Hamilton, Bottas lead Austrian GP practice in upgraded cars
SPIELBERG, Austria (AP) — Mercedes duo Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas were fastest in practice on Friday for the Austrian Formula One Grand Prix after an upgrade to the aerodynamics of their cars paid off.
With a new side pod design and an adapted rear wing, Hamilton led his team mate by 0.127 in the morning session and 0.176 in the afternoon.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, who trails championship leader Hamilton by 14 points going into Sunday’s ninth of 21 races, had a fastest lap that was 0.236 behind Hamilton’s.
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen had the fourth and fifth best times, respectively.
The changes to the aerodynamics of the chassis came a week after Mercedes finally introduced its improved engine, which helped Hamilton to a convincing win at the French GP.
“It’s really great to see the updates,” four-time champion Hamilton said. “The guys at the factory have been working so hard to bring quality components. The car feels better in certain areas around the track, which is already a step forward from last week.”
Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff called it “a change in concept in our aero development.”
“It is a necessary step. Red Bull and Ferrari are not going to rest on their laurels,” he said. “Even if you can put on another 50 milliseconds for the race, you will do it because that might be the difference.”
Mercedes has won all four races since the Austrian GP returned to the calendar in 2014. Nico Rosberg took the first two editions, Hamilton triumphed in 2016, and Bottas last year. The Finnish driver also earned his first podium result here, in a Williams in 2014.
“Austria was a kind track for us in the past, lots of power up the hill,” Wolff said. “But you can see the new reality is there are three teams capable of putting the car in the front and winning races.”
Fourth in the morning, Vettel reduced the gap to Hamilton in the afternoon, leaving the German hopeful for Saturday’s qualifying session.
“I think the car has been quite good today,” he said. “Usually we have a good step from Friday to Saturday so we’ll see what we can do tomorrow. Mercedes had the upper hand today, they looked very quick in all conditions but I think it was a tricky Friday.”
Red Bull did not use a long-awaited improved Renault engine. The new version should make reliability better, according to the manufacturer, but the team decided not to deploy it as Verstappen and Ricciardo would have received grid penalties for using yet another version.
In first practice, Ricciardo spent time off the track as mechanics worked on his front left brakes. Verstappen spun his car on the fourth turn and ended up in the gravel but didn’t damage his car.
In the afternoon, the Dutch driver was slowed by a damaged floor.
McLaren was fined 10,000 euros ($11,500) for an “unsafe release” after sending Stoffel Vandoorne out of the garage just as Vettel passed, forcing him to brake sharply.
“Did you see that?”, Vettel asked his team over the radio.
Surrounded by the Styrian Alps, the 4.3-kilometer Red Bull Ring is one of the fastest tracks on the circuit, with drivers on full throttle for about two-thirds of each lap and reaching an average speed of 240 kph.
New this year is a third zone where the drag reduction system can be used, helping with overtaking as it gives a speed boost to a chasing driver.
Not everyone approves, however. “There are a lot of people that maybe like the idea of Mario Kart (...) but I think it shouldn’t get artificial,” Vettel said.
Third practice is scheduled for Saturday, followed by qualifying.