Red Bull have had a sobering weekend on their home track, arguably their worst weekend in terms of pace over the whole year and a spat between drivers during qualifying into the bargain.
The spat first. Daniel Ricciardo, who has generally been a tad slower than team-mate Max Verstappen all weekend, did not take kindly to being asked to run in front of his team-mate throughout final qualifying.
Red Bull take it in turns race to race for one driver to run in front, which gives the driver behind an advantage because he gets a slipstream to boost his straight-line speed.
Verstappen had done it in France last weekend, he pointed out; this week it was Ricciardo’s turn. “Discipline,” the Dutchman said, and refused an ad hoc request from his engineer to move over.
The team backed up Verstappen’s version of events.
What made Austria different was that normally drivers do two runs in qualifying; this weekend the shortness of the track means they can fit in three. Ricciardo’s view was that, fine, it was his turn, but couldn’t he have at least one of the laps in front, especially as a tow was worth about 0.2secs, which was about the difference between the two drivers?
By the time of his news conference with the written media, Ricciardo had cooled off, admitting he should have talked it through more effectively with the team first, rather than assuming they understood he would feel aggrieved.
The widespread feeling in F1 is that Red Bull’s management are more behind Verstappen than they are Ricciardo. They would dispute it, but the impression is there nonetheless. And the fact Verstappen was given a lucrative new contract last season when the team believed Mercedes were after him, to make him the third best paid driver in F1, only enhances it.
Many assumed this might have been the root of Ricciardo’s grievance. He is in the middle of contract negotiations with the team, after all. But he insisted after qualifying that the idea of the team favouring Verstappen was “in my head not a concern”.
As for their performance, Red Bull as usual were keen to claim that the entire deficit to the front was down to the Renault engine. But some were sceptical about that.
The gap between Verstappen in fifth and Bottas on pole was 0.71secs. Using the calculation engineers have for a ballpark conversion of the effect of power on lap time, that equates to nearly 45bhp.
That’s about what Red Bull think the power deficit is between their Renault and the Mercedes in qualifying. But others disagree and think it is more like 30bhp.
Are Red Bull in denial in a similar – but nowhere near as extreme – a fashion as McLaren were before they switched from Honda last year to Renault this?
Red Bull will say no. But you can bet there are some people at Mercedes who think the answer to that question is yes.
“We haven’t been that quick,” Ricciardo said. “We are losing out more down the straights than we thought and not gaining that much in the corners. I don’t really know why. We just haven’t got a fast package on this track.”
Are Mercedes edging clear?
The 2018 Formula 1 season has been very tight so far, arguably the closest fight at the front for six years, but the momentum suddenly looks to be very much with Mercedes.
Over the opening races of the season, the advantage swung back and forth between the world champions and Ferrari, and results were being decided on the tiniest twists of fate.
But in the last two grands prix, in France and now Austria, Mercedes seem to have edged ahead.
Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas locked out the front row at Paul Ricard last weekend for the first time this season, and they have done it again at the Red Bull Ring in Austria’s lovely Styrian mountains, albeit the other way around.
More than that, though, was the margin between them and their pursuers. Bottas, just 0.019 seconds clear of Hamilton, was 0.334secs ahead of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel – a huge advantage around the shortest timed lap of the season, which features only seven corners.
Add an upgraded engine introduced in France to a major aerodynamic revision taken to Austria, and Mercedes appear, for now, to have taken a decisive step.
Afterwards, Vettel admitted: “They were a little bit out of range. It seems that in quali at least we are a little bit behind right now.”
And now, for Sunday’s race, the pressure is really on the Ferrari driver, especially after he was dropped from his third place on the grid to sixth after being found guilty of impeding Renault’s Carlos Sainz.
Vettel is already 14 points adrift of Hamilton. The Ferrari driver should be able to get on to the podium from sixth, assuming a little help from team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, but even then he is likely to drop a chunk of points to Hamilton – and quite a big chunk if Hamilton can find a way past Bottas and win.
If Hamilton is going to win, he will have to do it on his own. Mercedes F1 team boss Toto Wolff said there would be no tactics to boost Hamilton’s title bid at the expense of Bottas at this stage of the season.
“We have discussed that internally already,” Wolff said. “It is race nine and there is a long way to go and I think we owe it to the fans and it is the racing mindset we have that we won’t be playing for a drivers’ championship in June. Obviously towards the end of the season you need to look at the situation, but not now.”
And next comes Silverstone, where Mercedes’ advantage in fast, sweeping corners is likely to put them even further out of reach.
If Hamilton wins at home, as he so often does, he could be nearly a win clear by the end of next weekend.
At the same time, Vettel cannot afford another mistake such as he made at the start in France, colliding with Bottas and consigning both to a fight through the field from the back.
“We need to make sure we are a bit stronger in the race,” Vettel said before his penalty, apparently sensing the growing concern.
“I believe the car is stronger in relative pace for the race, so it should be a close fight. We’re starting again on different tyre compounds, so let’s see what we can do.”
Bottas back on top
Bottas was stunning in qualifying in taking his first pole position since last season’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, when he was riding a wave given momentum by a dip in form by Hamilton after the Briton had clinched his fourth world title.
Bottas has driven strongly all season and, as BBC F1 analyst Jolyon Palmer pointed out in his column this week, could be much closer to the title fight between Hamilton and Vettel had he not been hit by some bad luck.
His pole on Saturday was a peach – a spectacular first lap, while both Hamilton and Vettel made mistakes, the world champion at what is officially called Turn Three but is actually the second corner, and the German at Turn Four (really the third).
That put Hamilton on the back foot for his final run, as a driver who messes up his first run cannot afford to throw caution the wind on his second. Hamilton’s second run was also superb, but not enough, as Bottas eked out a little more as well.
“If I had done that lap on the first lap,” Hamilton said. “I would have had a chance to shoot for pole but once you don’t have the banker lap in, you are screwed for the second one.
“He did the job and I will have to try to do what I can tomorrow. It is going to be hard to beat him but I will give it everything I can.”
Bottas is overdue a win this year – he should have them in both China and Azerbaijan, and would have had it not been for a safety car in Shanghai and a puncture in Baku.
His performances are almost certainly good enough to earn him a new contract at Mercedes for 2019 and beyond – although this has not yet been confirmed. And as for the win in Austria, he is not taking anything for granted.
“For sure it is a good feeling,” he said. “But we start from zero tomorrow.”
Haas quicker than ever; grumbles familiar
Romain Grosjean has had a torrid season, and while he still has every possibility to mess things up again on Sunday in Austria, so far he is having his best weekend of the season.
The inconsistent Frenchman – very fast at his best; very wild at his worst – has split the Red Bulls on the grid and will start fifth.
Haas have been impressing their rivals with their pace all season, yet somehow Grosjean has managed to score no points.
Largely this has been down to his own errors – crashing behind the safety car in Baku; an unthinking decision to spin deliberately across the pack on the first lap in Spain; a crash in qualifying in France and then a series of incidents on the first lap. But the team has also had its share of problems, too.
When it all comes together, though, the car is very quick. And this result will only further anger those rivals who believe that Haas’ relationship with Ferrari is closer than it should be.
Haas are the smallest team on the grid and have a different business model than all other customer teams. They buy all the parts they can from Ferrari – which means all but the chassis and aerodynamic surfaces – but some feel the grey car resembles the red one too closely.
As Hamilton said after qualifying: “I don’t know where their pace came from but we do know it is basically a Ferrari so it is no surprise they have eventually got it together.”
Haas reject this accusation and governing body the FIA has given the team the all-clear. The grumbling, though, will not go away.