Formula One in brave new world as Verstappen seeks repeat Austria triumph

Red Bull’s Dutch driver Max Verstappen leaves the aircraft upon his arrival to the military airport Hinterstoisser in Zeltweg, Austria on Thursday. (AFP)
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Updated 03 July 2020

Formula One in brave new world as Verstappen seeks repeat Austria triumph

  • Teams are cut to a maximum of 80 staff, all in protective equipment

SPIELBERG, South Africa: Max Verstappen will seek a hat trick of home wins for Red Bull and an early lead in the drivers championship at this weekend’s delayed and somewhat surreal season-opening Austrian Grand Prix.

For everyone involved, the race will be an unprecedented experience — the calendar is unknown beyond the first eight races in Europe in 10 weeks, all to be run behind closed doors and severe limitations introduced with a new paddock protocol forbidding meetings.

As racing returns, the COVID-19 virus remains in circulation, which requires all participants to be tested before travel to Austria on private chartered jets, ongoing tests, the separation of teams and car crews into “bubbles” and controlled hotels.

Teams are cut to a maximum of 80 staff, all in protective equipment, there will be no sponsors, no guests and only a limited number of accredited broadcast and written news media.

Journalists, limited to a dozen instead of 300 or more, have to pass a test within 72 hours in advance of arrival and will not be allowed to leave the media center.

All interviews and news conferences will take place by video.

The teams will be kept isolated, based in tents with awnings instead of their usual grand motorhomes — and there is expected to be a synchronized taking the knee by the drivers on the grid, to support Black Lives Matter, ahead of Sunday’s race.

Afterwards, there will be no podium ceremony.

When the race begins, it will end the longest gap between races in the sport since 1962, but with two successive races in Austria and then one in Hungary, the pressure will be immediate and intense.

Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said: “There’s been a long drought. We all do this because we love it. We’ve missed it, so we can’t wait to start.”

“It’s going to be exciting and intense. The races come thick and fast.”

Dutch driver Verstappen, who bullied his way past Ferrari rival Charles Leclerc to triumph in front of a mass of his “orange army” of fans last year, says he is unfazed by high expectations or the absence of spectators at the Red Bull Ring, a remote and compact circuit in the Styrian Alps.

“I am not thinking about a hat trick,” he said.

“The most important thing for me is to have a competitive car and to perform at my best.

“I never consider myself as a favorite because, actually, when you look at the track, it’s not even our best one, but last year it was very warm and we were good at keeping the engine cool.

“So I don’t expect an easy win. I think Mercedes will be very strong again and they are the ones to beat.”

Verstappen, who has kept a low profile during the lockdown, delivered three wins and eight podiums last year as Lewis Hamilton claimed his sixth title with Mercedes, who this year seek an unprecedented seventh constructors’ and drivers’ double in succession.

Verstappen and teammate Alex Albon will have an upgraded Honda engine package, developed since the coronavirus lockdown ended, to boost them at the contest in the Styrian Alps where the 800-meter altitude can affect engine performance.

Mercedes will also have an updated package while Ferrari, struggling to match them in pre-season testing, announced Tuesday that they are updating their cars for the third race in Hungary.

Hamilton this year bids for a record-equalling seventh drivers title as he campaigns passionately for greater diversity, and against racism, in the sport.

“We are preparing the best way we can for what is going to be the most difficult season that F1 and all of us have experienced,” he said in a video from the team, which — at his prompting — is running black livery this year to support equality and diversity.


Could new format lead to new name on trophy despite virus worry?

Updated 11 August 2020

Could new format lead to new name on trophy despite virus worry?

  • Barca-Bayern promises to be a thrilling tie even without their supporters

LISBON: With just two former winners left in the competition, no Cristiano Ronaldo and no fans, the Champions League moves to Lisbon this week for the start of the “Final Eight” with the intriguing prospect that a new format could lead to a new name on the trophy.

However, the shadow of the coronavirus looms large after it was announced on Sunday two individuals from Atletico Madrid, one of the teams involved in Portugal, have tested positive.

"On Saturday, all members of the first team and the club's party to Lisbon underwent tests as required by UEFA protocols," said a club statement.

"Among the results known today, two positives have appeared and they are self-isolating in their respective homes."

It was not revealed whether the two positive cases involved players or backroom staff.

Barcelona and Bayern Munich, with five European Cups each, are in contention for the title but only one will reach the semifinals —  they meet each other in the quarterfinals at the Estadio da Luz on Friday.

With Barca desperate for more European success before Lionel Messi, who turned 33 in June, moves on, and Bayern looking a fearsome proposition led by Robert Lewandowski, that promises to be a thrilling tie despite the lack of supporters.

But maybe this time the glory will go to someone new altogether, with Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain both having reason to believe this will be the year they are rewarded for a decade of decadence fueled by the immense wealth of their owners in the Gulf.

"The big clubs lift the titles," was how City boss Pep Guardiola put it after his team knocked out Real Madrid on Friday.

Perhaps Atletico, back where they lost the 2014 final to Real, will at last go the extra step under Diego Simeone, or perhaps there will be a shock winner in RB Leipzig, Atalanta or even Lyon.

At this level, Atalanta are the minnows and it would be a remarkable story if they won the trophy in their first appearance in the Champions League after the terrible suffering of their hometown Bergamo during the coronavirus pandemic.

It is as a direct result of COVID-19 that UEFA have taken the Champions League to the Portuguese capital for the latter stages.

The competition restarted on Friday after five months in hibernation because of the pandemic. The final was initially due to be played in Istanbul in late May before being postponed.

The final will be played at Benfica's Estadio da Luz on August 23. The “Final Eight” will start at the same ground on Wednesday when Atalanta face PSG.

Whoever wins that will meet Leipzig or Atletico for a place in the final, while City or Lyon will meet Bayern or Barcelona in the other semifinal.

The most unusual Champions League has already seen Real — winners of four of the last six editions — go out in the last 16 along with holders Liverpool and Juventus, who were eliminated by Lyon on Friday despite the best efforts of Ronaldo.