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Why Ferrari has glimmers of hope to be racing Red Bull in the Austrian GP

Red Bull and Max Verstappen have dominated the 2023 Formula 1 season so far, but after Charles Leclerc placed his Ferrari on the front row for Sunday's Austrian Grand Prix, Alex Kalinauckas assesses whether the Scuderia can now challenge across a race distance

Top three qualifiers Carlos Sainz, Scuderia Ferrari, pole man Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, Charles Leclerc, Scuderia Ferrari

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

The sun finally burst through the clouds overlooking the Red Bull Ring on Saturday evening – three hours after the Austrian Grand Prix sprint race had concluded. Rain and low-hanging, misty clouds had otherwise prevailed on a day of glory, reflected tragedy and controversy in the Styrian mountains. 

The glory belonged to Max Verstappen and Red Bull – the combination also having a hand in the controversies too. These were a bizarre sprint shootout Q1 clash between Verstappen and Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, and the Dutchman's brutal battle with team-mate Sergio Perez in their early sprint race exchanges. 

Afterwards, Verstappen and other drivers spoke eloquently about the death of Dilano van 't Hoff – Verstappen's compatriot killed in a wet Formula Regional Championship by Alpine race on the support card of the Spa 24 Hours.  

Their sorrow should be the main takeaway from Saturday – the incident marked at the Red Bull Ring by a moment of reflection on the grid ahead of the Formula 2 sprint race, headed by members of van 't Hoff's MP Motorsport team. Conversations in the Red Bull Ring paddock include whether more fundamental changes now need to be made to Spa's layout to avoid any more death at the venue F1 will visit later this month. 

Saturday nevertheless marched on relentlessly even under real and metaphorical clouds.  

Verstappen's sprint win actually provided little hint of what is to come in the main race today, other than he and Red Bull remain rapid – as it is unlikely the two RB19s will be vying over the same piece of road again on Sunday.  

But should that unlikely scenario come to pass, then you can bet Verstappen and Perez will be as savage as they were yesterday in their defensive and attacking intra-team moves – no matter how quickly they moved to calm the waters in the media afterwards. 

Verstappen and Perez debriefed in parc ferme after coming close to contact on the opening lap of Saturday's sprint race

Verstappen and Perez debriefed in parc ferme after coming close to contact on the opening lap of Saturday's sprint race

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

For all that was said between them and to the cameras in parc ferme and to the journalists in the post-sprint press conference, Verstappen's "the exit of Turn 1, that was not nice" message on his team radio after the sprint's finish was the most telling line of the day. 

Verstappen edging Perez so wide at Turn 4 on the sprint's opening lap and allowing Nico Hulkenberg to brilliantly get in between the warring Red Bull pair meant there was no scrap for the sprint victory. Verstappen simply eased clear to win by 21.048s over Perez – driving to keep his intermediates in steady shape as the track dried.  

As that pair and Carlos Sainz completed the whole race on the inters and those that did take slicks weren't racing in the fully dry, and hotter conditions are expected for the GP, there is no sprint event tyre wear data to provide clues as to whether Ferrari can really threaten Red Bull with its updated SF-23 on Sunday. 

"In the wet, we've been struggling sometimes with intermediate tyres to protect the front tyres. I elected to just run a very aggressive balance and probably overdid it" Carlos Sainz

Sainz came home 2.040s behind Perez, having fallen from just 0.6s adrift as they chased Hulkenberg, then from 1.3s behind as his inters wore over the second half of the race when they'd both cleared the Haas.  

He put this down to his inters wearing as he struggled with oversteer in the high-speed corners here, having adjusted his steering wheel tools that close the differential on his SF-23 to make his balance "very aggressive" in the wet to actually try and help his tyre wear. That was as much as anyone could do given the parc ferme rules on car set-up have been in place since Friday qualifying. 

"It was a pure balance thing that we elected to drive on the car [in the sprint]," Sainz explained. "In the wet, we've been struggling sometimes with intermediate tyres to protect the front tyres. I elected to just run a very aggressive balance and probably overdid it and I was oversteering a lot in the high-speed corners due to this, which is not ideal. It takes away a bit of confidence.  

"[It was the] first time on the inter in the whole weekend, so you never know where to put the balance and probably overstepped it. But it's not a negative sign at all." 

Sainz finished third in the sprint after conceding he

Sainz finished third in the sprint after conceding he "overdid" his set-up

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

We'll get to why later, as that is central to Ferrari's chances of battling Red Bull over a race stint – as it did so well here last year but has been unable to since then – especially in the opening eight rounds of 2023. Charles Leclerc will start alongside Verstappen on the front row, with Sainz just behind in third. 

With the sprint race conditions reducing the available dry running data even more than the compacted timetable for such events normally does, we can look back to how the leading teams got on in FP1 for clues as to their full potential later today. 

This is even more fraught with peril than with our typical FP2 data analysis conducted on a 'normal' Friday night. The usual caveats about differing fuel levels and engine modes apply of course, but in this weekend's sole practice session, several teams did not conduct any regular high fuel running – with a set fuel load and their drivers instructed to adopt projected race pace. 

This included Ferrari, which completed short bursts of race pace times followed by long cool-downs as its run plan for most of FP1, before concentrating on qualifying simulation preparation late on – a choice that seemed to pay off nicely with Leclerc pushing Verstappen very hard for GP pole later that day.  

Leclerc briefly did enough with a wild final corner transgression before a tiny exit wobble meant Verstappen's steadier run through Turn 10 and better exit momentum provided the 0.048s gap – per GPS data logged from the two cars. 

The Ferrari does appear to be gaining on a straight line compared to the Red Bull over a single lap based on that same data, but it is its performance over a stint that matters much more now.  

Mercedes and Aston Martin did appear to conduct typical high-fuel running in FP1 along with Red Bull. But Fernando Alonso was the only driver of the typical 2023 frontrunners to be tasked with assessing the mediums and so his average pace of 1m10.097s over 11 laps should be treated as an outlier, compared to the rest on the hards. 

Mercedes' recent progress appears to have stalled in Austria

Mercedes' recent progress appears to have stalled in Austria

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

George Russell's 1m09.862s average over 10 laps came out best on that compound, with Verstappen's identical length stint actually 1.1s slower. But paddock sources indicate that race pace expectations here among the teams are more along the lines of what was seen in the race in Spain, rather than some shock turnaround in Red Bull's performance. A higher fuel load for the world champion is the most likely explanation.

Aston is also something of a question mark because it hasn't troubled the leading positions, as it has typically done elsewhere so far this weekend, which team principal Mike Krack said was down to its "conservative" approach meaning slipping into time gaps on the qualifying results sheet and the sprint race pack with the short layout here. The team's DRS deficit to its rivals is particularly exposed here as in qualifying the system has to be opened for 35% of the lap.

But Aston will be wary that it was unexpectedly adrift of Mercedes on race day at Barcelona – in hotter conditions compared with what is expected in Austria later. The cooler swing in Spain helped the black cars compared to the green ones. 

Ferrari got its settings and sums right on the tyres in 2022 while Red Bull did not, which may also explain the red team's FP1 run plan tactics given the compounds are the same this time around

Lando Norris's updated McLaren could also play a part in the outcome of Sunday's proceedings. The orange team feels its massive upgrade is working as predicted by its factory data and so is encouraged about its pace performance, but McLaren isn't getting carried away considering its race chances today. 

Norris insists he and his car package also simply do well around this track – as was famously seen in 2020 and 2021. 

"Austria is a track that we've always performed well at," he said post-sprint race. "We have to take it with a pinch of salt. That even if we were here with the old car… we would have been in Q3.   

"We can look at it as a positive that we would have still been here anyway. It's just flattered us even more that we've brought a car that is performing very well." 

Norris is running a 'B-Spec' MCL60 with the upgrades yielding significant pace

Norris is running a 'B-Spec' MCL60 with the upgrades yielding significant pace

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Norris may still play something of a spoiler as the Mercedes and Aston drivers give chase early on, plus for Perez coming back through the field, as must be expected right now given the typical pace in the RB19 over the rest in race conditions. 

But Perez's absence at the front provides Ferrari with a chance – even if it's a tiny one – to take on Verstappen today.  

With two cars behind the polesitter and the Red Bull Ring's opening turns notorious for chaos, there is a significant chance the Scuderia can use its numerical advantage to take on and then bottle up Verstappen early on. It's a big 'if' situation, but a real one nevertheless. 

Then there's the team's performance here last year. Once again, this race is expected to be a two-stopper – starting on the mediums and then two stints on hards. It should've been a two-stop affair last year but for Leclerc and Verstappen stopping for a 'free' third service under the virtual safety car activated to cover Sainz's fiery exit. 

Ferrari got its settings and sums right on the tyres in 2022 while Red Bull did not, which may also explain the red team's FP1 run plan tactics given the compounds are the same this time around. 

But, Verstappen's car advantage is greater this year, which is why Ferrari also isn't getting too punchy with its hopes for the GP. Yet, Sainz's belief that it has made progress in improving its high-speed corner balance and performance in dry conditions, rather than the mixed in the sprint, is encouraging even if the red cars can't swamp the lone blue one early in today's race. 

"At least for me this weekend the high speed feels a bit more together," he said after qualifying behind Verstappen and Leclerc on Friday evening. 

Sainz kept pace with one Red Bull in the wet sprint race, but the true test of Ferrari's progress will be the dry grand prix

Sainz kept pace with one Red Bull in the wet sprint race, but the true test of Ferrari's progress will be the dry grand prix

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

"Barcelona, we were struggling a lot in the high-speed corners. And this weekend, the high-speed corners have been a better situation for us – better confidence, more consistent car. Again, that's part of the job that we wanted to do [with the front wing and front floor upgrades introduced in Austria]. But also the race pace is what we want to improve and we will need to see how we compare there to Max and to the Mercedes." 

Leclerc is also adamant that if the race is fully dry, he won't have the confidence problems that stymied him in the sprint.

This issue seems to be most significant in mixed conditions this year (think Barcelona and Canada qualifying too), which Leclerc can only assume "I always seem to do something wrong with my driving style that doesn't help the car, that makes me lose confidence".  

In qualifying for the sprint here Leclerc struggled even though he was one of the few drivers to have new available softs in Q3. He ended up ruing not taking two preparations laps ahead of a second flier in that session, after which he was given a grid drop for impeding Oscar Piastri in Q1, as his C5s were too hot still from their opening effort when it came to completing his last run. 

"I just didn't have enough grip," he concluded. "Which is a shame, but it's like this." 

A dry race today will give Ferrari a real test of its tyre degradation progress in Canada last time out. Its rivals have been modelling both good and poor results in this area on the red cars, in case they need to take strategy steps to combat an improvement.

Perhaps its high-speed corner happiness already this weekend will mean it can turn what are faint glimmers of hope into tangible success in the main race, which nevertheless remains one where Verstappen still starts as the heavy favourite.

Verstappen is in dominant form and has scored six wins form the opening eight races

Verstappen is in dominant form and has scored six wins form the opening eight races

Photo by: Jake Grant / Motorsport Images

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