Every Formula 1 season start is painted as the harbinger of change: the new cars, on which hopes and expectations are pinned by teams and fans alike; new venues to explore; new weekend formats with which to experiment. But what happens when the season start is, actually, a restart?
The 2020 F1 season will always be remembered as one in which the world of Formula One – and, of course, the world at large – got turned on its head. In the light of the Covid-19 outbreak and the suffering it brought, sport, no matter how loved, took a secondary role: but as the planet starts re-emerging from its widespread lockdowns, we are ready to once again focus on what we love doing. Racing cars.
In recent times, the longest we’d go between seasons were the frantic three-ish months between the final post-test pack-up in the Abu Dhabi heat and the first laps in (chillier) Barcelona: three months of car development, feverish parts-building and media work, three months in which hardly a breath was taken. Once things got going in Melbourne, summer shutdown would be the only break, two weeks in which the factories would close and the F1 community would collectively relocate to places with names starting with “Playa del” and the only pit that mattered was a barbecue one.
And yet, seven months on from the last race in 2019 and nearly four since the paddock last congregated in Melbourne, we are ready to race again. Which leads to the original question – what will happen once the cars line up in Austria?
This season, we will be confronted with unique circumstances, on and off the track. With restrictions put in place to guarantee the safety of all competitors and staff, consecutive races in the same venue (devoid of fans), and a clearer view of what the future, in the shape of the rules for 2021, 2022 and beyond, looks like, Formula One is back in a new guise. We will make our first, tentative steps in the new paddock, build our cars while wearing PPE and observing distancing rules, then race in this new race weekend format.
What will the pecking order look like? It is hard to tell now. The midfield will be close, as always. A tenth here and there may result in the two races in Austria looking completely different one from the other. Teams will assess the developments they managed to squeeze in during the little time at the factory since Melbourne. The early-season jitters could bring some surprises. All in all, it will be a classic season opener, full of “what if” and “if only” moments, unpredictability and excitement. It will be different, but it will be what we have been looking for.
Frédéric Vasseur, Team Principal Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN:
“It has been so long since the last race in Abu Dhabi, so obviously we are eager to go back to racing: this is what drives us on and what we have been working for all season. Of course, the situation will be different, given the restrictions forced on us by the pandemic: but we are confident in the measures the FIA and Formula One have taken to keep us all safe. The first race of the season is often a chaotic affair and that’s when opportunities arise: we will need to be ready to take any that come our way. Racing again here in a week’s time will be a new experience for all of us, but we expect the midfield battle to be so close to make both races really open and unpredictable.”
“It will feel a bit weird to get back to racing in these conditions, but I am sure that once we are in the car we will not focus on the restrictions but just on doing the best job we can. The break was a chance to spend time with my family but now we have to focus on the job. With so many races in so little time, we need to make the most of every event and score points every time we get the chance. It’s hard to tell where everyone stands, but we will find out soon enough.”
“We return to action this week and I cannot wait to be in the car. It has been a very sombre few months for everyone, and with my family and so many friends back home in Italy, I was particularly touched by it. To go back to racing feels like another step towards some sort of normality. I am curious to see how everyone does in Austria and to see what happens with two races in the same venue; it’s a first for Formula One so it will be something we will need to adapt to. As for being rusty after so many months away, I am not worried about that: I didn’t race for two years between 2017 and 2019, so, if anything, I will try to turn that into an advantage.
Cyril Abiteboul, Renault Team Principal:
“After the long, enforced break, the 2020 season can get underway. It has been a long journey since Australia: nine weeks shutdown at Enstone and seven weeks at Viry. While taking the necessary measures to protect itself, the Formula 1 community has mobilised to deploy its skills and resources around collective projects to respond to the challenges presented by the epidemic. In parallel, immense work has been done by the FIA, F1 and teams to provide effective responses so that racing can return in a secure environment. We now have to adapt to this new mode of operation but seeing the cars on track is a positive signal of progress on the health front.”
“I’m raring to go! It’s been a long time since I’ve raced or even competed properly in anything. It’s getting close now and I had a good taste for it with the test in Austria earlier this month. It’s about getting back to business. We’re all so excited to go racing again. We’ll get on with it and give it our all as we know the season is going to be shorter than usual and very fast-paced. We want to get some points on the board, begin the season on the right foot and lay a solid foundation for us to build some good momentum.”
“It’s been a year and half of waiting to be on the Formula 1 grid again, so I’m very excited for this first race. It feels fantastic to be starting the season. We have set our targets; we know what we want to achieve on track, and I know what I have to do behind the wheel. A lot of work has gone into preparing for this first race, I’m with a great team, driving a competitive car and I’m certainly hungry for it. I’m looking forward to it, and we’ll be targeting coming away with points.”
Andreas Seidl, McLaren Team Principal:
“It’s been a long wait, but we’re finally ready to get the 2020 season underway. I know that the fans, our drivers and our team have been waiting a long time for this moment and are all excited and hungry to get out there again. This temporary break in our sport has only made us more motivated to fight again. We’re looking forward to getting back to racing and going for the competition as hard as we can. It will be odd heading to track without fans in the grandstands, we feel their support everywhere we go and will be doing our best to put on a good show for those watching from the safety of their homes.
“Our preparation for Austria has been a balance between building enough parts to get through an intense period of races and updating and developing the car. The team is back up and running again, whether at home or in the factory, and we’re working hard to keep improving the car however we can. We have also spent some time getting used to the new working practices that will enable us to race safely, and we thank Formula 1, the FIA, the circuit and local authorities for their work on this. As one of the first international sports to restart, we value their commitment to keeping our team and the wider paddock safe.
“Two races in Austria presents an interesting new challenge for us. We were strong there last year but, with the uncertainty caused by the delayed start to the season, we will need to be operating at 100% to maximise our performances in both races. I know the whole team, Lando and Carlos are all excited by this challenge and we’ve been working hard to make sure we hit the ground running in Austria.”
“After a long and difficult time away from racing, it’s finally time to get back at it! It’s been my longest period without competing since I started in go-karts many years ago! The MCL35 felt really good during winter testing, a positive continuation of what we had last year, so I’m very excited to finally compete this season. It’s also been an interesting period away from track, but now we’re back to racing I’m completely focused on the 2020 season. Due to less races in the calendar and the strong competition we expect from our direct rivals we can’t afford to lose concentration. We actually don’t even know the amount of races we are going to do, it’s an unprecedented scenario, so every point we can get is absolutely crucial. As always, I will do everything to perform at my highest level and help the team. I’ve been keeping fit and ready to get back in the car, so I’m ready to hit the ground running in FP1.
“Last year we did well in Austria, having to battle into the points from the back of the grid due to a penalty, so we know there are plenty of opportunities for on-track overtakes. However, it’s difficult to confidently predict our performance given the time away from track. The double header at the same circuit presents a new challenge for everyone and we need to make sure we extract the maximum out of it. I know that by the time the lights go out on Sunday, we´ll be more than ready to fight for the best position possible.”
“I can’t wait to get back into a Formula 1 car, it’s been a long time coming! This break has been the longest I’ve ever taken since I started racing at seven years old, I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve been working hard throughout this period away from track to stay sharp and ready to go racing again. I’ve been training at home a lot and spending plenty of time on my simulator. I’ve also managed to get some karting and F3 sessions in with Carlos over the last few weeks to help get race ready as best I can.
“I’m pleased we’re getting started again in Austria, it’s a great, fast, track and we performed well there last year. It will be an interesting challenge to race there two weekends in a row, but also a great opportunity to analyse how the first race could have panned out differently and adjust our strategy for the second. I expect all of the grid will be feeling a bit rusty going into FP1, but I’m sure we’ll all be back up to speed when it comes to qualifying on Saturday. It will be a real shame not to have the fans at the track as we feel their support, but safety is the priority and we’ll be doing everything we can to give them a good show.”
“It’s short and technical which makes it feel really tight – but it’s got a really nice flow to it too, It’s only just over a minute for a Quali lap, so every corner has to be spot on. It’s almost like a kart track in that sense.
“Every detail of the lap and every hundredth of a second matters. Those sorts of fractions can be the difference between two or three positions on the grid – and that makes it really exciting.”
“Austria is awesome! It feels like home out there, you’re up in the mountains and I’m definitely a mountain guy. I’m big into my skiing and I love the outdoors. You can really soak up the fresh air and all that spectacular scenery in Austria. I really love going there.”
“It’s quite a challenging track, actually, It’s a really short lap and every corner is tricky, so you’ve got to be very precise and make sure that every single one is perfect.
“It’s quite different to most tracks in that sense, because there’s more pressure than normal on a single lap. Turn 3 is one of the best challenges. It can be hard to spot your apex point – especially in traffic – but it’s a cool corner and one that I enjoy.”
“I first raced there [in Austria] in 2014, so only a few years ago. I haven’t spent as much time as I’d like in Austria away from the track – but it’s a place that I really enjoy visiting. It’s a really unique venue with beautiful scenery – you really feel like you’re surrounded by nature.
“It’s also the home race for BWT, who have been really supportive of us over the years, so it’s important for us to put on a great race for them.”
“After Australia was cancelled, I went to Dubai as that had always been my plan to go there before moving onto Bahrain for the second race. I thought I’d spend two or three days there to see how the situation evolved. Then we saw that Italy had shut its airports, so I couldn’t go back there and I also did not want to go back to France and maybe put my family at risk after all the flights I’d been on. So, I decided to stay in Dubai with my trainer and we effectively had a two month training camp. Restrictions in Dubai were pretty much the same as in Europe and you had to wear a mask and gloves to go outside the apartment.
“Eventually, I returned to France in mid-May which was a strange experience, with an almost deserted Dubai airport and no direct flights to France so I had to go via Frankfurt. Everything ran late, I missed my train and ended up with a seven hour drive to get home! It felt good to spend some time with them, because usually I don’t see them much during the year. I’ve never had such a long break from racing or from flying, as we’re usually at an airport every few days. Nor have I ever spent two months in one place before, since I was maybe ten years old.
“In Dubai, I probably trained for 58 days out of 60, so physically I’m in the best shape of my life and I’ve really improved. I spent some time playing on line with some friends and I also decided to improve my Italian and took some lessons on line. I also worked on getting my boat pilot’s license, as well as doing some real karting and playing golf. When I got back home to France, I continued with the karting and also took part in the virtual F1 and Le Mans races which was a fantastic experience. It was fun and filled the time. I also kept in touch with the team, talking to Franz every week, as well as my engineer. Then finally, we got to drive a real Formula 1 car again at Imola for the filming day, first in the 2018 car and then in this year’s. It was incredible, especially at Imola, one of my favourite tracks, where I last raced in 2012. It made me super happy.
“I miss racing, the adrenaline, the competition and the speed, so it’s super that we can start again. It’s going to be really busy with a race nearly every week, so it’s a very exciting time right now. It’s a shame there will be no fans at the first few races, but I feel it was important to get the season started as soon and as safely as possible. Hopefully things will free up in the coming months.
“I trust all the safety requirements to be in place. There are certainly plenty of restrictions in terms of how we can move about and talk to people, with all sorts of health related rules in place. It’s not straightforward and we will take all the necessary precautions. For the drivers, at least when we are in the car, it will all seem like normal. It’s outside that things are more complicated.”
“After the race in Melbourne was cancelled, I just wanted to get home as quickly as possible, because that’s where you want to be in these kind of times. As soon as I got back, the lockdown started so I was pretty much in quarantine in my home in Monaco. It was interesting times, a bit different, but we tried to adapt to find some different things to do, including some sport as it was important not be just sitting around doing nothing. Some aspects of it were not so bad and I slept a bit more than usual! But after a while it became quite monotonous. It was the longest time I went without driving a real race car apart from when I had a year off from Formula 1, so I have experienced this sort of long break before.
“As soon as the karting tracks were opened up again at the beginning of May, I was there right away. It was good to be driving again and I did quite a lot of it and it was a useful way of keeping alive your muscle memory for driving and racing, as well as being enjoyable.
“During the lockdown, I kept in touch with Mattia my race engineer. In fact, I have a small simulator at home and together with him, we did a few qualifying simulations. I would connect him via an iPad that I had next to me and we would simulate a qualifying session and he would talk to me as though we were doing it for real on an actual track. That was the best we could do. I know a lot of the other F1 drivers did a lot of this sim racing, but I have to say it’s not really my thing as I don’t feel it’s very representative of driving an actual car. At the moment, I have not been able to come to the UK and use the team’s real simulator because of all the quarantine restrictions in place, so we will have to see how that situation develops in the next few weeks.
“As for the actual racing and how this season develops, we will just take it one race at a time. I will race where I am told to do so on the basis that the people who run the sport have done their work and decided it’s safe to do so for ourselves and everyone around us. I trust that we are in good hands and that we will have an adequate calendar to follow and execute. I hope there will be no unexpected surprises. As for keeping masks on at all times at the track, we worked under these conditions at our recent filming day and I’d say it’s something you get used to quite quickly, just like when the Halo was first introduced for example. You get used to it after a few hours. One thing we will have to get used to will be the lack of fans. it will be weird to see the empty grandstands, the crowd is an important aspect of all sport and we will be missing it.
“As to how we will get on, it’s hard to say. In terms of track data to look at, we only have what we acquired in Barcelona in the winter. We will turn up in Austria with a good plan to tackle the Red Bull Ring and then we will see. It’s a track I like, with an old-skool layout featuring plenty of fast corners and I’ve always enjoyed racing there. We will be there for quite a while with the two races back to back and it’s a nice place to be, in the countryside so it means we can put in some training time in the fresh air.”