It seems as if Formula One is returning to Europe with a swing in its step. Despite a fair amount of complaints, I really enjoyed Baku and the European Grand Prix, it was just the type of challenging circuit and location the sport needed in a championship which was in danger of becoming watered down by visiting circuits like the monstrosity that is Sochi and the spectacular, yet bland Abu Dhabi. As the Brazilian GP becomes the latest event to fall under the spotlight it’s vital that F1 continues to visit circuits which excite both fans and drivers, and the upcoming run of races, Austria, Great Britain, Hungary, Germany, Belgium and Italy are all definite classics. I can see the Baku City Circuit being added to that list if it sticks around for a few more years. Yes, it lacks the heritage of the aforementioned venues but it’s location and technical challenges were spectacular and I hope it stays on the calendar for many years to come. As we head into what is often my favourite part of the F1 season, I’ve looked ahead at four of the biggest talking points before this weekend’s Austrian GP.
All to play for at the front
The changes in momentum, and the sheer speed at which the outlook of the championship can change are among the many reasons why I love motorsport and despite Rosberg winning the European GP at a canter the feel of the 2016 F1 season has changed dramatically since he took his fourth victory of the season back in Russia. Hamilton sits just 24 points behind Rosberg yet we’re not even halfway through the season, and despite the relationship between the two drivers seemingly improving, and Rosberg’s speculated new two year deal I fully expect Hamilton to win his fourth title come the end of the season. In terms of raw pace, both over a single lap and race distance I still think Hamilton has the edge, and as long as he performs at the top of his game for the remainder of the year I wouldn’t be surprised to see him with his fourth championship.
That being said, Rosberg has traditionally been the stronger of the two in Austria, and if we were seeing Rosberg on top of the podium on Sunday afternoon it wouldn’t be a shock. Rosberg has won the last two races in Austria and seems to have the edge on Hamilton at the Red Bull Ring. We’re yet to see a real duel over the course of the weekend between the two Mercedes drivers so far this season, but if both Hamilton and Rosberg can keep it on the track during qualifying then the stage could be set for a fantastic showdown on Sunday.
It seems Ferrari have finally got their act together, and both Vettel and Raikkonen have put in an improved shift since the season returned to Europe proper at the Spanish GP. You could argue that poor strategy calls have cost Ferrari race wins in three races so far this season, Australia, Spain and Canada and it certainly seems like Vettel’s call to stay out for a longer first stint in Baku payed dividends. However, with Ferrari seemingly cementing their status as F1’s 2nd fastest team once again, I feel the battle for best of the rest between Williams, Red Bull and Force India could be a lot closer this weekend.
Williams have been strong at the last two Austrian GP’s, even scoring a front row lockout in 2014 whilst conversely, Red Bull have struggled at what is their home track. Red Bull finished 10th and 12th last year in Austria whilst rivals for third place, Williams, saw Bottas take a podium. With Force India now well and truly in the mix I think we’ll see a fantastic battle between the three teams and with Renault’s new engine upgrade Red Bull should certainly be a lot closer to Bottas and Massa. Predicting who will finish the best of Ricciardo, Verstappen, Bottas and Massa is too close to call until we see the times on Friday, but I suspect both will be a little short of Mercedes and Ferrari, with Force India an ever present threat just behind.
Driving for his future
Marchionne has publicly informed Kimi Raikkonen that he is now driving for his Ferrari future, and a future which currently seems extremely uncertain. I’ve been a huge Raikkonen fan since his Formula Renault UK days when I went to watch the series supporting the BTCC, but over the last three seasons I have begun to question from a purely performance based perspective whether Raikkonen is doing enough to keep his seat at Ferrari. Of course, Ferrari have an extremely difficult balancing act to perform, and the perfect solution lies somewhere between keeping Sebastian Vettel happy and having two cars capable of wining races and at the moment I don’t think they have the latter.
Raikkonen’s deal runs out at the end of the season and despite some promising early season results the last three races in Monaco, Canada and Baku have seen Raikkonen fall some way short of the standard expected by Ferrari. With a multitude of talented drivers waiting in the wings I wonder if this will sadly be Raikkonen’s last season in F1, I fear unless he does something miraculous we may be seeing a different driver grace the corridors of Maranello this time next season.
Contracts and the start of silly season
Silly season in motorsport seems to have started very early this year, I’m sure some of you will be aware of Scott McLaughlin’s VASC switch to DJR Team Penske for 2017, and those rumours were circulating pretty much since April. With Sainz now confirmed at Toro Rosso, and Raikkonen’s future discussed above Jenson Button, Bottas and Massa are three other high profile drivers who could well be in different seats come next season. I fully expect Bottas to stay on at Williams. He’s proven over the last three or four seasons that he’s an extremely capable and reliable driver and although we’re yet to see that glimpse of star quality, you’d struggle to find many safer pairs of hands than the Finn.
Button and Massa are two slightly more interesting cases. I get the feeling that Ron Dennis is itching to get Stoffel Vandoorne in the second McLaren, and the 2015 GP2 champion really did prove his worth with a fine points scoring debut back in Bahrain, and with Button refusing to rebuke the interest of Claire Williams I think it’s becoming ever more likely that this will be Button’s final season with the Woking squad. As likable, experienced and as talented as Button is, Dennis has clearly been waiting to replace Button with Vandoorne for a while and this season he may finally get his wish.
If Button is on the market, I would honestly be a little surprised if Williams swapped him in for Massa. I don’t mean for any disrespect, but both drivers are approaching the end of their careers and I think if Williams were to drop Massa then they would be best served by bringing in some fresher talent, after all there’s plenty out there – I’m thinking of Alex Lynn. Replacing one of F1’s elder statesmen for another one of F1’s elder statesman seems like a pointless move to me, and although I rate Button highly, swapping him in for Massa would hardly be an upgrade. Massa so nearly won the title in 2008, and I’m not at all questioning Button’s talent or ability, but I’m 100% certain Massa would have also won the 2009 title had he been at Brawn. It’ll be a fascinating sub-plot to the 2016 season and although personally I think it wouldn’t be right, I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Button back at Williams to bring his F1 career full circle.