Formula One teams gearing up for closed-door opener this weekend
Mercedes hoping dual axis steering boosts title chances, as Hamilton eyes record
The signage outside the Red Bull Ring declares "Welcome Race Fans", but none were to be seen as the Austrian circuit prepared for Formula One's first Grand Prix without spectators.
Cows grazed in a field that normally serves as a crowded campsite near to the circuit, while workers carried out tasks around the track.
There were no tents, no fans and no curious bystanders other than some local cyclists going for a spin along the road outside.
A small thunderstorm broke in the evening over a deserted paddock stripped of the usual palatial motorhomes that the teams use to entertain guests and sponsors, and to feed their staff in shifts.
None will be needed this weekend as the sport gets to grips with a new normal following the Covid-19 pandemic that has forced a delay of more than 100 days for the season to get going.
Sunday will be the first time that Austria has hosted a season opener and the race will also be the latest start date to a championship.
The 10 teams were flying in on charter planes to the private terminal at nearby Zeltweg airport, from where they went directly to isolation in hotels before the routine of transfers to and from the circuit.
Formula One will operate in "bubbles within bubbles", the teams keeping apart from one another and the outside world, and also working in various sub-groups to minimise the risk of contagion.
All tested negative for Covid-19 before departure and will have to undergo tests every five days for the next three weeks with two back-to-back races in Austria followed by a trip to nearby Hungary.
Looking to set an early marker as he bids to equal Michael Schumacher's record of seven world titles is Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton.
DUAL AXIS STEERING
Making a difference could be their innovative dual axis steering system, which works with the driver pushing and pulling on the steering column to change the alignment of the front wheels.
The controversial system has already drawn complaints of unfairness, with Red Bull considering launching a protest.
Hamilton is raring to go even if Spielberg also holds some bad memories.
The 35-year-old Briton is on a record run of 33 successive points finishes, but the last time he failed to score was in Austria two years ago.
Ferrari, with four-time champion Sebastian Vettel starting his last season with the team, had Charles Leclerc on pole last year, but testing highlighted problems and triggered a design rethink.
Ferrari's cars are the only ones not to have beaten their 2019 times during this year's testing.
"We're not favourites, that's for sure," said Leclerc.
Teams will need to get used to the packed schedule and Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff believes reliability will be key this term.
Wolff said: "There is not a lot of time to run them and we will be using every session to learn."
Team Haas chief Gunther Steiner added that making minimal changes would help too.
"No mistakes will not happen, but that is what we focus on to keep consistent," he said.
Haas had nothing new to match Mercedes' dual axel, but suggested innovations could be sometimes problematic.
"That's part of why we decided we are not going to develop big upgrades or anything," the Italian added.
"Because every time you make an upgrade, it takes time to learn about it and how to use it.
"Having not only fewer races, but in a short space of time, one of the most important things is not to make mistakes at any time." - REUTERS, AFP
Formula One 2020 season: Drivers' guide
Hamilton starts out as favourite again and shows no signs of age or easing off. He is eight wins from overhauling Michael Schumacher's record 91 wins entering his 14th year. Bottas should be his nearest rival if he can find his best form and remain consistent.
This will be Vettel's last season with Ferrari, after the four-time world champion struggled to find the magic formula to land the Scuderia's first drivers' crown since 2007. At just 22, Leclerc has emerged as a star with sensational natural speed and has been positioned him as a real contender.
Whether Verstappen can live up to his billing as the man to unseat Hamilton will depend on the power supplied from the team's Honda engines this year. Albon was one of last year's surprise success stories as he earned a promotion from Toro Rosso and should show more improvement.
Sainz, who joins Ferrari next season, is poised to realise his potential and continue McLaren's recovery from dismal also-rans to leading mid-grid runners. Norris, who enjoyed a very strong rookie season, often matched Sainz's pace and should show further improvement.
Limited by Renault's under-performance - they have recruited Pat Fry to improve the chassis - Ricciardo has to step up and challenge the top six. He replaces Sainz at McLaren next season. Ocon, who is back after a year's sabbatical "on the bench" at Mercedes, will give Ricciardo a test.
Fatherhood has combined with a second coming to propel Kvyat back into F1 with a key role in a strong midfield team, as Toro Rosso are renamed after the Taurus constellation. Gasly has made a spirited response after being dropped from Red Bull, forming a strong pairing with Kvyat.
Perez goes into his seventh year with the Silverstone-based team as one of the most reliable drivers on the grid. Racing Point are backed by Canadian Lawrence Stroll, whose son Lance is the team's other driver.
Stroll junior has shown raw speed and a competitive zeal that has been bolstered by his two years alongside Perez.
At 40, Raikkonen is the most experienced man in the field. Unquestionably fast when his machinery is to his liking, the Finn had nine points finishes last season and can improve on that this year. This is a year for Giovinazzi, who had a successful end to 2019, to show his continued progress.
After 164 grands prix and 10 podium finishes, Grosjean remains unpredictable. Fast and spectacular at his best, he can also lose his way temperamentally and technically. Magnussen, too, is in need of an upturn in fortunes to revitalise belief in his early potential.
Latifi is the son of a billionaire whose sponsorship of Williams has appeared to ease his passage from finishing second in the F2 championship with three race wins. It promises to be a challenging debut F1 season as he competes alongside Russell, who is younger but more established.
TEXT: AFP, REUTERS SOURCE: FORMULA1.COM GRAPHICS: AFP