When the five red lights extinguish on Sunday, it will be the first time in 217 days the F1 field has been unleashed to race.the longest F1 fans have had to wait for a race since 1962. And not a single one will be there in person to see it.
The knock-on effects of the unprecedented delay to the start of the season, and the lengths F1 has gone to get the 2020 championship started, will inevitably make for many talking points this weekend.
Beyond that, there’s the small matter of everything else we were expecting the new season to bring. This long-awaited weekend is going to be a fascinating one.
Will F1’s return to racing run smoothly?
After a McLaren team member tested positive for Covid-19 in Melbourne, the season-opening race was called off, and nine more dominoes toppled after it. F1 has taken extensive precautions to minimise the possibility of anything similar happening again.
Attendees have been trimmed to a minimum: No fans will attend, and many others besides will be missing. Teams will operate independently with no mingling of staff members. When drivers’ faces aren’t covered by helmets, they will wear masks.
In all respects, the bare minimum social mixing will take place in order for a race to go ahead, and the maximum precautions will be taken.
Will it be enough to get the show back on the road? With seven more races due to follow in the nine weeks afterwards, a lot is riding on whether F1 has got this right.
Different times, different result?
Will the addition of new layers of precautions, the passage of over three months since the intended start to the season, and the relocation of the opening round from a temporary track to a flowing road course, lead to changes in the competitive order?
It’s hard to imagine they won’t. But not having seen the cars turn flat-out laps in Melbourne, it will be hard to judge what if any changes have happened.
Max Verstappen and Red Bull are shooting for a third consecutive home win this weekend, and will be hopeful their car is as competitive at their home track as it has been in recent years. With a second race taking place at the same venue next week – another unprecedented development – they have good cause to be optimistic about their early championship chances.
Others are already known to have upgrades on the way, including Ferrari and Renault. The latter also tested here recently, albeit with a two-year-old car, giving them a better chance of starting the year strongly.
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The 2020 season hasn’t started yet and we’ve already had more action on the driver market than throughout all of last season. Three drivers will begin the season knowing it’s the last with their current teams.
They are: Daniel Ricciardo, departing Renault to replace Carlos Sainz Jnr, who will leave McLaren to take the Ferrari seat currently occupied by Sebastian Vettel, whose future plans remain unknown, and a matter of intense speculation. Renault? Aston Martin? Retirement?
Moves like these can’t help but affect the dynamic within a team, however much those involve insist it doesn’t. And the circumstances of Vettel’s exit from Ferrari are especially poignant: Here is a driver who arrived at F1’s most famous team five years ago already a four-times champion, with dreams of emulating his hero Michael Schumacher, heading for the exit after being beaten by a sophomore driver last year. Don’t let anyone tell you he isn’t burning with desire to put one over Charles Leclerc before he goes.
Hamilton pushes F1’s anti-racism agenda
For one major global event to have an impact on F1 is unusual, to have two at the same time is extraordinary. But even amid the upheaval of the pandemic, a revolution of a different kind is underway.
The death of George Floyd and the anti-racism protests it sparked have prompted Formula 1 to hasten the arrival of a new and badly-needed programme to promote diversity among participants at all levels. No driver has done more to promote this than Lewis Hamilton, who is launching a similar Commission of his own, and whose team Mercedes yesterday made the surprise announcement they will race in an all-black tribute livery this year.
Change is coming to Formula 1 and if those who cry ‘stick to racing’ and ‘keep politics out of sport’ are offended by it, then they’re just going to have to be offended.
But what of the driver at the centre of these developments? In recent years Hamilton has proved repeatedly that his extra-curricular activities such as fashion shows and recording sessions are no impediment to winning world championships. Armed with what is likely to prove another devastating Mercedes, expect him to be the driver to beat once again.
What will the rest of the calendar look like?
We already know what the first eight races of 2020 should be. Beyond that, the following rounds are starting to fall into place.
But will the postponed inaugural Vietnam Grand Prix be reinstated? Could the sport holds its events in the Americas, including Texas, which at the time of writing has seen a rise in Covid-19 cases, or Brazil, one of the worst-affected countries?
This uncertainty makes it likely F1 will begin its season without confirming how many races it intends to hold, and where.
After all that, there’s everything else which intrigued us about the 2020 season.
What advantage will DAS give Mercedes? Will Hamilton break Schumacher’s wins record and match his titles tally? Have Racing Point vaulted to the front of the midfield by copying last year’s championship-winning car? Are Q2 appearances and points a realistic possibility for Williams?
There are matters off-track to consider, too. Such as will Ferrari’s rivals push for retribution over their secret engine deal with the FIA? And will all 10 teams sign up to race again next year?
Those and more stories will begin to unfold as the 2020 championship begins in unprecedented circumstances and an onslaught of eight races in just 10 weeks.
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2020 Austrian Grand Prix
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