F1 Raceweek: Hamilton set to leave Baku squabble and Vettel behind in Spielberg
As attention finally returns to the track at the Austrian Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel could struggle to get anywhere near enough to Lewis Hamilton to bang wheels in Spielberg.
Rarely are the fortunes of the fourth and fifth-placed drivers in a race so tightly scrutinised but, then again, it is also just as uncommon to see a driver deliberately spear his car into an opponent as Vettel did to Hamilton in Baku.
According to the men themselves, it is all water under the bridge now, but Hamilton appears to hold an enormous advantage over the championship leader at the Red Bull Ring.
A speed haven, with just 10 corners - three of which are taken flat out - to trouble drivers, Mercedes have predictably dominated in Austria since its return to the F1 calendar in 2014 and theirs remains the quickest car in a straight line - of which there are plenty this weekend.
Hamilton won 12 months ago, emerging less scathed from a last-lap tangle with team-mate Nico Rosberg to end the German's previous grip over the event.
The three-time champion has likely had his fill of discussing crashes for a while and Sunday seems set to bring serene relief.
WHAT WE LEARNED FROM PRACTICE
Hamilton laid down the mother of all markers in FP1, topping Vettel's best time on supersoft tyres by almost half a second, on the hardest compound available this weekend, softs.
Vettel was slower than Max Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas in an FP1 session in which the German's Ferrari was briefly facing the wrong way out of Turn 3. Kimi Raikkonen also had a wobble, while Verstappen tagged the wall late on as he looked on course to top Hamilton's hot lap.
A tentative FP2 - tempered by reports of an 80 per cent chance of rain - was not quite as spectacular as many teams took it easy, but still Hamilton was peerless. His session-leading time of one minute 05.483 seconds was a circuit record - a benchmark that will only be lowered again on Saturday.
Vettel managed to stick closer to Hamilton in the latter session, suggesting that qualifying may not quite be a cut and dried affair. But Hamilton's long run pace on the ultrasofts was unmatched by any of his rivals. Vettel's long run practice was conducted on supersofts, perhaps hinting at funky Ferrari strategy.
Further down the field, there was encouragement for McLaren drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne as fresh Honda power units helped them run in the top 10 across the sessions. Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo both put in better lap times than Kimi Raikkonen, which will give Red Bull hope of following up Ricciardo's win in Baku with a podium here.
1. Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) - 153 points
2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) - 139 points
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) - 111 points
4. Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) - 92 points
5. Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari) - 73 points
1. Mercedes - 250 points
2. Ferrari - 226 points
3. Red Bull - 137 points
4. Force India - 79 points
5. Williams - 37 points
2016: Lewis Hamilton
2015: Nico Rosberg
2014: Nico Rosberg
Both Saturday and race day will keep pit walls on their toes with a 50 per cent chance of rain in each session as thunderstorms lurk in the area.