Formula One in brave new world as Verstappen seeks repeat Austria triumph
Spielberg (Austria) (AFP)
Max Verstappen will seek a hat-trick of home wins for Red Bull and an early lead in the drivers championship at this weekend's delayed and somewhat surreal season-opening Austrian Grand Prix.
For everyone involved, the race will be an unprecedented experience – the calendar is unknown beyond the first eight races in Europe in 10 weeks, all to be run behind closed doors and severe limitations introduced with a new paddock protocol forbidding meetings.
As racing returns, the COVID-19 virus remains in circulation, which requires all participants to be tested before travel to Austria on private chartered jets, ongoing tests, the separation of teams and car crews into "bubbles" and controlled hotels.
Teams are cut to a maximum of 80 staff, all in protective equipment, there will be no sponsors, no guests and only a limited number of accredited broadcast and written news media.
Journalists, limited to a dozen instead of 300 or more, have to pass a test within 72 hours in advance of arrival and will not be allowed to leave the media centre.
All interviews and news conferences will take place by video.
The teams will be kept isolated, based in tents with awnings instead of their usual grand motorhomes – and there is expected to be a synchronised taking the knee by the drivers on the grid, to support Black Lives Matter, ahead of Sunday's race.
Afterwards, there will be no podium ceremony.
When the race begins, it will end the longest gap between races in the sport since 1962, but with two successive races in Austria and then one in Hungary, the pressure will be immediate and intense.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said: "There's been a long drought. We all do this because we love it. We've missed it, so we can't wait to start."
"It's going to be exciting and intense. The races come thick and fast."
Dutch driver Verstappen, who bullied his way past Ferrari rival Charles Leclerc to triumph in front of a mass of his "orange army" of fans last year, says he is unfazed by high expectations or the absence of spectators at the Red Bull Ring, a remote and compact circuit in the Styrian Alps.
"I am not thinking about a hat-trick," he said.
"The most important thing for me is to have a competitive car and to perform at my best.
"I never consider myself as a favourite because, actually, when you look at the track, it's not even our best one, but last year it was very warm and we were good at keeping the engine cool.
"So I don't expect an easy win – I think Mercedes will be very strong again and they are the ones to beat."
Verstappen, who has kept a low profile during the lockdown, delivered three wins and eight podiums last year as Lewis Hamilton claimed his sixth title with Mercedes, who this year seek an unprecedented seventh constructors' and drivers' double in succession.
Verstappen and team-mate Alex Albon will have an upgraded Honda engine package, developed since the coronavirus lockdown ended, to boost them at the contest in the Styrian Alps where the 800-metre altitude can affect engine performance.
Mercedes will also have an updated package while Ferrari, struggling to match them in pre-season testing, announced Tuesday that they are updating their cars for the third race in Hungary.
Hamilton this year bids for a record-equalling seventh drivers title as he campaigns passionately for greater diversity, and against racism, in the sport.
"We are preparing the best way we can for what is going to be the most difficult season that F1 and all of us have experienced," he said in a video from the team, which – at his prompting -- is running black livery this year to support equality and diversity.
© 2020 AFP