SPIELBERG: Formula One got back on track in changed circumstances but familiar fashion at the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix on Friday, with Mercedes and six times world champion Lewis Hamilton picking up where they left off last year.
The Briton and team-mate Valtteri Bottas responded to the ‘new normal’ resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic by finishing one-two in both free practice sessions on the sport’s latest start to a campaign.
Hamilton, wearing a ‘Black Lives Matter’ helmet in a black Mercedes with ‘End Racism’ written on it, set a best time of one minute 04.304 after also going fastest in opening practice with a time of 1:04.816.
Bottas was 0.356 adrift in the morning but cut the gap to 0.197 in the afternoon.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, starting his last season in the Italian team’s red colours, was fourth fastest on his 33rd birthday with Australian Daniel Ricciardo fifth for Renault and McLaren’s Lando Norris sixth.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, winner of the last two races at his team’s home track, was third in the first session but spun twice and finished up eighth after lunch.
Sunday’s race, the first of two in Austria on successive weekends, became the opener after the new coronavirus laid waste to the calendar and forced the cancellation of the scheduled Australian opener on March 15 before a wheel had turned.
Friday marked the first time all the drivers had been on track together since the end of pre-season testing in Barcelona last February.
The last time any of them raced was in Abu Dhabi in December last year, when Hamilton won from pole position and set the fastest lap.
“Motor Sport is back!,” said International Automobile Federation (FIA) president Jean Todt on Twitter, moments after the cars left the Spielberg pitlane.
The race is being run under strict health and safety conditions, with teams operating in ‘bubbles’ and isolated from each other, with drivers wearing face masks even when talking to the media by video link.
The race will be run completely without spectators for the first time in Formula One history.
“We are all used to a lot of fans in the campsites, grandstands… but the most important thing is we are finally back on track and can put up a good show,” said McLaren principal Andreas Seidl on a Zoom call.
McLaren triggered the abandonment of the Australian race in Melbourne after an employee tested positive for the new coronavirus.
Seidl said the entire team had a clean bill of health after the latest round of tests.