Baku performance leaves world champion with some improvements to make writes Thomas Maher
"What is this guys? Looking at my f**king dash every five seconds trying to find a switch that's in the wrong position. I might not finish this race 'cos I'm gonna try and change everything".
That was the terse radio message from Lewis Hamilton halfway through the European GP as the reigning champion struggled with a settings issue on his Mercedes, preventing him from using his car's full potential. A rather arbitrary radio rule introduced at the end of 2015 prevented his team from telling him how to fix the settings problem, and it was one that prevented Hamilton from fighting back further from his lowly grid spot in Azerbaijan.
It was a troubled weekend for Hamilton, with driving errors and a poor qualifying session leading into a compromised race marred by the radio message ban. After the race, Mercedes admitted that Nico Rosberg had had a similar issue during the race, but had managed to figure out how to fix it quickly - a simple case of that little bit of extra homework paying off for the German driver.
It's on such little details that this year's championship will be won. While the season closes in on its halfway mark, there are still thirteen rounds to go, but the overall advantage lies with Nico Rosberg. Two bad races in a row in Monaco and Canada helped Lewis Hamilton close the gap, but they are traditionally strong venues for Hamilton.
Austria, since its return to the calendar in 2014, has been won by Nico Rosberg on both occasions - both races being straight fights with Hamilton. Engine penalties are starting to loom in the not too distant future on Hamilton's side of the garage too, as he has had to use four MGU-K and turbochargers so far. Just five are permitted without penalty for the entire season. No such issues on Rosberg's side of the garage, he has only used two.
A general view of the A1 Ring in 2001 Picture by: Steve Mitchell / EMPICS Sport
This weekend's race takes place on the high speed sweeps of the Red Bull Ring, the circuit owned by Dietrich Mateschitz, owner of the Red Bull brand and teams. The venue is historic in F1; its scarily fast old layout, known as the Osterreichring, held the Austrian GP between 1970 and 1987. Fast and narrow, it was branded too perilous for the increasing safety standards of late '80s F1 and dropped from the calendar. A neutered and shortened version of the track, known as the A1-Ring, returned to the calendar in 1997 and held a race every year until 2003. The track was half demolished in 2004, but rebuilt by Red Bull over the intervening decade between then and 2014. Unfortunately for them, the track's characteristics play directly into the hands of their rivals, and Red Bull Racing have struggled at the circuit bearing their name in the last two years. With long, long straights powering up the staggeringly pretty Styrian mountain region, horsepower is the name of the game here - and that's something the TAG-Heuer badged Renault team have struggled with.
Their recent power unit upgrade may aid their competitiveness this year, but even a podium could be considered a good result at this particular event.
The battle at the front is likely to consist of Mercedes, Ferrari and Williams. Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas locked out the front row in qualifying two years ago, coming home P3 & P4 after a less than competitive strategy played out. They came home P3 & P5 behind the Mercs last year, separated by Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel.
Assuming a clean weekend for the three teams, a similar finishing order this year wouldn't be hugely surprising.
While Red Bull may not be able to challenge for the win, it's still a positive feeling team heading to their home race as they have confirmed Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen will continue driving for them in 2017. At the junior team, Toro Rosso, Carlos Sainz has been kept on for a third season, but there is yet to be confirmation of his teammate. Daniil Kvyat's position remains under threat, with Frenchman Pierre Gasly being lined up for a step up to F1. Gasly's continuing inability to win a GP2 race may yet save Kvyat's skin.
At Ferrari, Kimi Raikkonen's seat is under threat with Force India's Sergio Perez linked to his drive. Ferrari young driver Charles Leclerc is also set to take part in FP1 with Ferrari customer team Haas at five races this year. Long term, Ferrari are looking past Raikkonen, and this may yet prove to be his last Austrian GP weekend.
This weekend may also mark the final weekend Mercedes can use a tyre trick that has been uncovered in recent weeks. Renowned German technical journalist Michael Schmidt reported that he and his publication Auto Motor und Sport have uncovered a tyre pressure trick that Mercedes have been using to their advantage since the Belgian Grand Prix last year.
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain steers his car during the Formula One Grand Prix of Europe at the Baku circuit in Baku, Azerbaijan, on Sunday, June 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
The trick, basically explained, is that Mercedes have been using equipment to heat their axles, brakes and wheel assemblies to help boost the tyre temperatures on the grid. This raises the pressure of the tyre, meaning the tyres pass the pre-race pressure checks by Pirelli, but that pressure falls immediately once the car starts driving.
For each PSI the tyres drop, it's believed to equate to 0.1 seconds a lap. However, the FIA are likely to find a way to ban this loophole shortly, as they have clamped down heavily on ways of manipulating minimum pressures over the last two years.
Getting back to the radio rules issue from Azerbaijan, Hamilton said afterwards that he didn't see the benefit of preventing drivers from being told such instructions. However, had the roles been the other way around with his teammate, it's doubtful he'd have had the same view. Hamilton's complaints have met with little sympathy from other drivers. Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen, another man frustrated by his team being unable to tell him something in Baku, said on Thursday in Austria: "I think [the radio rules] are fine. Obviously always some certain situations you might have some issues that you want to talk but rules are rules and they’re the same for everybody. It is what it is."
Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo was asked whether he had any sympathy for Hamilton: "Um… not really. Obviously not directed at Lewis, I think anyone in that position… on race day you care about yourself, so certainly you don’t feel any sympathy for anyone else in those two hours on a Sunday. In terms of engine modes and things like that, sure there’s a lot to do but we do know – or we should know at least where it all is. So, I think yeah, we’ve just had to adapt to it but it’s been OK."
The simple fact of the matter is that, when a problem arose, Rosberg was able to fix it thanks to his preparation, while Hamilton wasn't. Lewis' dismissal of the usefulness of a track walk and simulator work prior to Azerbaijan came back to bite him hard, and has handed another easy win to his teammate. Can he make up for it in Austria?
Thomas Maher is the co-founder of Irish motorsport website Formula Spy.com.