By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – Formula 1 begins its season in Austria this week, almost four months later than expected due to the COVID-19 pandemic and in a very different context even if Lewis Hamilton’s goals remain the same.
The six-time world champion can match Ferrari’s record, the great Michael Schumacher, seven, while his Mercedes team is aiming for an unprecedented seventh consecutive record of drivers and manufacturers.
The Briton, who has used his profile to campaign for greater diversity in sport and against racism, is impatient to compete, but realizes that he faces new and unexpected challenges.
“We are doing our best to prepare for what is going to be the toughest season for Formula 1 and we have all known it,” said the 35-year-old in a Mercedes video.
Since the cancellation of Australia’s first opening game in March, Formula 1 has accepted changes to help teams hard hit by COVID-19.
The drivers’ decisions for 2021 have already been announced, including the departure of former Hamilton rival Sebastian Vettel from Ferrari in late 2020.
This year’s only rookie, Canadian Nicholas Latifi, may discover that his Williams team is under property control before the end of his first campaign.
The liveries of cars unveiled in fanfare in February have changed again to keep up with the times.
There is also lingering uncertainty about the number of grand prizes the season will hold, seven canceled so far and more likely to follow.
Eight laps, all in Europe and without spectators for the first time, appear on a provisional calendar but the sport still hopes to organize 15-18 races, even if that means several circuits by welcoming two each.
Sunday will be the first time that Austria will host a season opening on the picturesque Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, and the following weekend will see another milestone when the circuit becomes the first to host two F1 championship races at the during the same season.
This could be good news for Dutch public Max Verstappen, who has won a home victory for Red Bull in the past two years.
There will be no fans, no sponsors, no hospitality or VIPs and no socializing between the teams in a paddock “ bubble ” where safe spacing and face masks are the “ new standard ” and everything will take a little longer.
The position of the teams in the hierarchical order is also unclear. They have not driven in anger since the February tests and have not run since December.
Hamilton, who needs seven more wins to match Schumacher 91 record, should have a faster car than it would have if the season started in Australia on March 15, but rivals will also bring months updates.
Vettel, quadruple world champion, has an uncertain future and will want to come out in style during his last campaign for Ferrari.
McLaren’s Carlos Sainz will take the place of the German alongside Charles Leclerc in 2021, the Australian Daniel Ricciardo leaving Renault to replace the Spaniard.
(Report by Alan Baldwin, edited by Ken Ferris)