Formula One: Brave new world awaits in Austria as season prepares to flag off

The Formula One season gets under way in Spielberg. PHOTO: REUTERS

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA (AFP) - In the unlikely scenario of Romain Grosjean sweeping to a podium finish at Sunday's (July 5) Austrian Grand Prix, he demands forgiveness should he break the strict coronavirus health protocols put in place at the Red Bull Ring.

"We will want to jump into the arms of the team," said the Haas team's French driver.

"So there are times when there may be things that are not going to be 100 per cent controlled, but we will try to stay as close as possible to the rules."

The Formula One season, which suffered a dramatic false start in Australia in March, finally gets under way this weekend in Spielberg.

However, this is a season like no other after a coronavirus suspension which stretched beyond three months.

It shrunk the calendar from a record 22-race event to just eight so far confirmed - although others are expected to take place.

On the ground at the Red Bull Ring, the sport's brave new world was very much in evidence on Thursday.

To allow the season to start, F1 now operates in a system of "bubbles", isolating the paddocks from the outside world but also keeping those inside at a safe distance.

In a normal year, 200,000 fans would attend the race, squeezed into campsites in the foothills of the picturesque Styrian Alps.

This year, however, with supporters banned, there were just a few diehards armed with binoculars and cameras waiting around the airfield which adjoins the circuit to see the drivers' private jets land.

For the 2,000-3,000 people allowed to enter the circuit, they must be negative for Covid-19, be tested again every five days and pass several checkpoints, including having temperatures checked.

In the paddock, two metres must be kept between individuals while there is a single direction of traffic.

Face masks are worn during each contact or movement.

That includes the traditional familiarisation laps, on foot or by bike, for the drivers and engineers intended to get their bearings before free practice on Friday.

Movements everywhere are strictly controlled.

The twenty or so journalists, for example, are confined to the media centre offering a panoramic view of the circuit.

It is from here that they follow the press conferences via video taking place three floors below.

In conditions unimaginable a few months ago, the drivers appeared at Thursday's news conference masked, answering pre-recorded questions.

Lewis Hamilton, chasing a record-equalling seventh world title, said he was getting used to life in the bubble.

The Mercedes driver was "impressed" with what he had seen and hailed "a good environment in which to work".

He will need to get used to it as the Red Bull Ring will also host the second race of the season next weekend.

"Apart from the fact that we are not allowed to hug team members that we have not seen for five months, things are pretty normal and the preparation is going as usual," added Grosjean.

Drivers have been told to keep their gloves on and the visors of their helmets lowered as much as possible when they are in their garages.

"The most complicated thing will be the visor because, if it is hot, you want to open it to have fresh air, to also chat with the person who straps you in," explained Grosjean.

"But we will do it via radio and then use the fan."

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