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2020 Austrian Grand Prix race preview: Formula 1 returns in Austria

Finally. 127 days since Formula 1 pre-season testing ended and 217 days on from the chequered flag bringing the 2019 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to a close, we will have F1 racing on our screens to enjoy.

After the false start in Australia, Austria will kick the 2020 season off with a double-header at the Red Bull Ring behind closed doors and with teams operating at a reduced capacity.

Amid the Covid-19 crisis, the F1 season will operate a little differently to usual, but come Sunday we will have the answers many have sought since Barcelona in February.

Back-to-back races at the same venue will mean teams are not only getting to grips with the 2020 cars once again, but gathering as much data as possible ahead of the Styrian GP that will follow.

Can Mercedes add another unprecedented title double to its run of dominance in 2020? Is Red Bull finally in position to contend for the title? How much trouble is Ferrari really in? And will the pink cars have a surprise in store for their midfield rivals?

Here is a team-by-team preview ahead of the 2020 Austrian Grand Prix.

Mercedes

The Silver Arrows will have a different look in 2020, with a new livery the team will run throughout the 2020 season in support of diversity and inclusion in motor sport.

The design may have changed, but the Mercedes is still regarded as the car to beat after winter testing came to a close.

The reigning champions look to have maintained its pace advantage over rivals and left many in the paddock scratching their heads as to how its innovative Dual-Axis Steering (DAS) system was possible.

Ahead of the Australian GP, Red Bull had threatened an appeal to the race stewards regarding its legality. Mercedes has maintained the system is fully legal after consultation with the FIA and intends to run it despite its impending ban for ’21, so we will find out if Red Bull will put its money where its mouth is this weekend.

Lewis Hamilton has struggled in the Styrian heat in recent years. The Mercedes car last season was notoriously ill-equipped to handle warmer summer weather and suffered one of its worst results of the season, as Hamilton struggled to fifth.

A brief test at Silverstone in the W09 is all the practice he and team-mate Valtteri Bottas have had ahead of the resumption of racing.

Bottas, who is coming off the back of his strongest season in F1 so far, could be Hamilton’s closest challenger for the title this season if preseason predictions carry through, and the shortened season may play to his advantage.

Red Bull

Is it Max Verstappen’s year?

Is 2020 the year for Red Bull? After its last title success with Sebastian Vettel, the once-dominant power has been stuck behind Mercedes for six years.

Years of poor performance from both chassis and engine have delayed its return to the top, but Honda’s increased performance last season has spawned hope in Milton Keynes that this could be the year the team mounts a serious challenge for a title.

Preseason pace was promising as Ferrari struggled and the team has been firm in its expectations. Ahead of testing, Dr Helmut Marko admitted the team would have nowhere to hide should it not provide Max Verstappen with a championship-calibre car.

Alex Albon appears much more settled in the team he was with for half of last season, though he didn’t waste any time putting in strong performances.

His contact with Lewis Hamilton in the Brazilian Grand Prix deprived him of a well-deserved podium, but there’s every chance that he takes his first podium at the first time of asking in 2020.

Red Bull has been the team to beat on race day for two years running in Austria and, following testing, the team maintains it has a competitive car on its hands.

The Dutchman’s assessment after testing was that he had a car that was “fast everywhere” but 2020 will be his last chance to become F1’s youngest ever world champion.

He may have claimed the accolade doesn’t matter to him but Red Bull’s fast-tracking of the young charger into F1 back in 2015 was for one purpose. It’s now or never.

Ferrari

Leclerc has the support of his team, but can Ferrari fight in Austria?

Had the season started as scheduled in Melbourne, Ferrari would have likely been on the back foot from the word go.

An admission from Maranello indicates that the car has undergone a radical change from the one that appeared in Montmelo, Barcelona, all those months ago, with a new aerodynamic design philosophy expected to appear on the car from the Hungarian Grand Prix.

For rounds one and two then, the team is stuck with a car it has little faith in, so what’s in store for Charles Leclerc and the out-bound Sebastian Vettel?

“We know that, at the moment, we don’t have the fastest package,” team principal Mattia Binotto admitted.

“We knew it before heading for Melbourne and that hasn’t changed. Having said that, the Spielberg circuit has different characteristics to Montmelo and the temperatures will be well above those of February.

“In Austria, we must try and make the most of every opportunity and then in Hungary, with the new development step we are working on, we will be able to see where we are really compared to the others, while having to take into account the developments our competitors themselves will have brought along.”

Can Ferrari maintain the peace between its drivers this year after tensions boiled over in 2019? And will Vettel play ball now his future has been decided and Ferrari’s faith resides with Leclerc?

Racing Point

The RP20 showed decent pace in Barcelona that some have suggested puts Ferrari in trouble

One of the main talking points following pre-season testing was where would Racing Point stack up? The team has been open about its philosophy for this year’s car, a copy of the championship-winning Mercedes W10 from 2019, and it appears as though the RP20 has a lot of promise.

Some have suggested it might be giving Ferrari a run for its money as the third-fastest car in the field, but lap time analysis looks like the team will head up the midfield at best.

Lance Stroll and Sergio Perez both said they were looking forward to the Austrian circuit, suggesting that the performance from the RP20 in the high-speed sections at the Circuit de Catalunya provides promise for the Red Bull Ring this weekend.

“It’s going to be interesting, that first race back, and I think the car will be good around Austria,” Perez said ahead of the team’s arrival in Austria.

Racing Point was one of three teams to conduct an F1 test at Silverstone before the resumption of racing, using its 2020 car to test protocols and reacquaint team and drivers with the RP20.

It’s the longest time I haven’t been in a car. It’s going to be weird [to race at first]! It comes back, it’s like riding a bicycle,” said Stroll of the test.

“You’ve been doing it for so long after a few laps you get the hang of it again. But I’m telling you, when you first leave the pitlane and turn off the limiter, that feeling, that sensation again of getting on the power? That was weird on the first lap: ‘OK, this is Formula 1’.”

McLaren

Norris impressed in his rookie season, but will he be able to build on it this year?

It’s been a busy few months for McLaren off of the track.

Carlos Sainz was announced as Vettel’s replacement at Ferrari before a wheel was even turned this season while Lando Norris kept fans entertained livestreaming virtual racing on Twitch and taking part in the Virtual Le Mans 24 Hours, F1 esports series and IndyCar version.

McLaren’s drivers have yet to get back in the cockpit of their 2020 car, instead conducting a private test at Silverstone with junior outfit Carlin, using F3 machinery.

The team’s pre-season form is difficult to read, but the team appears to be in a battle with Racing Point to be fastest of the midfield.

“The MCL35 felt really good during winter testing, a positive continuation of what we had last year, so I’m very excited to finally compete this season,” Sainz said.

“Last year we did well in Austria, having to battle into the points from the back of the grid due to a penalty, so we know there are plenty of opportunities for on-track overtakes.”

Renault

Ricciardo believes the shortened 2020 season is a positive for Renault

Renault was one of the teams to run its 2020 car ahead of the Austrian reunion, with both Daniel Ricciardo and Esteban Ocon sampling the R.S.20.

In what will be his final year with the team before he moves over to McLaren to replace Sainz, Ricciardo’s Renault experiment appears to have failed unless the French team has pulled a fast one on the entire paddock.

The team’s pace in testing was uninspiring at best as it continues to linger in the midfield, below its ultimate aspiration. Ocon will finally get to race an F1 car after well over a year on the sidelines watching on, while Ricciardo says the shortened season only improves the team’s prospects.

“I’m raring to go! It’s been a long time since I’ve raced or even competed properly in anything,” he said. “It’s getting close now and I had a good taste for it with the test in Austria earlier this month. It’s about getting back to business.

“We’re all so excited to go racing again. We’ll get on with it and give it our all as we know the season is going to be shorter than usual and very fast-paced.

“We want to get some points on the board, begin the season on the right foot and lay a solid foundation for us to build some good momentum.”

AlphaTaur

AlphaTauri replaces Toro Rosso as Red Bull’s junior outfit

A new name and livery for the former Toro Rosso outfit caught the eye during winter testing, and the team will hope that its new car goes as fast as it looks.

As the midfield appears to have closed up once more, AlphaTauri could find itself in a dogfight this season for all important points and prize money come December.

It has been an unusual build-up to the first Grand Prix of the 2020 season, with Pierre Gasly remaining with his trainer in Dubai for a two-month training camp before cancelled flights led to a seven-hour road trip to get home, via Frankfurt, to France.

Daniil Kvyat has admitted that with lockdown restrictions in place, he has been unable to use the team’s simulator and was forced to use a rig in his house and FaceTime his race engineer to practice.

“I have not been able to come to the UK and use the team’s real simulator because of all the quarantine restrictions in place,” he said.

“I kept in touch with Mattia my race engineer. I would connect him via an iPad that I had next to me and we would simulate a qualifying session and he would talk to me as though we were doing it for real on an actual track. That was the best we could do.”

Alfa Romeo

Alfa Romeo was one team to not show much during pre-season testing

Alfa Romeo is under no illusion either that the midfield battle could be tighter than ever in 2020. With the shortened season making every point even more valuable and with such a compacted season, momentum could be vital.

“The first race of the season is often a chaotic affair and that’s when opportunities arise: we will need to be ready to take any that come our way,” team principal Fred Vasseur said.

“Racing again here will be a new experience for all of us, but we expect the midfield battle to be so close to make both races really open and unpredictable.”

Antonio Giovinazzi said that the break might leave other drivers rusty, but he felt confident that he will be able to hit the ground running.

“I am curious to see how everyone does in Austria and to see what happens with two races in the same venue; it’s a first for Formula 1 so it will be something we will need to adapt to.

“As for being rusty after so many months away, I am not worried about that: I didn’t race for two years between 2017 and 2019, so, if anything, I will try to turn that into an advantage.”

Williams

Another team to change livery between testing and Austria

Another team to undergo a redesign before it takes to the track, Williams has endured a difficult number of months away from racing as questions over the team’s future continue to come thick and fast.

Senior race engineer Dave Robson believes the team still has an uphill battle on its hands though did make some gains over the winter with its new car.

“We were encouraged by the improvements made since the end of 2019, however, we are under no illusion that we need to keep working hard and maximise every opportunity we can find to get us further up the grid.

“We are also aware that teams will have taken the opportunity to improve their cars since February; more than ever, predicting the pace of the opposition is difficult and futile. Our initial efforts will be on making the most of our car, ensuring that it is reliable and raceable, and on learning for the intense series of races that lie ahead of us.

“Both George and Nicholas are familiar with the circuit and this will allow us to concentrate on the engineering during running on Friday.”

Haas

Haas will be hoping there is no repeat of 2019

Haas cannot afford another repeat of 2019. The American team slumped to its worst result since joining F1 and signs from winter testing point to another difficult year unless it can bring upgrades that work this time round.

The chance to learn at a track that will host two races is important for Haas, having struggled last season to achieve any significant correlation from data to race track.

“It’s a new situation to have two races at the same track in the one year, especially one week after the other,” team principal Guenther Steiner said.

“We’ll have to see how it works out. Undoubtedly, we will learn a lot in the first weekend and hopefully what we learn we can put in place for the second weekend. I’m just really looking forward to being back out racing and getting the most out of both events.

“I think we’re as ready as we can be. Everybody on the team is highly motivated to get back out there and go racing again.

“The drivers obviously kept on training. I know Kevin (Magnussen), for example, has been doing a lot of karting, Romain (Grosjean) has been doing a lot of sim racing. Basically, we’re ready, we cannot wait.”

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