Saturday was a day in Austria that highlighted just how strange the whole current situation is and why it’s tough for Formula 1 personnel to stay tough within it.
To paint you a bit more of a picture of what I’m doing in order to attend these races: I’m staying in a hotel an hour’s drive away in the city of Graz. Usually I’d be with other media friends in a much cheaper random cabin somewhere in the hills nearer the track; but that often comes without phone or internet connections so I selected a big chain due to their safety protocols.
And in Graz, everything is very normal. Face masks are mandatory on public transport, but most things are open and there is no social distancing, only the odd hand-sanitizing machine.
This perhaps explains why the media are kept so distant from the rest of the paddock, because we’re allowed more interaction with the outside world. But it also makes for a very strange feeling when you leave almost complete normality behind at the gate.
That was especially noticeable on Saturday morning, with lots of locals milling around outside, cycling and running in the sun on a beautiful weekend. Then, you turned into the circuit and it was masks, severe distancing, temperature checks, hand sanitizing, and isolation in a specific room all day.
Actually, the last part is a lie, because I did get to escape for my COVID-19 test.
I mentioned in yesterday’s piece that this is a hot topic among everyone at the track, and even the testers themselves know it now. But, the facility I had to was on the inside of the track, on an access road between the F1 and F2 paddocks. Walking to it – passing a number of motorhomes that some of the drivers are staying in for the next two weeks – and getting that bit closer to everything felt like a treat.
The test itself was quick and painless this time in contrast to some of the other stories I’ve heard this weekend. And to be able to see the entrance to the F1 paddock and some racing cars in the flesh means the daily test is actually going to become a highlight.
I even timed my visit so that I would be outside as FP3 started, and could hear that sweet, sweet sound…
After the normality of track sessions, and the return of Formula 2 and Formula 3 races, it was back to the ‘new normal’ of media via video conference, with the top three — Valtteri Bottas, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen — all on Skype to journalists both in the same building and dotted all around the world.
Many teams have taken the opportunity to do as little media as possible, but there were enough sessions on Saturday night to cause the bizarre sight of people dashing off to different corners of the media center to find a little bit of quieter space in order to dial into different interviews on multiple platforms.
Never thought I’d hear a team boss in Austria, drowned out by a dog barking in China, but that’s life these days.
In one such session, with the McLaren team buoyed by a stunning qualifying performance from Lando Norris, Carlos Sainz was asked about the dangers to the drivers after Felipe Nasr and Jimmie Johnson both tested positive for COVID-19, ruling them out of races. It’s true that such a case could prove particularly costly.
So when a photo in the paddock emerged of Sebastian Vettel talking at close quarters with Christian Horner, Helmut Marko and an unknown woman, all of them not wearing a mask, it was not taken well.
Vettel was not without his mask for long, and the photo was taken by a journalist who’s intention had been to highlight how an out-of-contract Vettel still has a good relationship with his former team. But instead it was picked up as a flouting of the rules and all those involved received a warning from the FIA’s COVID-19 delegate.
It certainly wasn’t reckless, but image is everything right now and wearing a mask and staying two meters apart is a small price to pay to be back racing.
And tomorrow we will be back racing.