Austria: how fast?
Formula 1 has always visited Austria in summer, around halfway through the championship. But this year, the Covid-19 pandemic has delayed the real start of the series for several months, so now Austria (while maintaining its planned July date) will host not only the season-opening grand prix for the first time in its history, but also round two. That's due to Covid forcing F1 organisers to condense the calendar, meaning that wherever it's practical, two grands prix will be held on consecutive weekends at the same circuit.
The former A1-Ring in Austria, the heir to the famed Österreichring, is now owned by Red Bull and will take its place on the F1 calendar for the seventh year in a row. The current track made its debut in the 1990s, following Austria's nine-year absence from Formula 1. The final race at the legendary Österreichring took place back in 1987; a track originally laid out in the 1960s around a former airbase, which - thanks to its long main straight and some fast corners - regularly featured fearsome average speeds in the region of 250kph.
Now, the Austrian track is around 4.3 kilometres long, compared to the 5.9 kilometres of its famously rapid predecessor. But these four kilometres are covered at a rollercoaster pace, with continual changes in elevation. After the start-finish straight, the lap begins with a hairpin bend, which fires the cars uphill in one of the steepest ascents of the season. Then there's a series of non-stop quick corners: fast enough to provide average lap speeds in excess of 246kph, as proved by Charles Leclerc in qualifying last year, who took pole. The Ferrari driver was deprived of victory in the end by the flying Red Bull of Max Verstappen, who took the lead thanks to an uncompromising manoeuvre with just a handful of laps left to go.
The Red Bull Ring makes its local ownership clearly felt, and the ultra-modern restoration that the track has undergone contrasts starkly with the traditional rustic surroundings. The picturesque track nestles in the heart of Styria, Austria's most bucolic province. There's a peaceful and slow pace to life everywhere, especially in the forests that cover a huge part of the countryside. Green valleys, with cows serenely chewing the cud, only add to the overall atmosphere of rustic serenity.
Normally, the local people devote themselves to agriculture, but during grand prix week, everything wakes up - with little beer tents appearing in the villages and impromptu parties. It's Formula 1's equivalent to a country fair. Everything is still taken at a gentle pace though - apart from what happens on the track. To cope with these wide-ranging demands, Pirelli has brought the middle selection of P Zero F1 compounds to Austria: C2, C3, and C4 (from hardest to softest).
What everyone is wondering now is whether or not lap times will continue to come down over the next two weekends in Austria, as has been the case at nearly all the circuits over the last couple of years. Pre-season testing at Barcelona, back in February, showed that the cars were already faster than last year. But now we've had three months of almost total standstill, with development opportunities extremely limited due to the F1 team factory shutdowns, which were brought forward from the scheduled break over the summer.
Nonetheless, going faster is locked into the DNA of Formula 1, whatever the limits imposed. On Friday July 3, the 2020 cars will finally take to the track like unbridled horses. In just a couple of weeks, provided that the Austrian weather co-operates, we'll know the answer to all these questions.