F1 Raceweek: Can Leclerc shake up season and end Ferrari pain?
What a difference a week makes.
The last Formula One race in France was one of the most uneventful in recent memory, prompting a debate about rule changes and how to improve the spectacle.
Just seven days later in Spielberg, the Austrian Grand Prix looks like it will be the most exciting event of a 2019 season in desperate need of a shot in the arm.
Three different teams make up the first three positions on Sunday's grid, with Ferrari's Charles Leclerc on pole, Max Verstappen of Red Bull second and Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas third.
Championship leader Lewis Hamilton qualified second but received a three-place grid penalty – one which he accepted without complaint - for impeding Kimi Raikkonen.
That means the five-time world champion starts down in fourth, though that is at least one place better than the fifth grid slot Mercedes and F1's official media channels initially thought he would fill, confusion having been caused by the complex method used to apply penalties.
Lando Norris, who qualified sixth, ultimately gained one place due to a separate sanction handed down to Kevin Magnussen for a gearbox change, the Haas driver dropping from fifth to 10th.
Hamilton, who has won only once before in Austria, had called for a greater challenge from his rivals and he will now have exactly that at a circuit where, last year, Verstappen triumphed and Mercedes recorded a shock double DNF.
Great job today from @Charles_Leclerc who has driven well all weekend. Grateful for the team effort, although for us not a perfect day but we win and we lose together. Tomorrow is a new day and a chance for us to Rise together. #TeamLH, need all the energy we can get pic.twitter.com/1rlLMwPmPm— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) June 29, 2019
Sebastian Vettel is back in ninth after an engine pneumatic system issue meant he could not go out in Q3. An unforgiving circuit saw the German spin off on Friday, while Verstappen and Bottas suffered significant crashes, meaning all drivers needing to be on guard for race day.
"Congratulations to Charles, he's been quick all weekend and we've not been able to keep up with Ferrari," said Hamilton, who will be looking to avoid any significant damage to his 36-point championship lead.
"Max has been driving well all weekend and it's pretty cool to see three teams in the first three. I have to fight the young ones, I'm representing the more-grown men.
"The Ferraris are very quick on the long runs, not only the short runs, so it will not be so easy to keep up with Charles. They really kill us on the straights, but also seem to have figured out the medium and high-speed corners.
"We definitely under-estimated how fast they would be, but I'll give it everything I have."
Verstappen's front-row start is a timely one with speculation rampant over his Red Bull future after confirmation of a performance-based clause in his contract which allows him to speak to other teams if he does not win a race before Hungary in August.
Ahead of a race at his current team's home circuit, the Dutchman said: "I'm really happy at the moment, this is an amazing result. The whole weekend, with the upgrades, the car is working better.
"It's great [the support I get]. It brings a big smile on to my face and hopefully I can give them a big result."
Bottas, meanwhile, acknowledged Saturday had not gone to plan as he bids to get his drivers' title challenge back on track following four races without a win.
The Finn said: "It was sub-optimal, I would say. It's a shame because the car felt good and the speed was there, it just didn't end up that way. We expected it to be super close with Ferrari, but they have a bit of a margin and pole position was out of reach.
"But it's a long day Sunday and starting from the second row still leaves opportunities. We've seen on the first lap that many things can happen."
P1: Going for his first F1 win— Mercedes-AMG F1 (@MercedesAMGF1) June 29, 2019
P2: Youngest ever Grand Prix winner + Orange Army behind him
P3: Going for third win of the year
P4: A five-time world champion
P5: Career-best start for the rookie
It’s gonna be a cracker tomorrow Who said @f1 was boring?! #AustrianGPpic.twitter.com/84cyk1lvf2
CAN FERRARI BREAK THE STREAK?
Going back to last season, Mercedes have won 10 consecutive grands prix, Hamilton claiming eight of those.
Ferrari would have triumphed in Bahrain had an engine issue not denied Leclerc towards the end of a race he had dominated from pole, while the luckless Vettel, who suffered more woe in qualifying, controversially came second in Canada despite reaching the chequered flag first.
If the 21-year-old Leclerc, who sounded confident, can convert his second career pole to victory, he will provide enormous relief to the Scuderia's faithful supporters, as well as becoming the third-youngest driver to claim a race win.
"We have been competitive since we made some changes for FP2 but it is always difficult to do the lap in Q3, so I'm extremely happy," said Leclerc.
"On Friday the race pace didn't look bad compared to Mercedes but also Red Bull, so we are pretty happy. The pace itself looks promising. The start will be very important. Normally we are quite fast on the straights so hopefully we can keep first position in the first three corners."
STRATEGY COULD PROVE DECISIVE
Strategy is another key area to watch, given Leclerc will start on the quicker soft tyre, while Verstappen, Bottas and Hamilton are all on the slightly slower but more durable medium behind him in a race where either one or two pit stops could be used.
Hamilton said: "A one and two-stop is very close and how you work them, with safety cars and all those different things, will be interesting.
"If they start on that tyre, I tend to think they are going for a two-stop unless that tyre goes longer than we anticipate. Hopefully we will be able to go longer."
But Leclerc insisted: "On what we tested and analysed in FP2 we're happy with the tyre choices we've made in our strategy. It is different to Red Bull and Mercedes – but only Sunday will tell who was right."
1. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari)
2. Max Verstappen (Red Bull)
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes)
4. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
5. Lando Norris (McLaren)
6. Kimi Raikkonen (Alfa Romeo)
7. Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo)
8. Pierre Gasly (Red Bull)
9. Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari)
10. Kevin Magnussen (Haas)
2018: Max Verstappen
2017: Valtteri Bottas
2016: Lewis Hamilton
2015: Nico Rosberg
1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 187
2. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) 151 (-36)
3. Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) 111 (-76)
4. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 100 (-87)
5. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) 87 (-100)
1. Mercedes 338
2. Ferrari 198 (-140)
3. Red Bull 137 (-201)
4. McLaren 40 (-298)
5. Renault 32 (-306)
Spielberg is expected to see hot temperatures, dry conditions and gusts of winds during Sunday's race.
Leclerc said: "It's going to be very difficult, physically, first, because it's very, very warm, but also for the car, so it will be all about management of everything."