds. With Ferrari, as one as observed through the season, they will tend to look better in FP3 and have the power advantage in qualifying, so they could be within a tenth or less, of the Mercedes by then.

Analysing the sprint pace which translates into the qualifying mode for Saturday, Mercedes lead but not by huge margin, while Ferrari are second fastest, and Red Bull Racing team have third fastest pace. In the mid-field team Haas drivers lead the mid-field pack with the fastest times, sealing the ‘best of the rest’ spot for the day.

However, given the nature of the Austrian circuit, it is the shortest lap of the year, which means it comes down to making the least errors in qualifying. A single error in qualifying can cost a few grid positions, while an error free run in qualifying can be extremely rewarding.

A key observation after both sessions was that the soft tyre might be a good tyre to qualify on with lower temperatures, because with the ultrasoft tyre, one could see Vettel and Hamilton lack grip in the first and last sector of the lap. Raikkonen and Bottas managed wicked sectors in the first sector, but they both probably had a good slipstream or were towed by another driver in front.

The first sector of the circuit is short and spans form Turn 1 to a part of the first straight, hill the second sector comprises of the two right hand corners Turn 2 and 3, along with the left hander Turn 4, while the third sector covers the remaining part of the track. Since it is the shortest lap in terms of time, it can have a few affects which is the field is not very condensed, but the qualifying times will be very close, and the error percentage needs to be really low.

Most of the track has right hand corners since it is clockwise, so looking after the outside tyres while approaching those few left handers (Turn 6 and Turn 7) is important. Since the left-handers are quick sections on this track, the outer tyres being less used, tend to be cold and low on temperature, and it is one of the points factored into by drivers and engineers.

This circuit offers some overtaking opportunities, with Turn 3 being one of the more popular ones. The characteristic of Turn 3 is such that it is a huge incline to the top of the hill, followed by a heavy braking zone. It is a right angle right hander that is one of the biggest overtaking opportunities on the track. Since the circuit is about braking and traction, managing the rear tyres becomes priority.

When it comes to the tyre allocations by Pirelli has the same compounds as France, which are the soft (yellow), supersoft (red) and ultrasoft (purple). However, in Barcelona and France, the tyres were low tread tyres and the asphalt was new, meanings those two tracks were resurfaced and special tyres of the same compound allocated. As mentioned in earlier race and practice analysis, this was done due to Mercedes’ complaint to Pirelli, using safety grounds as a basis, saying they feared they would blow their tyres or have high tyre degradation at these tracks. At this circuit, the tarmac has not been resurfaced in their favour and the tyres are the regular 2018 version, but the original track surface itself has low abrasion and is smooth.

Given the tyre and asphalt combination at this circuit and the layout, it will work in favour of Mercedes, bur Ferrari are not far too, and it will be a close fight between the two. In such a close fight, the team and driver that makes the least number of mistakes ends up being at the front of the grid, come Sunday. Due to a combination of big acceleration and braking zones, keeping the car stable while braking and maintaining low traction early at the corners, plays key to delivering quick lap times around the Red Bull Ring.

In terms of race pace, Mercedes and Ferrari look very closely but both teams tried different tyre strategies. While Bottas and Raikkonen did long runs on the supersoft and ultrasoft tyres, Vettel and Hamilton were on similar simulations using ultrasoft and the soft compounds. The Red Bull Racing team had Daniel Ricciardo do simulations on the supersoft and ultrasoft tyre while Verstappen did simulations on all three compounds.

The lap time average on the respective tyres was follows:

Driver Ultrasoft Supersoft Soft
Lewis Hamilton 1: 08.753 (3 laps) NA 1: 07.809 (5 laps)
Valtteri Bottas 1: 08.393 (7 laps) 1: 07.873 (2 laps) NA
Sebastian Vettel 1: 08.475 (7 laps) NA 1: 07.756 (5 laps)
Kimi Raikkonen 1: 08. 493 (3 laps) 1: 08.933 (6 laps) NA
Daniel Ricciardo 1: 09.499 (7 laps) 1: 08.523 (6 laps) NA
Max Verstappen 1: 09.132 (7 laps) 1: 09.277 (3 laps) 1: 08.367 (5 laps)

In the average lap times for the ultrasoft compound Bottas is quicker by a tenth when compared to Vettel, and the Red Bulls are in the 1 minute nine second bracket. With Hamilton and Raikkonen the calculation of the average is considering three laps, where the Ferrari of the latter is quicker than the Mercedes, however that average is a slightly unrepresentative of the bigger picture.

On the supersoft compounds, the Raikkonen’s Ferrari looks slower than Ricciardo, but these are the only two drivers who carried out a decent amount of simulation work on that compound. Bottas and Raikkonen are the only two drivers who have brought one set of the soft tyre, both have enough sets of supersoft. So, one can see a different strategy play out for the two Finns and one of either Red Bull Racing drivers.

On the soft compound, Vettel looks quicker by a tenth in comparison to Hamilton on the same compound with heavy fuel loads. However as mentioned above, on lighter fuel loads, Hamilton looks more at ease on the yellow tyre in qualifying simulations. Both the Briton and German have two sets of the soft tyre and there could be an identical tyre strategy panning out for those two both in qualifying and in the race. Since most teams will opt for a one stop strategy, the top six could attempt the Q2 of qualifying on the soft compound and start the race with it. If the drivers start the race on the soft compound and attempt a long first stint, while the second stint could be shorter on the ultrasoft compound.

Since this circuit is 700m above sea level, but not as high as the Mexico circuit, a similar principle concerning thinner air applies here. Thin air leads to production of lesser downforce, which means using bigger or higher wing levels to produce a more suitable level of downforce. Mercedes have brought a new aerodynamic upgrade package this weekend to improve the traction at the front end on the long radius corners. The same thin air principle applies to the combustion engine where the low air density can trouble power deployment, so lower power engines such as Honda and Renault have to work harder at this circuit.

In terms of engine upgrades, Renault is supposed to have a ‘party mode’ or a superior engine mode for qualifying and all Renault powered cars will also feature a new MGU-K unit which is supposed to be lighter and more reliable than the previous one. Tyres might give more problems here than expected, as teams will have to monitor rear tyre thermal degradation closely. If there is a lot wheel spin at traction-based corners, there is a tendency to overheat the rear tyres, which can further result in blistering and high degradation. This might help mix the grid up during the race and something teams will factor into the setup and driving style of the drivers.

In the second practice session the track temperature was only five degrees more than the air temperature, and one can expect similar conditions in the qualifying and race too. Overall it should be a close qualifying at least amidst the top six and a good race when it comes to overtaking and drama. The Spielberg circuit has a history to throw up the unexpected and always produces some great racing.

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