Severe curbs at 'weird' Austrian Grand Prix


Perched in a media centre, high above the Red Bull Ring, Chris Medland takes in the view of F1 racing in 2020 - plus the stunning Styrian scenery - ahead of the Austrian Grand Prix

Lando Norris on a track walk ahead of the 2020 Austrian Grand Prix

Lando Norris covers up

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

There’s no other word to describe working at the Red Bull Ring this weekend than weird. Really, really weird. But weird is very much necessary.

In Melbourne, I was pretty scathing in my criticism of the way F1 and the FIA went about business as usual and had no contingency plans in place should the worst happen. So it would be remiss of me not to start off by acknowledging that the approach of better safe than sorry is the right one to take.

And that has resulted in some pretty severe rules, including mandatory wearing of face coverings whenever on site, regardless of whether you are inside or outside and able to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

The eeriest part of the situation is the lack of fans, even on a Thursday

From the moment you arrive at the track and pass through a temperature checkpoint covered in warnings, instructions and hand-sanitiser dispensers, from a media perspective everything is different.

On what is traditionally known as ‘media day’, there is no access to the press conference room for journalists who are confined to the media room, with just a single host asking questions of each team’s two drivers as they rotated through in reverse championship order. Those questions had to be pre-submitted by both those on site and those who usually would be present, and the drivers were, of course, sitting a long way apart and wearing masks.

2020 Austrian GP press conference

Hamilton on the big screen in the Red Bull Ring media room

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

The drivers themselves responded well, joking about their expressions under their face coverings and regularly checking what they are or aren’t allowed to do, emphasised by Esteban Ocon remaining seated after the end of his session until finally asking: “Yeah, we can stand up? Good!”

Only one photographer was allowed in the press conferences, with images to be pooled together and distributed to all outlets, while the rest had to make do with shooting the pit lane through the glass of the media centre windows.

But things become a little bit more normal once drivers return to the paddock, where written media are not permitted. A TV pen for the few crews on site allows a relatively familiar set-up – albeit with a greater distance between interviewer and interviewee than usual – and masks are still mandatory.

And it’s even more normal if they are to walk into their garages. Aside from regular mask wearing, little looks different from a distance, and teams have been able to retain the usual number of staff working on the cars by making cuts from catering, hospitality and marketing departments.

Pierre Gasly interviewed from a distance in the 2020 Austrian GP paddock

Long microphones essential in the 2020 F1 paddock

Florent Gooden / DPPI

That meant a much quieter paddock – devoid of big motorhomes that have been replaced by glorified portable buildings for the drivers – which saw fewer interactions between team members and no guests or VIPs, but media day was a very similar one to usual in the pit lane for the race teams.

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One of the bigger differences they faced on Thursday related to the restrictions in the number of people allowed to take each car to the FIA garage for self-scrutineering, as the maximum was reduced from ten to five. That meant a race against time to get the cars checked in the permitted ten minutes before having to clean the area and return to the perceived safety of their own garages.

But that aside, much of the same set-up work could take place, with the overnight curfew extended by an hour to match the 2019 regulations in order to take a little bit of pressure off the teams.

As media, we had to watch it all from a significant distance in the media centre opposite the pit lane, but it offers a stunning view over the whole circuit. And after track walks for the engineers, and building and scrutineering the cars for the mechanics, it’s a day that ended with the reassuringly familiar sound of pit stop practice.

The eeriest part of the situation is the lack of fans, even on a Thursday. No buzz, no atmosphere, no noise around the circuit. A sign over the entrance reads ‘Welcome Race Fans’, but they’re sadly unwelcome at this stage, on-site at least.

Racing Point pitstop practice ahead of the 2020 Austrian Grand Prix

Pitstop practice, as seen through the glass of the media centre

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

But the beauty of it all is that off-site, it’s all going to look so much more normal than many other sports can hope for. The build-up might not be easy, but if you tune in for the sporting event, you’ll barely be able to tell a difference. As soon as the drivers leave on the formation lap, the noise of the cars will provide much of the atmosphere. Camera shots all too often appear to cut to fans when there is exciting action on track, but on this occasion they will be trained even more keenly on the racing. And there’s no social distancing needed behind the wheel…

A shorter and quieter grid will reduce the pre-race anticipation somewhat, and once results are decided in qualifying and the race, there will of course be clear differences, with no podium a significant change.

But as those lights go out, it will be racing just as we’ve always known it.