Lewis Hamilton made clear in the aftermath of the race that Mercedes had to do something to find performance after finding it “impossible” to challenge F1 title rival and championship leader Max Verstappen.
The tight turnaround between the back-to-back races at the Red Bull Ring left precious time for Mercedes to find the answers, while the rest of the grid is also looking for ways to make a step between the two race weekends.
Last year’s races in Austria proved a repeat affair is unlikely, with one of the main differences between the two events being the tyre selection offered by Pirelli.
Most teams opted for a comfortable one-stop in the Styrian Grand Prix last Sunday thanks to the tyre selection of C2/C3/C4 from Pirelli, right in the middle of the range. But this weekend will see things go a step softer to C3/C4/C5, meaning last weekend’s medium is now the hard tyre.
With tyre life set to be reduced as a result, it is likely to open up some more strategy options, making it an area of focus for Mercedes.
“As you saw, a one-stop was possible on the two hardest compounds, but that maybe more challenging as we go into the Austrian Grand Prix,” Mercedes motorsport strategy director James Vowles said in the team’s regular race debrief video.
“That will pose a challenge but also it will pose an opportunity. It means that the same conditions won’t be repeated as they were just one week prior to that. Different tyres already will make things more complicated and present opportunity.
“Our team is very strong at being honest with ourselves but also making sure that we have strong debriefs and each department goes away and comes back with every single millisecond they can find from what we could have done better the week before.
Used Pirelli tyres
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
“That’s why it’s fair to say that the Austrian Grand Prix may not necessarily produce the same results as they were just one week prior to that. There is enough difference, enough change that opportunity for us can present itself.”
But the change still does not resolve the core issues that led to Mercedes’ defeat in Styria. The team revealed after the race it had explored a “wacky” direction with its car set-up, and wants to understand whether that may have contributed to the inability to fight with Red Bull.
“It might make it more a nailed-on two-stop race,” Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin said of the step in tyres.
“But ultimately, we were lacking a bit of race pace, and we were a little bit worse on the degradation. So whether it’s one-stop on the harder compounds or two-stop on the softer compounds, the solution to those problems will be the same.
“We just need to make the car a bit quicker and a bit easier on the rear tyres. That would only change if the weather is dramatically different, but I’d expect those are the areas we need to focus on.”
Alpine’s Fernando Alonso accepted that it would be “a little bit unknown” what the tyre command shift would do for the race, especially with reduced practice running.
But he lamented the Q2 starting tyre rule, believing it would force the midfield teams to get into Q3 using the softs – C5 this weekend – and commit to a one-stop strategy that may not be favourable.
“I think it is going to be a challenge to do one-stop if you start with the C5, maybe it is more difficult,” Alonso said.
“I guess the fast cars they have the luxury to avoid that tyre and the midfield doesn’t have that luxury, so that is the bad thing about the rules. They tried to invent one rule that could benefit the show and they just benefitted the big teams.”
Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images
Ferrari is another team in the midfield fight that might feel uneasy about the tyre prospects going into this weekend. Carlos Sainz Jr and Charles Leclerc were quick in the race last Sunday, producing a decent double points return. But Sainz noted that the SF21 has tended to struggle more on the softer tyres this year, pointing towards a more difficult weekend.
“At the moment, the harder the tyres, the better for us, until we find the answers to what happened in Paul Ricard,” Sainz said after the race in Austria.
“But at least today, we didn’t have any woes on tyres, and we managed to execute the race like we wanted. We need to find a bit what happened in quali, because it’s weird that we’re stronger in the race than in quali. It’s normally not that way.”
But the driver with the most to lose is Verstappen. He was untouchable last Sunday in Austria, running 17 seconds clear of Hamilton before Mercedes made a late second stop to go for the fastest lap. To repeat that feat will take some doing.
“Of course, people will analyse everything now after the race, so for sure, I think next weekend it will be a bit closer naturally,” Verstappen said.
“You have a bit more understanding of what has been going on. We are using softer compounds, so that will be interesting to see how to manage that.
“And we have to wait and see with the weather as well what’s going to happen. Clearly we had a good car this weekend, and I hope that we will continue this form to next week.”