MAY 14, 2003
AUSTRIAN GP - PREVIEW
This weekend will see the final Austrian Grand Prix in the foreseeable future with Formula 1 turning its attention outside Europe as the EU's attack on tobacco continues to squeeze the sport. Austria is the first victim of EU policy although the Belgian GP has also run into difficulties because of the Belgian government's desire to bring in a tobacco sponsorship ban before the EU ban in 2005.
Austria has been back on the calendar since 1997 after a break of 10 years. The revised circuit, once known as the Osterreichring but renamed the A1 Ring when it was rebuilt, was not as popular as the original track as most of the challenging corners of the circuit had been altered. The nature of the track had changed from fast and sweeping to being a typical modern stop-go design. This promoted close racing but was not as popular with the drivers or the public, although Austria never lacked crowds thanks to the fact that thousands of Schumacher fans were willing to take to their camper vans and drive down to watch the race. The area around the A1 Ring did not really have the infrastructure needed for a modern Grand Prix and hotel accommodation in particular were always a problem.
The local government took over the promotion of the event a couple of years ago and worked hard to keep the track up to scratch but in the end it was politicians in Brussels who sealed the fate of the race, a major blow to the local economy, which was reckoned to gain around $40m from direct spending associated with the race each year.
The last race at the A1 Ring is likely to be an interesting one because the new F1 regulations will have more of an effect in Austria than they have done at some of the other races. The reason for this is that in the past the track has seen big differences in set-up between qualifying trim and race trim. The teams now have to use the same set-up for qualifying and for the race and that will mean that they will either have to deal with cars that are too loose in qualifying or too slow on the straights in the race. Thus it is likely that this year teams will be split by those that want a good qualifying set-up and will then hope to hold back the other cars in the race and those that will want to be able to overtake in the race and so will compromise their performance in qualifying. One way or the other we can expect to see a grid which is more jumbled up than usual, drivers who will want to make quick progress on the first lap (and thus are willing to take more risks than usual) and so it is possible we will get an unusual result.
On paper it should be Ferrari in the dominant position particularly if the team is using the latest Bridgestone rubber designed specifically for the new F2003 GA chassis. Rubens Barrichello is always quick in Austria and so he could be worth watching although it is a brave man who ever bets against Michael Schumacher.
Renault has admitted that it does not expect to be the force it was in Barcelona as the A1 Ring is a track where horsepower is needed and so we would expect to see McLaren and Williams as the major challengers as usual. At Imola Williams was closer than McLaren although the strategies resulted in McLaren ending up ahead at the end of the race. That could happen again as overall the McLaren-Mercedes package has seemed to be slightly ahead of the Williams-BMW this year. It will be worth keeping an eye on Jaguar Racing as Mark Webber was strong in qualifying at Imola although Jaguar's software glitches put paid to his chances in the race. The BAR-Hondas will also be in with a shout of getting points so long as the reliability is good enough. There is likely to be a very lively fight behind the big teams with BAR, Jaguar, Renault, Toyota and Sauber all hard at it. Jordan and Minardi are expected to be at the back as usual.