Questions for the 2014 Austrian Grand Prix
Where next for the 2014 championship fight? Will the weekend conclude with a new title fave? Will there be any home advantage for Red Bull? And how low could Sauber fall?
By Pete Gill, Jamie Casey and William Esler. Last Updated: 18/06/14 8:12am
Can Lewis Hamilton get his title push back on track?
But first things first: will Lewis go the right way round the track? 18 of 22's leading men are driving into the unknown this weekend, with only Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa, Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button previously tackling the rebadged Red Bull Ring in an F1 car. Hamilton's lack of familiarity with the 4.326 km circuit is such that he admitted earlier this month "I don't know which way Turn One goes if I am honest."
A few extra hours' work in the simulator ought to set him right - or left, of course - long before the sport returns to a circuit it last graced a decade ago. Expect a busier than usual Friday practice as the drivers fast-track the urgent process of acclimatisation.
But where next for the title race? A month ago, following four consecutive wins for Hamilton, the plot-line appeared entirely straightforward with all signs pointing towards the Englishman's second World Championship. Two races later, the storyline has been dramatically rewritten and it is Nico Rosberg who not only sits at the summit but also boasts a 22-point lead. Given that the winner of the final season's race will earn 50 points, Hamilton has no cause to fret yet. But any sangfroid will quickly ebb towards anxiety if Rosberg completes a hat-trick of victories in 2014 this weekend. Particularly in a two-horse race when it is either with you or against you, momentum is a powerful force.
If Hamilton wins a second title this year, it's eminently conceivable that he could go on to win three or four before he hangs up his gloves. Yet it's equally conceivable that if he doesn't win a second World Championship in the peerless W05 then he will retire from the sport as a one-time title winner. For most, that would be a sufficient haul. But for the fastest driver of his generation, a single title would amount to a wasteful shortfall - and Hamilton knows it.
"Time is slipping away," he told a newspaper magazine last June. "It's been five years since I won the World Championship. When I was in the lower categories I would win a championship every year or every other year.
"There are a lot of drivers that haven't won a World Championship, so I feel at least grateful that I have one, although one is less prestigious now because so many people have won a championship. Now the people who have two or three or four: [that's what] makes you special."
With Austria the first of four races in six weeks before the summer break, the 2014 campaign is now entering a potentially pivotal period. Less obtrusively, the next months are also set to prove definitive for determining the retrospective reputation of F1's most divisive protagonist. He's not just fighting for the title, but his legacy. Pete Gill.
Will we have a new favourite after this weekend?
With Nico Rosberg opening up a 22-point lead over Lewis Hamilton following events in Canada, Sky Bet's drivers' title odds are now as close as they've been since betting commenced on the 2014 season.
Hamilton remains the favourite - but only just at 5/6. Rosberg, who was 22/1 last November when Sky Bet first opened the book, is now even-money (1/1) after his price was almost halved from 15/8 following his second-place finish in Montreal.
Incidentally, Daniel Ricciardo began the race in Canada as a 50/1 outsider to win having qualified sixth on the grid, with over 100 Sky Bet customers earning a return on those odds.
But had Rosberg held on to the lead in Canada, the German may well have secured enough points to leave the bookmakers no choice but to install him as the new favourite. As it is, favouritism could yet change hands should Rosberg come out on top of the Mercedes pair in Austria.
The odds are against him, though, with Hamilton the 8/13 favourite to win the race, while Rosberg is available to back at 7/4. Meanwhile, Red Bull can be backed to secure another unlikely win at 12/1, though Mercedes are expected to be back on form at 1/10 to produce the race winner. Jamie Casey.
Could reliability be an issue again in Austria?
Two weeks ago at the Canadian GP we saw the first real spate of unreliability problems for the new power units and the layout of the Red Bull Ring will put them under pressure once again.
Both Mercedes cars had brake problems after their MGU-K failed in Canada and the team describe the Austrian venue as "similar to the last race in Montreal - this is a high power sensitivity circuit with a low number of corners and multiple straights." With only three heavy braking zones at the track, the teams will need to run an aggressive harvesting set up which could cause issues come race day.
In addition to pressure placed on that part of the power unit, both the internal combustion engine and MGU-H will be worked hard with Renault estimating that half the lap will be spent at full throttle.
As if that wasn't tough enough for the engines, the circuit's location in the Mur Valley means it is significantly above sea level. "The high altitude will cause the turbo to spin at a much higher rate to compensate for the low ambient pressure - very close to the hardware limit," Renault Sport F1 Head of Track Operations Remi Taffin has warned.
These variables coupled with only four of the current drivers having previously driven the circuit during a grand prix could mean we are set for another unpredictable weekend of thrills and spills. William Esler.
Is there such a thing as home advantage in F1?
And if there isn't, does that make F1 unique amongst the planet's leading sports?
Then again, some would argue that home advantage in sport is itself a myth. As The Observer once put it, 'Few ideas in sport are more universally accepted - and less understood - than home advantage.' Boiled down to its essence, home advantage can be defined as the benefit one team enjoys over another because of its familiarity with conditions - which are sometimes favourable conditions as well - and the support of the crowd. But in F1, tarmac is always tarmac and, with testing closely rationed, Red Bull's ownership of the Red Bull Ring is strictly in name only. They know no more about the track than the Silverstone-based Force India do about the home of the British GP.
More potentially impactful on proceedings in F1 is home support. But if there is any sport in the world in which a supportive audience is unlikely to make any sort of tangible difference to the outcome then it is F1. For starters, F1 exists without a referee - the most obvious targets of 'home advantage' from baying fans. Moreover, its ear-plugged and helmeted protagonists are, in all reality, utterly oblivious to the sights and sounds of spectators during a race. There may be a small psychological boost to be gratefully received beforehand, but that's about it. And last but by no means least, F1 is a remarkably non-partisan sport. A F1 fan is first and foremost a fan of the sport itself with support for an individual team or driver a distant secondary instinct.
All of which begs another question to be asked: but for the name of the circuit, would anyone be making a fuss of Red Bull's home status?
In F1, there's every place just like home. Pete Gill.
Can Sauber halt the slide?
2014 has been a nightmare season for Sauber, slipping out of the midfield battle and joining Marussia and Caterham at the back of the pack. At every race this season they have had at least one car exit in Q1 and having failed to score a point in the opening seven races they find themselves behind Marussia in the Constructors' Championship. In fact, only their Australian GP results are keeping them off the bottom of the table and should a Caterham car finish 12th or higher before a Sauber during the remainder of the season they will find themselves propping up the standings.
Contrast this with the team that finished sixth overall in 2012 taking four podium finishes along the way and it is clear how dramatic Sauber's fall from grace has been.
The team's financial struggles have been well documented and talk of major investment from Russia coupled with outings for Sergey Sirotkin have mysteriously disappeared in recent months. Even during pre-season testing when Force India and Caterham took advantage of the relaxed rules to run young drivers, the Russian was not in the car.
Rumours persist the driver line-up could be completely revamped in 2015 with Giedo van der Garde and Simona de Silvestro handed the races seats - suggesting life within the team is far from settled and that uncertainty can have an impact on team performance.
Couple that with a reputed lack of funds to develop the C33 and Sauber's woes do not look like improving any time soon. William Esler.