The two questions on every pundit's tongue before the Canadian Grand Prix were "Can Mercedes be stopped?" and "Who will step up if the Silver Arrows falter?" After a race that saw Lewis Hamilton drop out with brake problems and Nico Rosberg lose the lead, we have our answers: Yes and Red Bull boy wonder Daniel Ricciardo. F1 being what it is, drivers will have to resolve ever more complicated disputes at the track formerly known as Österreichring this weekend. Here's what we're hoping to learn from the Austrian Grand Prix…
1. How big a factor is experience when the cars are new?
The refurbished Red Bull Ring (neé, A1-Ring) has an 8-turn configuration nearly identical to the one it sported back in 2003, the last time F1 swung through. It’s not a new track, per say, but neither of the points-leading Mercedes drivers has ever grappled with this 2.68-mile circuit and defending race-winner Daniel Ricciardo and defending World Champion Sebastian Vettel will both be making maiden Austrian Grand Prix voyages. That's good news for Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, who have a trio of DNFs between them, and KimiRäikkönen and Jenson Button, who know the Spielberg scene. The twist? Rookies Kevin Magnussen and DaniilKvyat have both turned many laps at Red Bull Ring, albeit in Formula Renault capacity. The former registered a podium in 3.5 Series, the latter a pair of wins in 2.0 Alps.
The only wheelmen with any pedigree here are the grid’s two oldest and two youngest entrants. That’s totally bizarre. The new turbo cars will likely bend the learning curve, making familiarity a major factor. Our best indication will probably be qualification time. McLaren, Ferrari, and Williams all have an opportunity to put an inferior ahead of the Mercs.
Photo: Sonia Recchia / WireImage
2. Can Jenson Button turn it around for McLaren?
Last season was bad for McLaren F1 - catastrophically bad. The results were so lackluster that Ron Dennis staged an internal corporate coup to oust team principal Martin Whitmarsh then used his old contract to wipe the egg off everyone’s faces. The Woking boys are treading water in the Constructors’ standings, so racing director Eric Boullier has promised a “culture change,” “a new strategy,” and some major upgrades to a lackluster MP4-29 for Austria. In an aerodynamically deficient car, Button, the British ex-World Champion, has still managed four top-ten finishes, including a podium at Melbourne’s season-opener. At 34-years old, he's in the twilight of his career with a contract set to expire at the end of this season and Button’s needs a win almost as badly as his employer.
3. Can Fernando Alonso turn it around for Fernando Alonso?
At the time (2005), it seemed perfect: Fernando Alonso was F1’s youngest-ever World Champion, named heir to Schumacher’s throne, primed to cement his legacy and the Scuderia Ferrari dynasty. Oh, how things change in four years. Sebastian Vettel has towered over Alonso on the podium year after year, systematically smashing his records with an Adrian Newey-shaped hammer. Red Bull’s 2014 pre-season woes were a good omen, but when the perennial title-holders collapsed it was Mercedes—not Ferrari—that capitalized. Through the first seven Grand Prix races this season, Alonso has looked flat. Where are the manic starts and dogged late-race charges? Where’s the tenacity from F1’s highest-paid hand? Could the aging Spaniard finally be a bit … demoralized? Scarlet Mediocrity isn’t a flattering color on Alonso. That said, we’re not counting him out on Sunday. Reeling from a double-DNF in Canada, Mercedes enters this race limping; Alonso is a predator, liable to go off if he catches a whiff of weakness from Rosberg or Hamilton. Maybe Austria will give Ferrari's ace the spark he so desperately needs.
Photo: Hoch Zwei / Corbis
OUR PREDICTION: Mercedes rebounds from heat-related ERS-K failures in cooler Austrian temps. Rosberg takes the win with Hamilton in tow while Button claims his second podium of 2014.
Photos by Michael Kappeler / AFP / Getty Images