‘WELCOME RACE FANS’ reads the sign across the entrance to the Red Bull Ring. You’d have thought someone would update that for a weekend behind closed doors…
To be fair, I still count myself as a race fan even if I’m privileged enough to call F1 a job. So I won’t rant about that sign, but I will quickly vent that my pet hate term right now is “the new normal”, so I’m going to try and avoid it at all costs when taking you inside the world of Formula 1 as it attempts to finally start its 2020 season.
But I’m one of the lucky ones who gets to attend the first three races in Austria (twice) and Hungary. I say ‘lucky’, because it has been a bit of a mess getting to this point that involved lots of emails, phone calls, and angry journalists who did not get invited to attend due to strict limitations. Only around 25 written media are on site, along with a similar number of photographers, though many of those are embedded within teams and not part of the media center.
The first attempt to get the 2020 season started involved a mammoth trip across the world from the UK to Australia, so the short hop to Austria was a lot more simple even if a direct flight cancellation on Tuesday meant I had to travel all day via Germany yesterday instead.
And what a bizarre journey it was.
Parts of Europe are still gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic, so I had to undergo a very uncomfortable test on Monday – when a swab was sent so far down my throat I nearly gagged, and then so far up both nostrils it felt like my brain was poked, twice – and prove I don’t have the virus in order to travel.
Then there was social distancing and strict guidelines at a ghost town of Heathrow airport, only for two 9am flights to be scheduled to depart from adjacent gates and the planes to be completely full.
Still, that was nothing to being completely crammed into one bus to get from plane to terminal in Vienna, and then be able to simply walk out of the airport without any need for any of the test results that we were told were mandatory…
Anyway, it’s not a complaint, as those results were still needed for us to be allowed to enter the track, and we all have to be tested every five days while away over the next three weeks. The things we do for racing.
Driving down to the Red Bull Ring this morning involved a stop en route to do a Zoom interview with Alex Albon – the beauty of remote press conferences – and then it was simply a case of being locked in the media center.
Each team’s two drivers rotated through the press conference room for a 10-minute session with a single moderator, which was broadcast in the media center as well as streamed to those who would usually be on site.
Questions had to be submitted in advance, with no “live” interaction possible, but that didn’t prevent some pretty eye-catching lines coming out from behind the face masks the drivers were wearing. Sebastian Vettel’s swipe at team boss Mattia Binotto for one, and Lewis Hamilton’s comments about how global racial injustice and diversity issues have made him even more determined for success on track this year.
While media were confined to the media centre, teams remained in the paddock – with a few members already having been told off for crossing the divide and leaving their “bubble” – where they don’t have the usual motorhome comforts, and the drivers just have temporary rooms. It’s an area I’m not allowed to enter this weekend, but the paddock is a much quieter place with no guests, VIPs or hospitality teams. Just a few TV crews and the teams working.
But aside from that, it was largely normal for those working on the cars, and with less to do for those not.
It’s strange, pretty soulless and to be honest utterly frustrating from a media perspective due to the lack of ability to speak to, well, anyone in the paddock. But tomorrow cars will go out on track, engines will drown out the silence and things will just seem that little bit normal once again.