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What the Red Bull Ring sprint race and qualifying tells us about the 2024 F1 Austrian GP


Those hoping that Max Verstappen‘s challengers would use the three-hour tinkering time between the Austria sprint race and grand prix qualifying to close the gap might feel, to put it lightly, a little downbeat.

A frisson of excitement permeated the Red Bull Ring on Saturday as the field was compressed within 0.798 seconds after Q1, intimating that the battle for pole might be a closely run affair, especially if the teams with an outside shot could find any smoking guns worth a couple of tenths over the short, 10-turn lap.

Instead, the opposite was true. Verstappen and Red Bull spent their time after lunch deciding how to hone up their already razor-sharp RB20, and tightened everything up to squeeze even more out of it over a lap. Case in point: Verstappen’s pair of Q2 laps would have already been good enough for pole had he set them in the final stage, where he found two more that were even quicker.

On lap time alone, the top five on the grid would have been thus: Verstappen, Verstappen, Verstappen, Verstappen, and Norris. Amusingly enough, Verstappen’s time for pole in sprint qualifying on Friday also would have been good enough to start at the front of the grid.

Looking ahead to the grand prix, we’ve got a glut of data to comb through with the earlier sprint and the progression into qualifying. It might be obvious which way the wind is blowing but, seeing as you’ve clicked on this, you might as well go the distance…

Verstappen looks set for glory with 0.4s gap in qualifying

Verstappen set the four fastest times across qualifying and may be tough to catch

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

“Of course, I would like to win by 20 seconds, 30 seconds,” Verstappen said in the press conference after the Austria sprint. “Naturally, you still do the best you can. You’re still optimising your performance. But now that it’s a lot closer, then it requires you to be really on top form.”

Those aspirations of reprising his previously usual plunderings from the front of the grid have been upgraded to ‘quite likely’ given Verstappen’s hefty advantage in qualifying. Extrapolating his 0.4s advantage over Norris across the 71 laps around the Spielberg venue, that equates to 28.4 seconds in hand at the end – which probably fits within the Dutchman’s bracket of an acceptable winning margin.

It’s worth looking at where Verstappen found more than three tenths on his qualifying lap from the sprint; normally, one would consider track evolution but, for comparison, Norris only found 0.06s between qualifying sessions.

Versus Norris’ Q3 time, Verstappen had much more confidence in the rear end of his car and this ensured that he carried about 10kph more through Turn 9 than the McLaren driver

What Red Bull appeared to do was sacrifice a tiny fraction of outright top-end speed for greater traction out of the corners; this ensured that although the car was very slightly slower in the actual mid-corner, the car got up to speed on the straights much more easily. This is a strength that the McLaren showed in sprint qualifying on Friday and something that Red Bull has appeared to dial in, but without sacrificing performance in the longer-radius corners.

Verstappen thus collected more time on the straights through the stronger corner exit phases, and experimenting with the throttle in the second and third sectors allowed for the delta over his SQ3 best to grow.

“It was a bit more connected front to rear, and that worked out well,” Verstappen said of his set-up changes. “I think we made the right changes. And then you can see that it’s little things that sometimes can actually make quite a bit of a difference in lap time.”

The only downside was losing perhaps half a tenth either side of Turn 4 versus his sprint pole time, having perhaps killed the speed a little too much through dropping the revs a fraction more. But it was time easily recovered in the next phase of the lap, which contributed to his dominant qualifying display.

Versus Norris’ Q3 time, Verstappen had much more confidence in the rear end of his car and this ensured that he carried about 10kph more through Turn 9 than the McLaren driver.

Verstappen repasses Norris, as Piastri gets set to pounce

Verstappen repasses Norris, as Piastri gets set to pounce

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

Pirelli has brought the same tyre compounds as last season, its C3, C4, and C5 compounds, so expect a similar series of two-stop strategies. Verstappen stopped a third time at the end to shake a fastest lap out of a used soft set, such was his margin at the front, and assuming a 0.4-second-per-lap advantage over Norris does suggest that this could very well happen again.

All that, and Verstappen has also saved an extra set of hard tyres for Sunday to give himself a bit more strategic latitude. Draw from that what you will.

Russell reckons he can lead the fight for third

Last year’s hotly contested ‘best-of-the-rest’ battle between Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren, and Aston Martin appears to have fractured; McLaren is nipping at Red Bull’s heels (or, in this weekend’s case, barking at the postman from the living room while the postman continues to deliver his mail), Aston Martin has collapsed into midfield obscurity, to leave Ferrari and Mercedes battling for mid-top-10 placings.

This weekend, there might be a podium on offer. Oscar Piastri had his best lap from Q3 – good enough for third – deleted, which handed George Russell a late call-up to the press conference room post-session.

Had Piastri’s lap been reinstated as a result of McLaren’s protest, then the top three might be a locked door to either Ferrari or Mercedes unless force majeure befell any of the front-running trio. But as the Australian’s time remained in the bin, following the decision of the stewards to render the protest inadmissible, it’s up to the Ferraris and Mercedes drivers to contain him throughout the race to make a well-aimed stab at finishing on the podium’s shortest step.

Russell believes that Mercedes should have the edge on Ferrari over the course of the race, as the Italian squad has perhaps regressed a little of late relative to the Silver Arrows. Across the sprint race, Russell generally had the edge on Sainz after the early laps, and reversed the Ferrari driver’s successful lap one attack at Turn 4 six laps later.

Hamilton had the legs on Leclerc as well, although the Monegasque made an electric start to shrug off his 10th-by-default grid position following a lap-less SQ3. Although temperatures are expected to be slightly lower, tyre preservation will be key, particularly if the trio of DRS zones lead to trains forming in the upper mid-pack.

Mercedes had the legs on Ferrari in the sprint, and Russell is optimistic that Piastri's woes could leave open a path to the podium

Mercedes had the legs on Ferrari in the sprint, and Russell is optimistic that Piastri’s woes could leave open a path to the podium

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Downforce losses following other cars will start to exacerbate the effect of sliding as the tyres lose peak performance. Ensuring Piastri bears the brunt of that will help Mercedes’ cause in its hope of clinching a third successive podium finish.

“I’m confident Lewis and I can probably beat the Ferraris tomorrow, and hopefully hold up Oscar’s progress,” Russell reckoned. “But it’s a long race, high degradation, anything can happen.

“Last week I lost a lot of time battling with Lando and probably focused too much on the guys ahead of me. And ultimately that cost me the position to Lewis and almost with Charles as well. I think the race is behind us tomorrow.”

How will the rest get on?

Assuming no retirements among the front-runners, this leaves the bottom three positions in the top 10 up for grabs. Sergio Perez likely has one locked down, although it’s telling that Russell did not really include the Red Bull driver in his estimations. Perhaps the Mexican will enjoy a stronger race and battle through the order, but the sprint race provided few indications of that; he finished nearly four seconds down on Leclerc.

Magnussen’s pace, before the Aston Martin posed a roadblock to the Alpines, was stronger than both Ocon and Gasly in any case, so Hulkenberg might be able to build a break over his fellow points-fanciers

Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Ocon start from the fifth row, but Pierre Gasly and the RB duo will attempt to challenge for a point or two. Alpine’s run of form suggests that it might be the favourite to continue its form from Montreal and Barcelona and account for ninth and 10th, but neither were able to make a break past Lance Stroll despite closing down the Aston Martin driver in the sprint.

Tyre degradation can account for that, and strategic offsets permitted in the full grand prix should be able to yield track position, but the pair – Gasly in particular – might struggle to break down the RB of Ricciardo on-track.

Hulkenberg should be buoyed by Kevin Magnussen’s efforts in the sprint. Although the Dane couldn’t make inroads towards Perez in the 23-lap race, he capitalised on Stroll holding up the cars behind to put together his own ‘race’ in ninth.

Magnussen’s pace, before the Aston Martin posed a roadblock to the Alpines, was stronger than both Ocon and Gasly in any case, so Hulkenberg might be able to build a break over his fellow points-fanciers. It all depends on whether the Haas driver can get the degradation under control.

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