Finally. Formula 1 will return this weekend as three months of pent-up energy is released at the Red Bull Ring in Austria.
Twenty rusty racing drivers, all with points to prove at a track with long straights, hard-braking zones and tight-radius corners that suck you in to passing moves that are brilliantly daring or ambitiously foolhardy, depending on the outcome… What could possibly go wrong?
Just eight grands prix at six European circuits are confirmed so far, with an intention to add more beyond September. Whatever the final number, this is new territory for drivers used to racing more than 20 times per season, and fewer rounds means any failure to finish, through technical or human error, could be catastrophic for championship hopes. F1 drivers always live in a zone of heightened intensity, but this half-season will test their resilience as never before.
Lewis Hamilton's pressure points
Back in February, about a century ago, pre-season testing suggested that Mercedes-AMG had a clear edge. Quelle surprise. Lewis Hamilton is in great shape to claim an astonishing seventh F1 world championship. But that doesn’t mean he will.
Back in 2016, his teammate Nico Rosberg won the first four rounds, and although Hamilton rallied with a string of mid-season victories, he was scuppered by uncharacteristically poor reliability. He ran out of races to make up for what he had lost, as his nemesis claimed an unlikely title. Could history repeat itself?
The guy in the other Silver Arrow will believe so. Valtteri Bottas has flattered in the past only to fall flat, but he has the proven speed to beat Hamilton – when the stars align. A convincing winner in Austria three years ago, he has to be astronomical this weekend to make Hamilton sweat and create a swell of momentum. It might well be the Finn’s last chance to prove he has the chops for a title bid.
But the past two Austrian Grands Prix have been won by Max Verstappen at Red Bull Racing’s home circuit. There’s growing belief that the 22-year-old is the man most likely to depose Hamilton and, if his new Red Bull-Honda empowers him to claim a Spielberg hat-trick on Sunday, he’ll fancy his chances to do it all again the following weekend when F1 completes its first doubleheader at the same track. It’s just a shame his travelling orange army of Klaxon-blaring Dutch fans can’t this time invade this beautiful corner of Styria, as they have these past few years. As the recent return of Premier League football matches has shown, sport loses its sense of purpose when played in front of empty grandstands.
Beyond Red Bull, where will Ferrari fit in, and which Sebastian Vettel will turn up now that he knows his time in red is nearly up? Is he really still hungry for an F1 future in new colours? If so, he needs to show it, and fast.