Formula One season starts amid shadow of Black Lives Matter movement

There will be no fans when the Formula One season starts at the Spielberg track in Austria, above, but political statements would be aplenty instead. (AFP)
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Updated 02 July 2020

Formula One season starts amid shadow of Black Lives Matter movement

  • ‘It is so important that we seize this moment,’ says Lewis Hamilton, the only Black driver to become F1 champion

SPIELBERG, Austria: Four months after the opening race was called off at the last minute, the Formula One season finally gets underway this weekend on another continent and in a different-looking world.
There will be no fans on hand at the remote Spielberg track in Austria, with the coronavirus still creating uncertainty over how many races can actually be held — and where.
That may not be the only unusual sight, as drivers are discussing whether to take the knee together on the grid before Sunday’s race in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Defending F1 champion Lewis Hamilton has been an outspoken supporter of the movement and will be competing in an all-black Mercedes car — instead of the usual silver — as a statement against racism.
“It is so important that we seize this moment,” said Hamilton, the only Black driver to become F1 champion.
The truncated campaign kicks off with back-to-back races in Austria, as part of a hastily reworked schedule. It was meant to start nearly 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) away in the Australian city of Melbourne.
But the fast-spreading impact of the coronavirus pandemic led to the Australian GP being canceled on March 13, two days before the scheduled race, while people were still queuing for the first practice sessions. Several other races, including the showcase Monaco GP, were also canceled.
A rescue package with eight European races squeezed into 10 weeks, culminating with the Italian GP on Sept. 6, was scrambled together. F1 still hopes to rearrange some of the postponed races in order to finish the season with 15-18 of the scheduled 22.
There will also be two consecutive races at the British GP. If the season continues beyond Europe, it will end with races in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi in December.
“We actually don’t even know the amount of races we are going to do,” McLaren and future Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz Jr. said. “It’s an unprecedented scenario.”
Spielberg’s Red Bull Ring, cut off from major towns or cities, offers a reassuringly secluded feel amid coronavirus fears.
But strict health and safety measures have been put into place.
Everyone entering the track, including a greatly reduced number of media representatives, must have tested negative for Covid-19 and further tests will be carried out every five days. F1 teams are not allowed to mingle with each other — on or off the track — and media have no access to F1’s paddock area.
Drivers would normally have faced a barrage of questions in a news conference room, but health requirements dictate that drivers hold news conferences via video link and with questions sent in advance.
And, of course, Spielberg’s 4.3-kilometer (2.7-mile) circuit will be largely empty. It is normally swarming with tents, camper vans, makeshift barbecues and tens of thousands of orange-shirted Max Verstappen fans.
The Red Bull driver, hugely popular back home in the Netherlands, has won the past two races here.
The track is among the shortest in F1 but also one of the most aggressive. Drivers spend about 72% of the time at full throttle, second only to Italy’s Monza track with 77%.
That’s perfectly suited to Verstappen’s bold and abrasive racing style. Last season he chased down the leading trio before making a typically brazen overtaking move on race leader Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari.
The 22-year-old Verstappen showed last season that he is closing the gap to Hamilton in terms of wheel-to-wheel driving. Red Bull’s car also made a considerable jump in speed, while Ferrari’s faded, and Verstappen is emerging as a major title threat to Hamilton.
The 35-year-old British driver is chasing a record-equaling seventh F1 title to equal Michael Schumacher’s record, and only needs to win eight more races to beat Schumacher’s mark of 91.
Aside from Verstappen and possibly Valtteri Bottas — Hamilton’s improving teammate at Mercedes — the other main challenger is Leclerc.
The 22-year-old Monaco driver is extremely quick and impressed observers in his first season at Ferrari with seven pole positions — two more than Hamilton — and two wins.
He is now Ferrari’s No. 1 ahead of four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel, whose star has faded after he wasted mid-season leads in 2017 and 2018 and lost those titles to Hamilton.
The German veteran is leaving at the end of the year after failing to agree on a new contract, and his future in F1 is uncertain.
Like so many other things this season.


Gomis ensures difficult night ends in victory for title-chasing Al-Hilal

Updated 24 min 36 sec ago

Gomis ensures difficult night ends in victory for title-chasing Al-Hilal

  • Costly penalty miss leaves relegation-battling visitors Al-Fateh to ponder what might have been

RIYADH: The outcomes of three penalties went a long way to deciding the outcome on Monday as league leaders Al-Hilal took another step towards a record 16th top-flight championship title, beating Al-Fateh 2-1 in the final match of round 24 of the Saudi Professional League.

The Riyadh side have won both their matches since the season resumed last week after a hiatus lasting more than four months as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

Earlier in the day, second-placed Al-Nassr — who were comprehensively beaten 4-1 by Al-Hilal last Wednesday — cut the lead at the top of the table to six points thanks to a 2-0 away win at Abha Club. This was expected to be a temporary reduction, but the evening turned out to be anything but comfortable for Al-Hilal’s Romanian coach, Razvan Lucescu, and his players against an Al-Fateh team sitting third from bottom in the league, one point from safety, and fighting for SPL survival.

Things seemed to be going according to script for the home team when they took the lead in 38 minutes through a Bafétimbi Gomis penalty, after Yasser Al-Shahrani was fouled in the box — although it took the intervention of the video assistant referee to make the correct decision after the referee wrongly penalized the Al-Hilal player.

Al-Fateh improved after the break and equalized on 52 minutes when the unlucky Gomis deflected a Gustav Wikheim corner into his own net.

Sofiane Bendebka almost gave Al-Fateh a shock lead on the hour mark when he danced through Al-Hilal’s defense but his left-footed shot was deflected for a corner.

Al-Hilal, driven on by captain Carlos Eduardo, Al-Shahrani and the excellent Salem Al-Dawsari, piled on the pressure as the clock ticked down. Yet it was Al-Fateh who were presented with a golden opportunity to take the lead and potentially claim three priceless points. With 10 minutes left, the referee awarded the visitors a penalty — but much to the annoyance of their Belgian coach, Yannick Ferrera, Marwane Saadane’s casual attempted chip went over the bar.

His complacency proved costly just four minutes later, as Al-Hilal were awarded another penalty, this time as a result of a handball by Bendebka. Once again, Gomis made no mistake from the spot to give the home side a lead that proved enough to take all three points.

“We knew this was going to be a difficult match, just as it was in the first match we played against Al-Fateh,” said match-winner Gomis.

“After the long break and after the mental effort that went into the last match (the derby against closest challengers Al-Nassr), it was always going to be tough. But we knew that even if we didn’t perform to Al-Hilal’s usual standards, we could still ensure that we got the points. The three points today are very important as we chase the title.”

Despite two wins out of two since the resumption of the SPL, and a lead of nine points with only six games left, the Frenchman refused to take anything for granted.

“In this league the differences between the teams are very small,” he said. “Nothing has been decided yet in terms of the title.”

Al-Fateh captain Mohammed Al-Fuhaid preferred to focus on the positives from the game, rather than dwell too much on the missed opportunity.

“Luck wasn’t with us,” he said. “We got the penalty in the last 10 minutes and we could have got that second goal.

“We had played very well — the players’ performance was heroic in my opinion. Everyone played their part: those who started and the substitutes who came on in the second half. Hopefully we can put this behind us and look forward to the coming matches.

“Next up is Abha. We have to focus on it and play like we did today, and hopefully luck can be on our side and we can get a positive result.”

Regardless of Al-Fuhaid’s philosophical public attitude, Al-Fateh remain in 14th place and the result will be seen behind closed doors as a missed chance to leapfrog struggling Al-Ittihad.

“You can say our situation is more dangerous now,” Al-Fuhaid conceded. “But we should have no fear if we can play to the same level we did today, or better, in the coming matches.”

Al-Hilal goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf was relieved to secure the three points after a tough, but ultimately successful, week.

“It was a difficult match but in the end the circumstances worked out in our favor,” he said. “We managed to get the win, which is all that counts. We weren’t complacent, but we had a break of four months and perhaps we overexerted ourselves in the derby.”

In the day’s other matches Al-Shabab beat Al-Taawoun 1-0 in their mid-table clash, while bottom-of-the-table Al-Adalah gave their chances of survival a boost with 2-1 victory over Al-Hazm, who are now only two points clear of the relegation zone.