By Chelsea Wintle
Every so often, Google Photos reminds me of what I was doing exactly twelve months ago.
Red Bull Ring, June 2019. Travelling solo, I escaped the baking Austrian heat under the sun umbrellas of Dutch fans who sympathised with my cheerfully optimistic Alfa Romeo kit. “I like your shirt,” they said, “but we all know who’s going to win today.”
It was nine races into the season, and Lewis Hamilton was already dominating the championship with a 36 point advantage over his teammate, Valtteri Bottas. That particular day in Austria, however, belonged to the man the crowd were ribbing me about: Max Verstappen. The Orange Army erupted as he crossed the line a healthy 2.7 seconds ahead of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc to take the podium. I allowed myself to be swallowed up in the delirium of my giddy companions. Complaints about schnitzel prices and beer queues were soon forgotten.
How things change. The Austrian Grand Prix this weekend will be the first race of a Red Bull Ring double-header, and the first of a shortened 2020 season that must complete eight races across three continents in order to name a champion. None of the eight currently scheduled races will host fans. Each of the teams are only allowed 40 staff on the grid – half the usual allocation. There will be no Orange Army. There will be no overpriced schnitzel.
A reduced race calendar and lack of live spectators does not mean reduced potential for drama, on-track and off. The Mercedes camp will be focussed on supporting Hamilton’s bid for a seventh world championship, with Bottas looking to secure his future with strong performances. Those with an eye for the aesthetic will enjoy the new black livery and race suits employed as both a nod to the Black Lives Matter movement, and direct dismissal of former F1 head Bernie Ecclestone’s ill-advised comments on the nature of racism.
Over in the Scuderia Ferrari garage, curious eyes will be on Sebastian Vettel as he kicks off his final season with the prancing horse. After a carefully-worded statement that they “no longer have a common desire” to work together, and no apparent decision from Vettel on his future, Ferrari will be keeping any future strategic developments far from the German’s ears. Meanwhile Charles Leclerc, one of the most exciting drivers of recent years, will kick off the weekend knowing he is safely in the prime spot at Ferrari through 2021, when he’ll be joined by Carlos Sainz Jr.
The young Red Bull pairing of Verstappen and Alex Albon have been spending their downtime in the e-sports domain – Verstappen taking part in the Le Mans 24 Virtual and Albon, a keen Twitch streamer, battling it out with Leclerc and George Russel in virtual Grand Prix. Verstappen, with a strong history at both the Austrian and Hungarian events, will be hoping to start the season strongly.
There’s also plenty to keep fans interested outside the big three. With Daniel Ricciardo leaving Renault for the spot left vacant by Sainz at McLaren, there’s space at the French team for a new face – or an old one. Fernando Alonso can never seem to retire completely, and Nico Hulkenberg will be itching to get back into the top tier. The McLaren and Williams teams both find themselves lurching from one financial crisis to another, but are also home to two of the grid’s most popular drivers, Lando Norris and George Russell respectively.
And as for the man on my shirt?
Having hit the ripe old age of 40, Kimi Raikkonen appears to be cruising quite happily toward retirement. He’s vowed to quit racing the moment it’s no longer enjoyable – but for now, he’ll remain a highlight of the team radio channels.
It’s going to be a strange, eerily quiet season – but there’ll be plenty to talk about.
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