Hamil­ton still steer­ing F1’s nar­ra­tive

Record-chas­ing world cham­pion re­mains the man to beat as de­layed sea­son revs up again fol­low­ing shut­down

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - SPORTS -

Seven months after the driv­ers last com­peted in earnest, the For­mula One cir­cus will push a post-lock­down re­set but­ton to open the 2020 sea­son in Aus­tria on Sun­day.

The event at Spiel­berg is be­ing held on its original cal­en­dar date, but is not the once-an­tic­i­pated 11th round of the cham­pi­onship, but the first — a sea­son-opener de­layed by the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.

More than three months after the Aus­tralian Grand Prix was aban­doned on the eve of open­ing prac­tice in Melbourne, the race in the Styr­ian Alps will be run be­hind closed doors, with­out fans, spon­sors’ agents and guests, and only a hand­ful of re­porters re­stricted to the me­dia center.

The usual high-rise mo­torhomes will be re­placed by tents and awnings while the teams, cut to 80 mem­bers and all in pro­tec­tive gear, will op­er­ate in san­i­tized “bub­bles within bub­bles” in a pad­dock bereft of hu­man con­tact and the usual swell of ru­mor and spec­u­la­tion.

For all in­volved, who are tested four days be­fore the event and five days later, it will be an un­prece­dented and unique ex­pe­ri­ence.

Yet, de­spite all the change and the sur­real at­mos­phere, it is ex­pected that the ac­tion will likely de­liver the same story.

Lewis Hamil­ton, pow­ered by the all-con­quer­ing Mercedes, goes in search of a sev­enth driv­ers’ ti­tle to equal the record of Michael Schu­macher.

“It has been un­bear­able — I have missed the rac­ing and the com­pe­ti­tion so much, so it will be great to be back,” said Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff.

Even dur­ing lock­down, driv­ers moves for next year took place. Fer­rari an­nounced the re­lease of four-time cham­pion Se­bas­tian Vettel, who will be suc­ceeded by Car­los Sainz of McLaren, while Daniel Ric­cia­rdo signed to leave Re­nault and re­placed Spa­niard Sainz at the cash-starved out­fit so badly hit by the pan­demic.

On the move

Those 2021 moves will not af­fect this year’s line­ups, but may af­fect re­la­tion­ships be­tween de­part­ing driv­ers and teams anx­ious not to al­low unique op­er­a­tional and per­for­mance in­tel­li­gence to leave with them.

If any­where, this is likely to have most ef­fect at Fer­rari as the Italian team strives to avoid open con­flict be­tween ris­ing star Charles Le­clerc and Vettel, who is a free agent and a po­ten­tial tar­get for not only Re­nault but also Mercedes.

The pair, who were in­tense ri­vals last year, tested in Italy last week ahead of the open­ing “dou­ble-header”, with two suc­ces­sive races at Aus­tria’s Red Bull Ring cir­cuit be­fore a third race in Hun­gary.

“I have no ex­pe­ri­ence of head­ing back to the same track and hav­ing a sec­ond race, but I’ve been around for a while,” said Vettel.

“I guess the level of per­fec­tion will be higher the sec­ond weekend — the level of er­rors will be even smaller.

“It will be a chance to re­view strat­egy just seven days af­ter­wards so that’s a first and let’s see how we tackle that chal­lenge.”

Orange aid

The open­ing three grands prix form part of an in­ten­sive spell of eight Euro­pean races in 10 weeks, which may be­come nine in 11 if a round at Mugello, in Italy, is added.

Vettel added that he “can’t imag­ine what it will be like to race with­out any fans”, es­pe­cially at the sweep­ing cir­cuit where Max Ver­stap­pen was roared to vic­tory by a huge orange wave of Dutch sup­port­ers last year.

Ver­stap­pen and Red Bull are ex­pected to chal­lenge Mercedes, with Fer­rari and Rac­ing Point, newly dubbed “the pink Mercedes” team after copy­ing the cham­pion’s cars, in close pur­suit in the open­ing events where it will be in­trigu­ing to see if Hamil­ton’s fo­cus has been af­fected by his ac­tive and vo­cal sup­port for the cur­rent anti-racism protests.

Last week, just days after launch­ing the Hamil­ton Com­mis­sion to boost di­ver­sity in motor sports, the Bri­ton slammed re­marks made about the racism is­sue by for­mer F1 supremo Bernie Ec­cle­stone as “ig­no­rant and un­e­d­u­cated” be­fore call­ing for the restora­tion of a grand prix in Africa.

“It’s a re­ally weird time in the world and the big­gest chal­lenge in my mind is not about the cham­pi­onship nec­es­sar­ily,” he said. “It’s not a nor­mal year.”


Fer­rari’s Charles Le­clerc leads at the start of last year’s Aus­trian For­mula One Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring in Spiel­berg. The track will stage this sea­son’s open­ing race fol­low­ing F1’s three-month sus­pen­sion due to the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.


Lewis Hamil­ton, pic­tured at Melbourne Grand Prix Cir­cuit in March, will be­gin his quest for a record­e­qual­ing sev­enth F1 driv­ers’ ti­tle when the sea­son gets un­der­way in Aus­tria this weekend.

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