Austrian GP: Leclerc, Norris & 'silly season' talk – all you need to know before the race

For those who may be tiring of Mercedes’ domination of Formula 1 this year, the Austrian Grand Prix will come as welcome relief.

The world champions have been struggling a little all weekend – it’s all relative, of course; Lewis Hamilton still qualified second – and three cars from three different teams start in the top three places on the grid.

That is, as Hamilton said, “cool”, especially with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, arguably the two most exciting members of F1’s new generation, starting on the front row.

Verstappen was bumped up to second, alongside Leclerc, after Hamilton was given a three-place grid penalty for impeding Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen in first qualifying, which drops him to fourth, for arcane reasons we don’t need to go into here.

That will make Hamilton’s life considerably more difficult as he seeks a seventh win in nine races – and Mercedes’ as they look for a ninth in a row.

For everyone else, it simply adds to the promise of what could be the closest and most competitive race of the season so far.

Hamilton held his hands up for the penalty once it was announced, and it was clear from the way he talked before the investigation that he expected it was coming.

“I’m excited to get out there and race with these guys; they’re both so talented,” he said, before adding: “If I get to start the race with those guys, I think it will be quite a fun race.”

Indeed. Leclerc versus Verstappen versus Hamilton versus his team-mate Valtteri Bottas.

Finally, nine races into the season, F1 has the battle everyone wanted to see before it started.

Leclerc on a roll – but have Ferrari messed up?

Ferrari have looked strong all weekend with Leclerc their main contender. His team-mate Sebastian Vettel was generally a couple of tenths behind the 21-year-old run-for-run, even before a problem with an engine air line forced the German out of final qualifying and consigned him to ninth on the grid.

Ferrari’s competitiveness in Austria is down to their prodigious straight-line speed, a combination of the most powerful engine in F1 and a slippery car. Hamilton lost 0.3secs to Leclerc on the straights, Bottas 0.6secs; the difference accounted for by Hamilton getting a tow.

But they have also stepped up their cornering performance this weekend, with some aerodynamic revisions in the nose area to add to a new front wing introduced at the previous race in France.

On top of that, Leclerc looks like he might have turned a bit of a corner in terms of his personal performance in the last couple of races.

He has been quick all season, and should have won in Bahrain in March but for an engine problem that dropped him behind the Mercedes in the closing laps. After that, he was a little error-prone in qualifying. But he looked at that, and changes to his approach in France look to have moved him forward.

“I’ve changed a little bit the approach from Paul Ricard and I really felt I did a step forward,” Leclerc said. “Austria is also my favourite track, so it might fit a little bit better to my driving style but overall, I think, since Paul Ricard, I did a step forward.”

If Leclerc could convert this pole into a win, it would be a popular victory. Everyone recognises his talent and potential, and many felt for him not only in Bahrain, where victory slipped through his fingers, but also in Baku, where he again looked the form man, only to crash away his chances in qualifying.

This article is from the BBC Sport website / bbc.co.uk – Austrian GP: Leclerc, Norris & ‘silly season’ talk – all you need to know before the race