Finally, the Formula 1 season is about to begin – 112 days since the Australian Grand Prix was cancelled less than two hours before practice, the cars will take to the track in Austria for the first official session of 2020.
It’s been a long time coming. In fact when Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix begins, it will be 217 days since last year’s season finale. We’ve been starved of F1 racing for far too long.
But enough about dates and numbers. What can we expect? Will the wait be worthwhile? How different is the season going to be compared to what it should have been like? And is there a risk this is all going to turn to disaster if there’s another positive COVID-19 test in the paddock?
Part of why this weekend is so exciting is because we don’t have firm answers.
Is Mercedes still the team to beat?
If you ask its expected nearest challenger, Red Bull, then ‘yes’. As the title-winning team for the last six seasons, Mercedes has a target on its back.
It performed really well in pre-season testing, looking fast over one lap and in the race simulations. There was a niggling reliability concern on the engine, but a couple of weeks back at Brixworth before the pandemic – and a few weeks since everything re-opened – should have taken care of that.
Then we need to consider that Mercedes is probably going to have an even faster car than it would in Melbourne.
Technical boss James Allison says they’ve got months of development work to unleash because the testing/Australia car was a basic launch version that would then have been heavily updated in the early weeks.
What that means is Mercedes basically froze the spec of their car around Christmas time, and all their work in the windtunnel and doing CFD drawings in January, February and the start of March was on upgrades that never hit the track.
Mercedes wants as many of those upgrades to be ready for this weekend as well possible. The best is probably about to get even better.
Red Bull’s aggressive development
Something was weird with Red Bull in pre-season. The drivers made some errors, the car didn’t always look planted, the long-run pace was nearer Ferrari than Mercedes.
Yet the team seemed really pleased with its work. Not just quietly confident. Visibly much more at ease with their situation that anything on-track or on the timing screens would suggest.
Now the RB16’s had a bit of a makeover, thanks to an aggressive development strategy, I think they’ll have a lot of swagger about them in Austria.
Upgrades that would have been introduced in Vietnam, the Netherlands and maybe even Canada should all be on the car this weekend, and Honda’s bringing its Spec 2 engine to the party – which means more power than before.
Red Bull and Max Verstappen reckon this is their best shot yet at the title. The team seems to have used the unexpected hiatus to throw everything possible at achieving it.
It’s amazing to think Ferrari’s the only one of the leading teams that’s going to be starting the season with the same car it testing with FOUR MONTHS AGO.
But team boss Mattia Binotto has revealed that the team has uncovered a fundamental weakness in its aerodynamic design and has opted for an overhaul. The first upgrades will not be ready until Hungary.
That means Ferrari’s contesting the first three grands prix with a car it didn’t rate in testing and doesn’t want to keep. Unless this is the mother of all bluffs, it’s unlikely Charles Leclerc or Sebastian Vettel will be in victory contention.
The closest midfield fight ever
Daniel Ricciardo says Renault’s data from testing put the fastest midfield cars just a tenth apart.
We can probably put the pink Mercedes (Racing Point), Renault and McLaren in that group. Maybe AlphaTauri as well? The general expectation is that Haas, Alfa Romeo and Williams will be in the second part of the midfield.
Renault’s among the teams unleashing loads of upgrades in Austria – three packages worth. Racing Point, with its controversial 2019 Mercedes copy, says its upgrades won’t come until a few races in. McLaren’s got updates but we don’t know how many.
Calling the midfield fight looks tougher than ever.
Will a positive COVID-19 test cause chaos?
F1 and the FIA, like the rest of the world, know a lot more about the virus and how to handle it now than they did three or four months ago.
There’s regular testing, isolation planning, and a division of personnel within the teams, not just a separation of the teams themselves.
As it stands, there’s little risk of a positive test shutting down the whole weekend.
But it could cause havoc within a specific team. Every team is operating in bubbles, to try to minimise the frequency that people work and socialise with one another.
If someone takes a positive test, they and anyone they have been in ‘close contact’ with need to isolate until a second test is carried out for their colleagues and the results are known.
That could include a driver if one of their main mechanics or engineers contracts the virus. And that could mean missing a practice session, or qualifying, or even the race while waiting for their test results…
Hopefully it doesn’t come to that and teams have reserve drivers and back-up staff members to fill in if required.
But it’s another example of the huge step into the unknown F1 is taking this weekend.