Five things we learnt from Austrian GP qualifying
The Red Bull Ring continues to surprise, F1 gets itself into a real mess with engine penalties, and the Hulk is just incredible
By Pete Gill and Mike Wise
Last Updated: 21/06/15 11:09am
The Red Bull Ring is deceptively difficult
Appearances can be deceptive. At first glance, the Red Bull Ring should be an absolute doddle for the elite of motorsport. It’s just 4.3km long. It only consists of nine corners. And approximately 80 per cent of the lap is spent at full throttle – and if there is one thing every driver should be able to do, it’s keeping their foot firmly planted to the floor. What could go wrong? Err, quite a lot actually.
For world champion Lewis Hamilton, errors at the Red Bull Ring are almost becoming routine. There were two in last year’s qualifying session, there was another in Friday practice this year; and, although it may not have been the result of driver error, his latest spin would probably have cost him pole position but for Nico Rosberg’s mirror-image mistake into the final corner. Simple? This place simply isn't as easy as it looks.
The fickle, abrasive track surface must be one explanation for why the Red Bull Ring is so deceptively difficult. “I haven’t seen a track with such low grip in wet conditions,” was the soundtrack of Lotus reserve Jolyon Palmer to the sight of car after car slithering off track in Practice Three.
Paradoxically, the Red Bull Ring’s difficulty might also be its simplicity. Precisely because the circuit is so short, and so much of the lap is spent flat out, finding a few extra tenths of speed is nigh-on impossible. Rosberg’s error in the final throes of qualifying was vivid illustration of how difficult it is to claw back time; the two-tenths he was hunting down to claw back pole position was just over the limit of what was achievable.
Engine rules need revisiting
So let’s get this straight. Both Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso are facing 25-place grid demotions even though the field only consists of 20 cars. They’ll make up the deficit, we think, by starting 19th and 20th respectively and then Fernando will take a drive-through while Jenson will suffer a stop-and-go because a stronger punishment is meted out on any driver who can’t take more than four places of his levied penalty.
And then there’s the details of why precisely the punishments have been levied, an explanation so laden with F1 gobbledygook that only a small coterie of paddock nerds could possibly hope to understand it. Blame it on the ICE. Or the MGU-H. No, sorry, the MGU-K. Little wonder that The Daily Telegraph’s Daniel Johnson worried for his mental wellbeing as he sought to provide a little clarity on the matter.
A rule designed to deter teams from introducing an extra engine as a strategic boost – consider it akin to doping – has instead become impossibly confused and confusing, not to mention excessively penal by imposing a grid penalty and then inflicting more hurt on race day. Hence Button and Alonso aren’t merely being demoted, they are having what little remains of their races wrecked as well.
The mitigation for the botched legislation is that it has only backfired because of levels of unreliability from Renault and Honda that shame both companies. For Mercedes and Ferrari, neither of whom are on course to exceed their permitted engine allowances in 2015, the rule makes complete sense. But for a sport which is esoteric at the best of times and positively bewildering at the worst, a rule which has verged close to unfathomable has become more damaging to F1 than the offence it is trying to outlaw.
The Hulk is on cloud nine after big win
Is Nico Hulkenberg on cloud nine? That’s maybe stretching it a bit, although looking at the precipitation hanging in the Styrian Mountains on Saturday there’s something right about the phrase. Whatever, there’s no doubt that something clicked for the German in qualifying.
After all, he starts fifth on the grid – nosebleed-inducing heights for what’s essentially a 2014 Force India that’s appeared borderline useless on occasion; for example in Spain, where Hulkenberg lined up 17th. Okay, it’s a weekend on which the team had hoped to perform well, thanks to the track characteristics favourable to Mercedes power, a low drag configuration and all that jazz. But scoring such a strong qualifying result just one weekend after earning the biggest win of his life – in the Le Mans 24-hour race no less – does make one wonder about the human element. About confidence rather than traffic and gaining the right track position. Because when it flows, all the worries and niggles can disappear; it can feel effortless. Fingers crossed he can convert on Sunday.
It’s also been great to see Hulkenberg’s contemporaries – some of whom are dripping with world titles – express their admiration (and even a little bit of jealousy) this week. But such sentiments are easy to express and can fade fast; an endorsement from a top team would mean a whole lot more; although one wonders, sadly, whether he’ll ever get the call. Max Verstappen lines up two places behind Hulkenberg but has a decade on him. Not yet 28 years old, is he still able to smash through F1’s glass ceiling? He clearly deserves to.
Ricciardo outqualified again – but it’s the least of concerns
The notion that Daniel Ricciardo might feel upset, bitter or express any kind of emotion rest of us fall prey to when it – whatever ‘it’ might be – starts going pear-shaped seems alien. The Aussie has built up a huge reservoir a goodwill since his arrival in F1 a few years ago, and if there was an award for the nicest person in the sport then he’d surely be a firm favourite.
Which, it pains us to admit, does make his current travails quite intriguing. Ricciardo, the conqueror of Sebastian Vettel last season, has now been outqualified by Daniil Kvyat three times this. Of course, he was still ahead at the other five races but Saturday’s reversal was the second in as many races. Even by his beaming standards, Ricciardo was off-key in Montreal and the feeling persists so far this weekend. Might we see a frown before too long? Or hear a whinge even? Heaven forbid.
Then again, maybe it’s best not to place too much emphasis on qualifying given the grid penalties Red Bull have incurred this weekend; the fact that expectations are necessarily low and they’ve been concentrating on the race all along anyway. And then there’s the general vexation that surrounds the former world champions, with boss man Dietrich Mateschitz grappling with the question of where it’s all gone wrong – in the predictable manner of a multi-billionaire who suddenly isn’t having it his own way – at the race he bankrolls.
So while Ricciardo’s smile might appear a little wan right now, a minor qualy downturn does, amid the general discontent, seem the least of concerns.
Merhi is finding his mojo
Roberto Merhi made a stuttering start to his F1 career, although his cause was hardly helped by the stuttering resurrection of Manor Marussia. Travelling to Melbourne but not so much as turning a wheel, the Spaniard indulged in spins a aplenty by the time he debuted in Malaysia; handed the drive on a race-by-race basis, and dovetailing his appearances with those in Formula Renault 3.5, it seemed as though he wouldn’t be sticking around for too long.
Yet it appears that Merhi is finding his mojo: having beaten team-mate Will Stevens (his only competition out there, let’s face it) for the first time in Monaco, he’s since outqualified him in both Canada and now in Austria. Merhi obviously hopes he can see out the season; more of the same and it could happen. Having said that, though, on-track performance won’t be the only criteria.
Don’t miss Sky Sports F1’s exclusively live coverage of the 2015 Austrian GP. The race begins at 1pm on Sunday, with build-up underway from 11.30am. No Sky Sports? No problem! Watch the Austrian GP for £6.99 with NOW TV