Although Austria was once a staple on the F1 calendar, returning to the rechristened Red Bull Ring after eleven years' absence will be like trying out a new track for much of the current field.
With only four drivers having raced an F1 car on the circuit before, and data collected in 2003 more or less useless to the new breed of car, Friday's practice sessions will take on even greater importance as teams and drivers alike get to grips with the Styrian venue.
The layout remains fundamentally the same as it was when F1 last visited what was then the A1-Ring and, given the length of the straights, top speed will be crucial once again, just as they were in Canada last time out. Montreal looked set to be a good race for Williams, with Felipe Massa – one of the quartet with prior Austrian race experience – on course for a possible podium before tangling with Sergio Perez on the penultimate lap. The Brazilian will be out to make amends this weekend, but accepts that any advantage his history may hold will be quickly erased.
“There are very few guys who have driven the circuit, which is a little advantage, but the track and limit may have changed and the cars have changed, so it won't be the same as eleven years ago,” he explained, “It's not a difficult track to learn and we have the best drivers in the world in F1 so they will be able to get up to speed very quickly. We can be competitive here but, at the moment, it's hard to tell where we will be compared to our competition.”
Team-mate Valtteri Bottas does not have the same background as Massa, but underlines the Brazilian's claim when he says that it won't take him long to get on top of the new venue.
“I've spent a lot of time in the simulator to prepare of Austria and I have also spoken with Felipe, as he is one of the four drivers who have raced this track in F1,” Bottas noted, “Learning a new track has never been a problem for me and I have the practice sessions to get to grips with things. I have heard only good things about the track and the fans, so I am really looking forward to getting there. It's a little unknown how competitive we will be as there will be some upgrades, but we will as always give it our best.”
Having seen his team establish itself as a contender for points at each stop on the schedule, head of vehicle performance Rob Smedley is confident that Williams will be in the mix again this weekend.
“Austria represents a new challenge for us and, therefore, a lot of new opportunity to do well,” he reasoned, “F1 hasn't been there for eleven years, so it's exciting to go back. All the teams will have done extensive work on the simulator to learn the typology of the circuit and the demands it poses on tyres and the car, so we are all prepared for an exciting weekend ahead.”
Tyres and brakes are the primary pre-race concerns for Smedley, while planning for the 71-lap encounter will also take a little more head-scratching given the relatively short nature of the circuit.
“The layout of the track can pose issues on the tyres, especially as the temperatures can vary to quite hot or very cold, and this can also change quickly,” he pointed out, “A hot track would affect the rear tyres as there is a large traction requirement but, in the colder conditions, we may suffer with front right graining at turns five and six. There may also be brake overheating problems as it is a high duty track, which is something we will need to look out for.
“The track is short and there are 71 laps which will affect the race strategy so we will have to be more dynamic in this area.”
Williams' misfortune in Canada proved to be McLaren's gain and the Woking squad currently holds an eight-point lead over its Grove-based rival in the battle for a top five spot in the constructors' table. Bottas continues to head the luckless Massa in the drivers' standings, having only missed the points once due to his engine-related DNF in Monaco.