F1’s back: What does the sport’s return look like?
Sixteen weeks after the Australian GP was abandoned, F1 finally returns to begin the 2020 season in Austria. The sport reconvenes with reduced personnel on site and extensive COVID-19 protocols in place for the behind-closed-doors event.
Martin Brundle: “I feel relieved that we’re able to get back racing.
“Formula 1 and the FIA have done a great job, and Austria is the perfect place to restart the season. The track is in a rural location, it’s owned by Red Bull, and there’s a military airfield right next door. The logistics all made sense and it has shown other countries that F1 can do it well, and do it responsibly. There has been an incredible amount of work all round for this to get the green light, I’ve read 75+ pages of rules, risk assessments and protocol to travel to the venue, and operate safely when there.
“I’m not nervous in any way because it’ll be one of the safest places to be in the world. Everybody is in a bubble – or a family, as it’s called – and we’re all being relentlessly tested before, during and after the event. There are contingencies in place too so that we shouldn’t have to abandon as we did in Melbourne.
“Getting the show back on the road was critical for the future of Formula 1, the teams, the manufacturers, broadcasters and sponsors. I’m just sad some of the fans won’t be in the grandstands, and so we’ll have to make even better TV, when we’re allowed to approach and engage the key players.”
How will the drivers find the new schedule?
After seven months without racing, eight races at six venues have been confirmed for an intense initial 10-week run from early July to the first week of September. F1 is hoping to get up to at least 15 rounds by mid-December in what’s set to be the latest finish to a season for nearly 60 years.
Brundle: “We used to relentlessly test every week back in the 1980s and 1990s – in between every European round, we’d go and do three days in the car somewhere – so it’s kind of going back to that sort of schedule.
“I don’t think the drivers will struggle at all, other than maybe being a bit rusty with racecraft. Austria is not a particularly physical track, they are more than fit enough, and the teams will still be relentlessly honed on preparation and pit stops.
“The bizarre thing is starting the season and not knowing how many races and therefore points are available. It’s going to need controlled attack, yet they can’t afford a risk-free third-place finish either, for example, if they can realistically win the race.
“I don’t see the likes of Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc being that cautious on the track, mind you, but this balance of needing to get to the end of every race while also maximising points and victories is going to be intriguing to watch.
“And what’s going to be more of a challenge is that if you smash the car up too many times your team is going to run out of parts with such a relentless run of races right up to Christmas. The drivers are really going to have to choose their battles well.
“I would have liked to have seen us trying some different formats in the second races at Austria and Silverstone, just to keep the interest in the second of the double headers and try out ideas out for the future.
“I accept it’s not some trial or demonstration we’re doing here – it’s a bona-fide world championship – so I wouldn’t want to see us play games. But I do think it was a golden opportunity to adjust the format occasionally.
“I’m a bit concerned that on the Friday and the Saturday of second races teams will think there’s not much point going out in practice. But it’s good they have at least got different tyres for the second weekend in Silverstone and maybe even a different track layout for Bahrain, if we also have a double-header there later in the year.”
Mercedes still the team to beat?
F1’s reigning six-time champions were the standout performers in winter season testing back in February and the clear favourites for Australia before it was called off. But could a shortened season change expectations and those pre-season predictions?
Brundle: “The revised season’s going to be about immediate speed and reliability and just getting on with it.
“You’re not going to be relentlessly developing a car in the normal way because there just won’t be the time available. I’m sure the top teams still will bring updates, but they’ll need to be plug-and-play additions. We’re going to have a string of double and triple headers and so any package that turns up in Austria that’s fast and reliable is going to be strong for the bulk of this fast-forward championship.
“I think that plays into Mercedes’ hands as it takes away some of the normal variables through a season.
“Saying that, I wouldn’t underestimate Red Bull. Their speed in testing was very good and we’ll see what Honda come with too. And despite their pre-season struggles you’d never write off Ferrari.
“Another team that the schedule is going to play beautifully into the hands of is Racing Point, whose car was quite openly influenced by the 2019 Mercedes.
“Now that the new 2021 cars have been delayed by a year it plays into their hands even more given that we are only eight months away from next year’s pre-season testing… If you’ve got a good package for this season, you’re going to be carrying largely same pace into next year.
F1’s early 2021 driver moves
F1’s shutdown period in May was unexpectedly enlivened by news of three big driver moves for 2021. Sebastian Vettel is leaving Ferrari at the end of the year to be replaced by Carlos Sainz, with Daniel Ricciardo swapping Renault for the latter’s seat at McLaren.
Brundle: “Intra-team politics are going to be a big story as it’s certainly unusual for teams to know before a season starts that one of their drivers is leaving. You normally get those kind of shock, breaking news lines between July and September when you’re two thirds of the way through the season, not before it has even begun.
“Daniel Ricciardo, Sebastian Vettel and Carlos Sainz have got to walk into their garages and start a season when it’s already absolutely known that they are leaving. With all the sensitive data and systems you are quickly persona non grata in these situations.
“Especially for Daniel, for example. He’s going to a team with generally a very similar performance level and they’re just going to be increasingly keeping some things away from him whatever they might say. They’ll also be bruised that he thinks McLaren is a better opportunity than Renault.
“Meanwhile, which bit of Ferrari team orders is Seb Vettel going to be interested in? He never was that interested before at Red Bull or Ferrari, so he certainly isn’t going to be now, and he has a big point to prove. He’ll be quick.
“With these dynamics at play it’s inevitable they’ll meet up in combat at some point. Sainz is going to end up trading paint with a Ferrari, and Ricciardo is going to be banging wheels with a McLaren.
“And if you’re one of those teams it’s clear where your loyalties will lie.
“Sainz leaving McLaren for Ferrari is perhaps the most amicable split I think I’ve ever seen in Formula 1. McLaren almost facilitating it to give Carlos his chance – which is lovely, I really admire that. But you’ve then simply got to choose Lando Norris as your preferred man for the season, have you not? Ferrari surely will just throw all their lot in with Charles Leclerc – which some will say they already had anyway.”
Is F1’s ‘changing of the guard’ now irreversible?
Lewis Hamilton again starts the season as F1’s reigning champion and the title favourite as he goes in search of a record-equalling seventh crown. But 2019 also seemed to definitively underline that F1’s next generation of stars, led by Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc, are getting close to their first attempts at F1’s ultimate prize.
Brundle: “Aside from Lewis Hamilton, I feel that the guard has already changed to a large extent on the grid.
“What will act as final evidence is whether Fernando Alonso gets back into a seat and if Vettel finds another suitable drive for 2021. If the answer to both of those questions ends up being ‘no’, then you’ve got to consider the guard duly changed.
“But still watch out for Valtteri Bottas. You’d likely put your money on Lewis all day long, but I think Valtteri will be very strong for Mercedes too. I wouldn’t underestimate him at all, he seems in a great place in his life and has the speed and experience to back it up.
“Esteban Ocon has returned to a race seat this year and I’m very much looking forward to seeing him in a Renault, while I hope George Russell gets the chance he deserves in the next six months.”
The Formula 1 season begins on Friday on Sky Sports F1 with the Austrian GP. Sunday’s race starts at 2.10pm. Find out more & subscribe.