LEWIS Hamilton’s maiden visit to the Red Bull Ring culminated with the Briton emerging top dog in practice yesterday.
Situated in the Styrian mountains, the circuit – owned by billionaire energy drinks magnate Dietrich Mateschitz – is an old-school track complemented by modern-day facilities following a £60 million revamp.
The circuit itself, last used in Formula 1 in 2003, has remained unaltered since that visit 11 years ago, much to the delight of the drivers. At just a fraction over two miles it is the third shortest circuit on the current calendar behind Monaco and Interlagos in Brazil, but provides the fastest lap.
Coming into this weekend half the field had sampled the circuit via one form or another, be it in F1 many years ago, a junior formula or a track day.
Hamilton, however, conceded a fortnight ago his knowledge of the circuit was such he did not even know the direction of turn one.
But, come the conclusion to the two 90-minute sessions, it was the 29-year-old who led the way with a time of one minute 09.542secs, just 1.2secs slower than Michael Schumacher’s race lap record set in 2003.
With the fastest of Pirelli’s four compound tyres – the supersofts – strapped on to the Mercedes, Hamilton finished 0.377secs faster than team-mate Nico Rosberg as the duo resumed their battle for this season’s world title.
After retiring a fortnight ago in Canada, Hamilton is again in need of a run of victories to close the 22-point gap that has now opened up between himself and Rosberg, who has not been out of the top two all season after seven races.
The pair were the only two drivers to dip under 70 seconds over the course of the undulating lap that incorporates just nine corners.
As in the first practice session, when Rosberg edged Hamilton on the soft-compound rubber, Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso was again third best but only just from Williams duo Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa. Reigning four-times champion Sebastian Vettel and team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, winner last time out in Canada to end Mercedes’ dominant start to the campaign of six successive victories, were sixth and eighth quickest on the timesheet.
In FP1, Vettel was fortunate to avoid a smash into a barrier on the opposite side of the pit wall. Coming out of the final corner, Vettel caught the grass and twice spun through 360 degrees, avoiding the barrier by inches, with his car remarkably ending up back on the circuit and pointing in the right direction,
Vettel and Ricciardo sandwiched McLaren’s Jenson Button, who finished 1.271secs down in a car boasting a number of upgrades this weekend, with his own team-mate, Kevin Magnussen ninth.
Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne was again tenth, as in FP1, with Kimi Raikkonen seemingly struggling again in his Ferrari as the Finn was down in 11th, almost a second and a half back.
Marussia’s Max Chilton was in 18th, ahead of not only team-mate Jules Bianchi, but also the Lotus of Romain Grosjean, with the young Briton 2.687secs off the pace.
Sergio Perez is keen to move on after a decision to hand him a five-place grid penalty for tomorrow’s Austrian Grand Prix was upheld.
The stewards at the last race in Canada deemed Perez at fault for a final-lap accident in which Williams’ Felipe Massa ran into the back of the Mexican on the approach to turn one. Both drivers were lucky to escape injury after suffering sizeable impacts, leading to a war of words in public as each blamed the other for the Montreal crash.
Believing they had new evidence that showed Perez did no wrong, Force India demanded a new hearing at the Red Bull Ring in Austria. However, the stewards decided the original decision would stand, much to Perez’s obvious annoyance.
“I feel quite disappointed because I felt we showed all the evidence,” said Perez. “Now it’s time to move on, to look forward, although for Sunday it will be a big pain to be five places back [on the grid] at a track which is so small and where it is so difficult to overtake.”