18 June 2015
The hills are alive…with the sound of horsepower!
The 2014 Austrian Grand Prix is exceptional in 2014-15 because it remains the only time that Mercedes have been beaten to pole position. Last year, Williams succeeded in locking out the front row, but were unable to convert pole into a win. Can the Grove outfit beat Mercedes to pole for a second year in a row at the Red Bull Ring?
Williams has carried over the low-drag chassis from its 2014 car to this year’s charger. However, the FW37 has been lacking in slow-speed corner performance so far in 2015, as evidenced by Williams’ poor showing in Monaco. Bottas and Massa have also struggled with rear tyre degradation. Ferrari, buoyed by its much-improved powertrain in 2015 took advantage from Round 1 and challenged Williams for ‘best of the rest’ behind Mercedes. However, in Canada, Williams showed that on high-speed tracks it is still a force to be reckoned with as Massa set the quickest maximum speeds in Sectors 1 and 2 of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve while Bottas set the second quickest maximum speed in the final sector. Williams clearly benefited from Mercedes’ upgraded powertrain, as did all the Mercedes runners. And for Austria, Williams will also bring an upgraded FW37. However, I doubt that this will be enough to achieve pole in 2015. On Saturdays, Mercedes has always unleashed a very quick car and this weekend will surely be no exception. I expect Williams (and Ferrari) to push Mercedes hard, but not out-qualify the Silver Arrows.
The Red Bull Ring is a high-speed circuit punctuated mostly by slow corners with the exception of Turns 5, 6 and 8, which are taken at 110mph, 110mph and 120mph respectively. Traction, in order to accelerate off slow corners, such as Turns 1, 2 and 9, and horsepower to blast down the straights (start/finish straight and the straight between Turns 2 and 3) are the essential components for success in Spielberg. A reliable turbocharger is also particularly important given that the turbo must spin faster to make up for the lower air pressure at the Red Bull Ring because Spielberg sits at almost 700m above sea level. Moreover, an efficient ERS-K is needed because recovering energy under braking is more challenging than usual due to the relative lack of corners (nine in total) and by extension, braking events. In short, expect the Mercedes-powered teams to own this year’s Austrian Grand Prix. Ferrari will no doubt join the party at the front for a podium position. However, the Canadian Grand Prix indicated that the Scuderia’s powertrain upgrade has not moved them much closer to Mercedes, in spite of Vettel’s competitive lap times in the second half of that race. If Mercedes and Williams enjoy an advantage on horsepower over Ferrari, the low abrasive nature of the track surface at the Red Bull Ring will also benefit Mercedes and Williams who have tended to be harder on tyre degradation than the Scuderia so far in 2015.
A further boon for Mercedes and Williams is the projected weather conditions. Rain is forecast for Friday and Saturday with temperatures in the low 20s for the race and the possibility of showers. Cooler weather means a reduced cooling requirement and the need for less stringent thermal tyre management, again benefiting Mercedes and Williams (because they can access more of their car’s potential in cooler conditions). And according to Pirelli, lower track temperatures will push the teams towards a one-stop strategy (Rosberg won in 2014 on a two-stop strategy). This strategy will pay dividends for Ferrari if either Kimi Raikkonen or Sebastian Vettel can make it work. However, if the Mercedes and Williams drivers can also make a one-stop strategy work, it will nullify Ferrari’s advantage on tyre degradation.
On balance, I doubt that Ferrari will challenge the Mercedes pair for the win, but depending on the effectiveness of Williams’ upgrade, a podium finish is likely to be a realistic target for Vettel and Raikkonen. If one or both Ferraris do find themselves with track position over Williams (or Mercedes for that matter), their straight-line speed (Vettel was second-fastest through the speed trap in Canada) and good traction off slow corners will make them a tough target to overtake. Despite good overtaking opportunities up the hill into Turn 1 (which is DRS-assisted) on the inside for Turn 2 and into Turn 3 (also DRS-assisted), Lewis Hamilton showed just how difficult it was to pass Rosberg in the closing laps of last season’s race. And the difficulty of overtaking is likely to be magnified in this year’s race due to the greater downforce created by more efficient airflows underneath the 2015 cars as a result of the lowering and shortening of car’s noses. That said, any driver powered by a Renault or Honda motor will be a sitting duck once again. Expect another hard race for McLaren and Red Bull.
Victory is most likely to be disputed by the Mercedes drivers. In fact, such has been Hamilton’s supremacy in 2015, I think it will be more of a case of Rosberg doing what he can to deny Hamilton winning again. Hamilton said recently that he believes the W06 Hybrid enables him to perform at a higher level than last year. He’s certainly got more out of his car than Rosberg has this year. This has been most evident in qualifying where the score is 6-1 in the Briton’s favour. However, if his team-mate can capture pole and/or track position early in the Grand Prix that will surely lengthen the odds of a Hamilton victory. If the rain falls during qualifying or the safety car makes an appearance in the race (according to Williams there is an 83% of a safety car) Rosberg might get an opportunity to jump ahead of his team-mate.
But, under ‘normal’ race conditions, I expect another pole and win for Hamilton.