Pressure on Red Bull as rivals aim to ruin homecoming party

Jamie Woodhouse
Max Verstappen leaves his Red Bull pit box after the second of his pit stops. Canada June 2023.

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen smokes his tyres as he leaves his pit box. Canada June 2023.

Red Bull look pretty well set to continue their dominant ways with a ninth victory of F1 2023 on home soil, but it is far from a certainty with numerous potential obstacles lurking.

So far nobody has had an answer for Red Bull, while only Sergio Perez, Max Verstappen’s team-mate, has found a way to stop the Dutchman, doing so twice this campaign in Saudi Arabia and then Azerbaijan.

Verstappen’s six victories though, including four in a row, added to Perez’s triumphs, mean Red Bull have hoovered up all eight victories on offer so far, nine if you factor in Perez’s sprint victory in Azerbaijan.

Will the sprint be a friend for Red Bull on home soil?

For the first time since the Azerbaijan GP, the sprint format is back in Austria, but it is no certainty that this simply doubles the opportunities which Red Bull have to take a victory this weekend.

As Verstappen found out in Azerbaijan, accidents can happen in the sprint, a collision with George Russell leaving him with sidepod damage on the Red Bull RB19 which meant P3 was the best he could manage.

At least on that occasion, Verstappen was able to continue and make the top three, but a potential sprint-ending incident, or one that leaves Verstappen starting right towards the back of the Austrian GP grid, would put Red Bull’s winning streak under serious threat.

Sure, Perez would be expected to pick up the scraps and save that Red Bull win, but his recent alarming slump in form suggests he cannot be fully relied upon, having been absent from Q3 and the podium across the last three rounds.

Plus, while the Red Bull RB19 is proving to be unstoppable when it hits its stride, the sprint does not allow for the usual luxury which teams crave to truly nail down the sweet spot for their respective challengers, the schedule making finding that ideal setup very difficult.

Perhaps it was true back in Azerbaijan that Red Bull were so dominant it did not matter if they could not hit their highest level, but recent upgrade packages for Aston Martin and Mercedes appear to have made major dents into that margin of dominance, Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso nine-and-a-half seconds behind Verstappen at the chequered flag in Canada, with Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton four-and-a-half seconds further back.

With a lap of the Red Bull Ring being one of the shortest on the F1 2023 calendar, Red Bull perhaps may not be able to afford a level any lower than their best to keep this winning streak going.

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It may rain on the Red Bull parade

The last three grands prix have now seen rain make its mark on proceedings at some stage, and the forecast for the Austrian Grand Prix suggests that this particular streak for the weather may be about to extend to four.

Both FP1 and traditional qualifying on the Friday could be wet, with a 71 per cent chance of light rain showers, while there is also a 70 per cent chance of a wet track for the sprint shootout and sprint on Saturday.

With thundery showers forecast for Saturday, those could well dump a higher level of water onto the circuit at any given time and make for some very tricky conditions.

Thundery showers continue to feature in the forecast for race day, with a reduced, but still significant risk of 54 per cent.

Now, it could very easily be argued that Verstappen seems to just become even more unbeatable on a wet track, but there is always the risk of a small error bringing big consequences in such conditions, especially if the conditions are changing throughout a session.

And as was demonstrated by Verstappen in Monaco, while he ultimately dominated proceedings, even when the rain came down, he did manage to survive a major scare when he clonked the wall at Portier, that actually stopping him from going into a spin according to the Championship leader.

That time it actually worked out even better than could have been expected for Verstappen, but there is always every chance that such future moments will not, putting Red Bull’s unbeaten F1 2023 risk in serious jeopardy.

Multiple sources tipping Ferrari as Red Bull threat

It has been far from a positive campaign for Ferrari, but as Mercedes found when unveiling their new-look W14, Ferrari saw the second outing with their upgraded SF-23 bring about a marked improvement in performance.

Both Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz did though urge caution after the Canadian Grand Prix, considering the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is a venue lacking in high-speed corners and tyre wear, both glaring Ferrari weaknesses.

But, the Red Bull Ring also is not the most tyre-punishing track about, and Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko has suggested that if Leclerc starts in the top four in Austria, then Verstappen will not have an easy drive to victory.

Marko believes Ferrari had the fastest car in Canada, but the fact that Leclerc started P10 and Sainz P11 it let Red Bull off the hook.

Ferrari are also on Hamilton’s radar as the Scuderia return to the venue where they claimed their most recent victory, Leclerc having won the 2022 Austrian GP.

Red Bull then will no doubt be on high alert for the threat Ferrari could well pose.

Any further Red Bull threats lurking on the grid?

While Mercedes, Aston Martin and Ferrari are the only realistic threats to a Red Bull victory in Austria, rain is always a great leveller, plus there is another team readying the upgrades for this venue in a bid to make progress.

The team in question is McLaren, who having started the season behind target with their MCL60, will start to piece together their B-Spec challenger with the first stage arriving in Austria.

A more realistic target for McLaren of course would be to take the fight to Alpine, who have established themselves at the head of the pack competing behind Mercedes, Aston Martin and Ferrari.

Alpine go into this race full of feel-good though, with three investment groups, comprising of Maximum Effort Investments, Otro Capital and RedBird Capital Partners, having pumped £171m into Alpine Racing Ltd to secure a 24% equity stake.

Hollywood star Ryan Reynolds, his Wrexham AFC co-owner Rob McElhenney and fellow actor Michael B. Jordan are all puzzle pieces in this investment. Alpine will hope to make the perfect first impression in Austria.

Elsewhere, Haas will be hoping to have found some answers for their tyre management woes which continue to wreck their race plans, a particular trouble with the sprint format active in Austria, while AlphaTauri are in desperate need of points having dropped to the bottom of the Constructors’ Championship.