This weekend sees the 25th Austrian Grand Prix take place. Located deep in the Austrian countryside some 200 km away from the nearest major city Vienna, the A1 ring, as it is known, has never seen a Michael Schumacher victory.

The Ferrari No.1 driver is currently riding high on four wins already this year and Austria is the only circuit on the current F1 calendar that the German has not proved victorious.

So why is it that the current dominant force in Formula One has never scored a victory on the Austrian track? The Austrian GP was resurrected on the F1 calendar in 1997, having last been run in 1987. This means that Michael didn't get to race the circuit in his first two championship winning years with Benetton.

In its first year of running this time round, the Ferrari was still undergoing the period of development to attain its current dominance. That year Jacques Villeneuve won on the circuit. In his 100th GP Michael Schumacher only managed to score one point, and that sixth place was only gained by a late move on the penultimate lap, passing his old adversary Damon Hill, who was in an Arrows that year. Schumacher had earlier gained a stop-go penalty for overtaking under yellows.

1998 saw a McLaren silver wash at the Austrian GP. Mika Hakkinen won from team-mate David Coulthard. Michael Schumacher meanwhile made a mistake early on during his race and lost a nose cone as the consequence and found himself on the 18th lap at the back of the field. Despite this setback Schumacher managed a scintillating performance to fight his way back through the field and joined the McLaren drivers on the podium.

In 1999 Michael didn't compete at the race after his crash at Silverstone. The race saw the dominant McLaren boys take each other off and Eddie Irvine take a rare win. The following year Rubens Barrichello outqualified Schumacher. In the start however, the Ferrari duo managed to botch the 'letting Michael through act' and despite Schumacher Snr's attempts to ensure a red flag for the race by edging his stricken car back on to the circuit to expire, that was the end of Michael's race in 2000.

Last year saw another McLaren victory with David Coulthard scoring the win. Barrichello ran well and was in second place until being forced to cede to Michael just before the end of the race. Last year was the only time that Michael Schumacher started from pole in Austria.

The circuit itself offers good overtaking opportunities and also good potential for a first corner pile-up. In 2000 the Ferraris were the cause and victims of the first corner bottleneck, in 1999 the McLarens at least made it to second corner before coming together, and 1998 saw numerous incidents on the first lap and the safety car come out to calm things down. The Austrian weather is always variable.

The Austrian Grand Prix was first included on the World Championship calendar in 1964 when a race took place on a makeshift track laid out on the runways of the Zeltweg military airfield. By 1970 a purpose-built circuit, the Osterreichring, had been built in the foothills of the nearby mountains and held its first Grand Prix in 1970, enduring on the calendar until 1987 when concerns about circuit safety contributed to the race's withdrawal.

Following a ten year break the race resumed at the same venue, but on a shortened 2.668-mile track dubbed the A1-Ring. It is regarded as quite an acrobatic little track with a couple of tight, 90-degree corners and a sequence of higher speed swerves. It is possible to run either high downforce configurations and sacrifice speed on the straights, or low down force trim sacrificing grip on the corners and produce very similar lap times, dependent on the state of the track surface and the grip levels delivered on a specific day.

The location of the circuit is such that, like the Interlagos circuit used for the Brazilian Grand Prix, that is located at an altitude of 700 metres. This means that the engines will be producing less power, as Renault's head of race engineering, Denis Chevrier, explains.

''In an engine, the oxygen present in air combusts with the petrol and this process produces heat - the more oxygen you get into an engine, the more power you generate,'' Chevrier says, ''At altitude, however, the density of the air is lower, which means that for a given amount of air, there is less oxygen. That, in turn, means less power since engine speed is constant, as is the volume of air taken in. At sea level, atmospheric pressure is approximately 1,000 millibars. At the A1-Ring, it is just 930 millibars. The loss in terms of engine performance is therefore about seven per cent.''

Despite there being less power than he's used to Renault will be expecting to do well and Jarno Trulli, race leader at the circuit in 1997, describes a lap: ''The approach to the first corner is up a relatively steep hill, which limits the top speed to 295kph in top gear before braking into the second-gear first corner, which I take at 110kph. The exit of this corner is quite tricky and also very important as it leads onto a long straight on which I will be at full throttle for eleven seconds and get up to 300kph in top gear.

''From this, I brake hard down to first gear and 65kph for the second corner, which is one of the places where I will look for the opportunity to overtake.

''Out of turn two, I come onto another reasonably long straight with ten seconds at full throttle, and I reach a maximum speed again of just under 300kph before braking to around 90kph in second gear for the apex of turn three. The exit of this is a gentle curve that I can easily take flat, and I will arrive in fifth gear at 265kph for the tricky double left-hand corners at turns five and six.

''The first part is taken at over 160kph in third gear, and then I accelerate up to 235kph in fourth gear and hold that for the second left-hand corner, which I hope to apex at 125kph. The exit of this corner brings me back uphill, rising up to 290kph in top gear before entering turn eight, which is extremely quick, at 185kph in fourth gear.

''Exiting this corner, I almost immediately drop to third gear and 145kph for the long final corner that leads back down the hill and completes the lap.'' During this time, Jarno will have run on full throttle for around 70 per cent of the lap distance.

Renault have certainly been on an upward trajectory at the moment. Despite reliability woes in Spain the team has plenty to offer enthusiasm for the Austrian leg. Renault technical director Mike Gasgoyne takes up the story: ''Barcelona was disappointing, of course, but our performance throughout the weekend showed that we have the pace to readily deliver fourth place in the championship, and potentially push for third. If our reliability is good enough to get us to the finish, we are confident it will be in a points-scoring position. The reason for Jenson's retirement was a hydraulic leak on the car,'' he explained, ''We already had a development in place which covered that particular problem. We also know what Jarno's engine problem was, and are working hard to correct it."

Jarno Trulli led the 1997 Austrian GP in only his first F1 season driving for the now defunct Prost team. After inheriting the lead from Mika Hakkinen the Italian, subbing for a broken legged Olivier Panis, led for the first 37 laps of the 71 lap race.

Jenson Button, who was all set for a podium in Spain until being passed by David Coulthard in the closing stages of the race, will be hoping to get back into contension for that elusive first podium spot of the year and hoping that he doesn't score yet another fourth place.

Williams are still the only team other than Ferrari to have scored a victory this season. At the last race however the squad Montoya led for a while last time out in Austria. Looking ahead to the race Juan Pablo Montoya noted: ''The A1-Ring is an interesting track because it's quick. I do like it, I've got to say. It's quite simple and very low grip circuit but, again, that makes it a fun place to race. Unlike most of the circuits we race at, the Austrian circuit is literally in the middle of nowhere! We showed strongly there last year, even though Ralf and I failed to score a single point due to technical problems when we were both running in good positions. I am pretty confident that in Austria we will be quite strong, certainly stronger than in Barcelona, so I am looking forward to it.''

As for Ralf? ''I said before the Spanish Grand Prix - and nothing has changed since - that we will be closer to Ferrari in Austria, simply because the circuit suits our car. We will have some new parts which should make us more competitive on the A1-Ring with its long straights and high speed corners. I hope that after Barcelona everybody from our team - including myself - has done their homework well. Then we will have paved the way to a successful weekend.''

At McLaren, David Coulthard has a pretty good record at the track with last year's victory and in 1998 he illustrated how good the circuit is for overtaking by storming through the field after pitting for a new nose cone, making it from 19th place to second place in 28 laps. This year the McLaren is still failing to live up to expectations. In Spain David Coulthard did make it on to the podium but that was only after passing Button's ailing Renault and without the competition of the second Ferrari and after Ralf Schumacher's problems put him out of contention.

DC no doubt realizes that a certain amount of his podium result in Spain can be attributed to luck, but is also mindful of his past performances at the Austrian circuit: ''It was encouraging to take my second podium finish of the 2002 season at the Spanish Grand Prix, and I am now looking forward to building on the result in Austria, which is also my 130th Grand Prix start. I enjoy driving at the A1-Ring and have a good record there, having won at the track last year and finished second in the previous four races. The A1-Ring is reminiscent of a kart track and is very short in length. It also has the quickest lap time of the current Formula One circuits, the lap record stands at 1m 10.843s, which I set in 2001.''

As for Kimi Rakkonen, last year he scored a fourth place in only his sixth race of his debut season. This year he's hoping to improve on that. And according to McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh the team has been working hard so the results can improve: ''The West McLaren Mercedes team has worked hard since the Spanish Grand Prix to continue the process of moving forward and improving our performance levels. We conducted a productive test session last week at Valencia, covering over 1100 miles / 1800 kms and we are now looking forward to the challenges of the Austrian Grand Prix.''

Sauber will certainly be one to watch out for in Austria. Ferrari has let them have access to some more up to date parts, cynics suggest that this is all part of a conspiracy to ensure that Ferrari is not the only Bridgestone team to do well in 2002 - if Ferrari is the only Bridgestone squad to score well criticisms come through that the results are only due to the superiority of a Bridgestone tyre optimized to the Ferrari chassis. Whatever the reasoning, both Saubers were in the points in Spain, Massa just ten seconds behind his far more experienced team-mate at the line.

The Swiss team will be running with a new specification engine, most useful on a circuit that uses full throttle for 70% of a lap and where the altitude saps the engine power produced. As for the drivers, it's almost customary to see a Sauber rookie do well, and Felipe Massa has certainly settled well after some initial testing and race exuberance. The young Brazilian could well be a force to be reckoned with in Austria as he explains: ''I'm feeling really positive after Barcelona, and I know the A1-Ring well from past testing there in my Formula Three days. I'm looking forward to another strong race.''

Heidfeld, on the other hand will be celebrating his quarter century, but won't let birthday celebrations detract from his focus on the race: ''I'm looking forward to Austria. It's a low-grip track and it's the kind that suits our car. I like it a lot. I have good memories from the my best qualifying performance of last season in Austria. This time, I am looking for a good result. I hope it will be possible after the success we had recently in Barcelona.''

The Spanish GP was the first race before which the Leafield Arrows squad had conducted some meaningful tests and a single point was their reward. Frentzen seems to flourish well away from the main limelight of a top running team as he did at Sauber and Prost and should be well placed for another good performance in Austria. Bernoldi was out with hydraulic failure but could have finished well placed in Spain.

The team, certainly in its Orange Arrows guise, have had some pretty fine past performances in Austria. In 2000 Pedro de la Rosa was the star managing to get the A21 up to third place during the race before reliability woes intervened. Last year Jos Verstappen went one better and ran as high as second during the race, and came home with a solid sixth place and championship point. Tom Walkinshaw will be hoping that this year his team can go one better and run in first place during the race, all the better to show the A23 in its best light for potential sponsors for the cash staved team.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen is riding high after his points scoring in Spain: ''I like Austria very much. The circuit is mainly made up of slow corners, which makes it quite a high downforce track so it should suit the A23 well. On the downside, the slower turns and big kerbs can often disrupt your pace over the whole lap, so you really have to stay focused here. Obviously with getting the team's first point in Spain, we are all really determined to keep the drive and the rhythm going. Hopefully we can have another good race here.''

For Bernoldi, Austria was the venue for his best qualifying position last year and the Brazilian will be hoping for some reliability this time around: ''The A1 Ring is a very smooth track with little grip and is made up of mostly slow corners with a few quick ones thrown in. It's fun to race on though as there are opportunities for overtaking but I would still prefer to get a good spot in qualifying. Last year I had a great start to the race but retired with a hydraulic problem, which was a shame as the car was running really well. It's worth noting that the weather can change fast there as the circuit is up in the mountains.''

With both drivers enthusiastic, there's been some useful development of the car as technical director Mike Coughlan exlains: ''We hope to have the engine spec we used on the Saturday in Spain again for qualifying here as well as for the race which is a definite step forward for us. Engine power is at a premium at the A1 Ring as it is one of the highest full throttle races on the calendar. We were able to run the new engine spec for two days at Silverstone, completing well over race distance and we were very pleased with its performance. We also tested a rear suspension upgrade over the two days and that also went very well. Historically, we have always run well in Austria - Enrique had his best qualifying performance of the year in 2001 and we got our first point here last year - but we are aware that past performances aren't always an assurance, however I think we have good cause to be optimistic. We will be working very hard to make sure that we get the best out of the car in qualifying and I would say we should be able to qualify in the top 12.''

For BAR a seventh place in Spain means still no points for David Richard's squad. Villeneuve scored notched up the seventh place and it was the second of the year. The team expects to be slightly better off in Austria than it was in Spain, but admits that there is still much work to be done. Reliability is improving with every race, so the main priority will be to get both drivers to the chequered flag, taking advantage of every possible opportunity along the way.

"We have come very close to a points finish in the last couple of races, but we have not been in a strong enough position to capitalise on every opportunity,'' team boss Richards noted, ''Having said that, I am very pleased with the improvement in our overall performance and I have only praise for the team and our partners. We still have a great deal of work ahead of us but together we are starting to make real progress."

Olivier Panis still has to finish a race. Despite his woes, the Frenchman does not seem to be too downhearted, yet: "We missed a big opportunity in Barcelona,'' the Frenchman recalled, ''For the first time this season, I felt very comfortable with the car there and that was certainly reflected in my times throughout the weekend. I really felt that I would finish the race and it also looked possible for me to score a point along the way. To be honest, the disappointment of the last few races has made me more determined. We are working much better as a team and the improvements are coming.''

Jordan still has no points on the board this year. An early retirement in Spain for rookie driver, Takuma Sato was not was Eddie Jordan would have wanted. But then Giancarlo Fisichello didn't fare much better, only covering half the distance that Sato did, retiring with hydraulic failure.

Gary Anderson, Jordan Director of Race and Test Engineering - said: ''We are working hard to resolve our reliability issues and have identified a problematic EJ11 hydraulic manifold part, for which we have found an interim solution while we manufacture a newly-designed item. In Austria the EJ12 will also be running a new front wing for the first time at a race. The A-1 Ring used to be a good track with fast flowing corners however now it has become something of a 'stop-and-go' track, and a circuit which is all about power. It's going to be a challenging weekend.''

Things are also still not looking great for the lanquishing Jaguar. Back in 1999 at the Austrian GP current Jaguar boss Niki Lauda was asked about Benetton's fortunes that year "If you design a bullshit car, you can't do anything in a season. If it is bad at the start you are stuck with it all season". Words that have rather more personal meaning to Lauda this year. Performance has not been good and two retirements in Spain did not help the cause. More galling is that the Arrows, powered by the same engine, is a good car that merely lacks development and showed more of its potential in Spain. Perhaps Lauda should have bought the Arrows wind tunnel after all, but only if its latest product, the Arrows A23, was included as part of the deal.

For the drivers it's a hard struggle as both are trying their best but are ust facing an uphill struggle. For Eddie Irvine Austria will mainly be a case of staying out of trouble: ''Testing at Valencia last week allowed us to put some miles on the clock, but there will be no significant changes on the car for this weekend and this will be the case until the British Grand Prix when our new aero package arrives. The A1-Ring is certainly one of the fastest tracks on the race calendar and I like it for the overtaking opportunities that exist. The high number of incidents, particularly at the first corner, also makes this race exciting for the spectators. Staying clear of trouble and finishing as high as possible is the order of the day for me.''

Team-mate Pedro de la Rosa will be hoping for some reliability after recent retirements: ''Because I don't have a good record at the A1-Ring, finishing the race will be my priority this weekend. My home race in Spain was a nightmare worth forgetting about and while this weekend will still pose hard challenges for us, I can't imagine a weekend harder than the Spanish Grand Prix.''

''Our development programme with the Jaguar R3 is now well underway and even though it is very frustrating to be contesting races at the moment, we're all aiming at a target that isn't too far away now. Our recent additions to the aero department are making good progress and in the meantime, the biggest contribution I make is driving to the best of my ability - both on the test and race track.''

Imola aside, reliability is one problem that hasn't blighted Toyota too much this year. Both cars lasted the distance in Spain. Austria should be a good venue to make best use of the grunt available from the Toyota V10. The circuit is one that the team tested at last season, simulating an entire race weekend.

For Allan McNish there's plenty of experience of the circuit as he's raced there in sports cars: ''I don't think that the A1-Ring is the most challenging track that we race on during the year, but it is one that punishes mistakes at the exit of corners because the straights are long. There is a good racing heritage in Austria, so I'm expecting the fans to be enthusiastic. Such is the layout of the track that it looks like a very good racing circuit, so I'm looking forward to a few good battles on race day.''

He continued: ''The characteristics of the circuit should suit our car better than in Barcelona. That said, I was happy with my performance in Spain, the car was consistent in the race and it was good for the team to get two cars to the finish. The TF102 showed in Malaysia that it was very strong under braking and the A1-Ring provides at least two or three clear over-taking opportunities. With a strong race pace we could have a good afternoon.''

For Mika Salo the venue holds some good memories and he's beaten some pretty big names in Austria in the past: ''The A1-Ring is not as fast and challenging as its predecessor, the Oesterreichring, which was the home of the Austrian Grand Prix between 1970 and 1987. I drove on it once, in a European Formula Ford race in 1988 and it was absolutely fabulous. That particular race was good for another reason too: I beat Michael Schumacher!''

''The chances of me beating Michael this time around are, I'm afraid, unlikely. That's not to say that we'll go badly in the Austrian Grand Prix. Allan (McNish) and myself carried out Toyota's first ever race simulation with the TF101 there last September, and gained a lot of valuable track data.''

''I think the long straights and heavy braking areas of the A1-Ring will suit the TF102 and Michelin are confident that they have a good tyre as well, so I'd like to think that we can, once again, knock on the door of the top ten.''

Over at Minardi and making the race will be the first priority. Both cars were withdrawn in Spain following wing failures and Paul Stoddart's squad have no doubt spent much time since finding some stronger glue to attach the wings with.

For the tyre companies in particular Austria presents a real challenge as the circuit is only visited once a year. This means data is hard to come by when they are developing compounds for the circuit. Bridgestone has be answering criticism that the Japanese concern has concentrated on Ferrari by expending plenty of time focusing on all the Bridgestone shod teams and last week had the logistical challenge of supplying five teams testing in six different locations in four countries. Hiroshi Yasukawa, Director of Motorsport, said: ''It was wonderful to be able to celebrate with three of our teams last Sunday, particularly since OrangeArrows' sixth place brought their first point of the season and Sauber Petronas had both cars in the points. After five races I am pleased with our performance and the competitiveness we have shown but we are now entering a crucial period. We must keeping pushing forward and not let two or three strong races go to our heads. Therefore, we will be putting our past successes out of our minds once we arrive in Austria.''

Bridgestone is taking one new compound to Austria, together with a slightly different version that is proven race winner. Hisao Suganuma, Technical Manager of Bridgestone Motorsport, noted: ''The A1-Ring is a very different track to the Circuit de Catalunya with particular characteristics that we have to take into account when developing tyres for the Austrian Grand Prix. The surface is smooth and short on grip but the type of soft compound one would normally choose for better grip may not be strong enough to cope with the A1-Ring's demanding corners. Graining on the front tyres, which in simple terms is the wearing down of the grooves from the the outer edge, is a problem, and the track has a tendency towards understeer. The rubber needs to be strong as well as having good adhesion - we achieve this through compound development, the ingredients we use and the way they are put together.''

The smooth surface of the A1-Ring means wear is not a particular concern. Instead, it is the nature of the corners that presents the challenge. Hisao Suganuma added: ''The A1-Ring is a power circuit with throttles open for longer than usual. It has an uphill-donwhill topography and requires good braking and traction. It is also one of the worst tracks on the calendar for understeer so our aim as tyre supplier is to help our teams find a good balance.''

''The circuit is also renowned for causing graining, with corners like Remus Kurve and G?sser Kurve putting a lot of lateral force through the front tyres which leads to wear on the outer edge of the grooves. Reducing understeer and finding better traction to help our cars keep their speed up through the corners are our aims. Strategywise, I would expect teams to do just one stop.''

As for Michelin, things haven't been looking too good for the French tyre squad of late Michelin motorsport director Pierre Dupasquier said after the Spanish GP: ''Together with our partner teams, we were a second and a half per lap shy of challenging the Ferraris in Spain. A better understanding of our latest tyres and a slightly less conservative approach might have gained us three or four tenths of a second - but even that wouldn't have been enough.''

Pierre Dupasquier continued: ''We have profited from data accumulated during recent races to evolve tyre constructions and compounds that are suited to the very particular characteristics in Austria, and we had chance to test these recently at Valencia in Spain. The two compounds we are bringing might both be described as 'soft' but teams will have no problem with excess wear rate, even if they opt for a single-stop race strategy.''

All said and done, Ferrari are undoubtedly the class of the field at the moment and their form this year has been impeccable. Despite Michael Schumacher never having won in Austria, a Ferrari victory is highly probable. The F2002 has won every race it has been entered in, and Michael Schumacher has four victories from five starts.

But Rubens Barrichello is certainly on a roll at the moment. He was so close to outqualifying Michael in Spain and crucially also outqualified the German in Austria in 2000. Notably, that was not the first time that Michael Schumacher had been outqualified by a team-mate in Austria as it was a feat managed by Eddie Irvine back in 1997. If Rubens can continue his good form this weekend it might be that the No. 2 Ferrari takes the win. And, having just resigned for Ferrari for 2003 and 2004, the Brazilian is sure to have his confidence at an all-time high.

 

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