Four months after the opening race was called off at the last minute, the Formula One season finally gets underway this weekend in another continent and in a different looking world.
There will be no fans on hand at the remote Spielberg track in Austria, with the coronavirus still creating uncertainty over how many races can actually be held and where.
That may not be the only unusual sight, as drivers are discussing whether to take the knee together on the grid before Sunday’s race in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Defending F1 champion Lewis Hamilton has been an outspoken supporter of the movement and will be competing in an all-black Mercedes car instead of the usual silver as a gesture of support towards curbing racism.
“It is so important that we seize this moment,” said Hamilton, the only driver of black origin to become an F1 champion – an achievement that must be praised during these times of racial discrimination.
The truncated campaign kicks off with back-to-back races in Austria, as part of a hastily reworked schedule. It was meant to start nearly 10,000 miles away in Melbourne, Australia.
But the fast-spreading impact of the coronavirus pandemic led to the Australian GP being canceled on March 13, two days before the scheduled race, while people were still queuing for the first practice sessions. Several other races including the showcase Monaco GP were also canceled.
A rescue package with eight European races squeezed into ten weeks, culminating with the Italian GP on September 6 was scrambled together. F1 still hopes to rearrange some of the postponed races in order to finish the season with 15-18 of the scheduled 22.
There will also be two consecutive races at the British GP. If the season continues beyond Europe, it will end with races in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi in December.
“We actually don’t even know the amount of races we are going to do,” McLaren and future Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz Jr. said. “It’s an unprecedented scenario.”
Spielberg’s Red Bull Ring is quite cut off from major towns or cities and offers a consoling secluded feel amidst coronavirus fears. But strict health and safety measures have been put into place nonethless.
Everyone entering the track, including a greatly reduced number of media representatives must be tested negative for Covid-19 and further tests will be carried out every five days. F1 teams are not allowed to mingle with each other — on or off the track — and media have no access to F1’s paddock area.
Drivers would have normally faced a barrage of questions from the eager Press in a news conference room but health requirements have compelled drivers to hold news conferences via video links and with questions sent in advance.
Spielberg’s 2.7-mile circuit will be largely empty. It is normally swarming with tents, camper vans, makeshift barbecues and tens of thousands of orange-shirted Max Verstappen fans.
The Red Bull driver has won the past two races here which only adds on to his hugely popular status at home in the Netherlands.
The track is among the shortest in F1 but also one of the most aggressive. Drivers spend about 72% of the time at full throttle, second only to Italy’s Monza track with 77%.
That’s perfectly in accordance to Verstappen’s bold and abrasive racing style. Last season he chased down the leading trio before making a brazen overtaking move on race leader Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari.
22 year old Max Verstappen showed last season that he is closing the gap to Hamilton in terms of wheel-to-wheel driving. Red Bull’s car also made a noteworthy improvement in speed while Ferrari’s seemed to fade and Max is emerging as a major title threat to Hamilton.
Hamilton is chasing a record-equaling seventh F1 title to equal Michael Schumacher’s record and only needs to win eight more races to beat Schumacher’s mark of 91.
Apart from Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas, Hamilton’s improving teammate at Mercedes – the other main challenger is Leclerc.
The 22 year old Monaco driver is extremely fast and has impressed keen observers of the sport in his first season itself at Ferrari with seven pole positions, two more than Hamilton along with two wins.
He is now Ferrari’s No. 1 ahead of four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel. The German veteran is leaving at the end of the year and eager fans await an announcement from him about his future in F1.