(Reuters) – Red Bull’s Max Verstappen can complete a hat-trick of Austrian Grand Prix wins on Sunday in a season-opening race unlike any in Formula One history.
The Dutch 22-year-old won at his team’s home Red Bull Ring in 2018 and 2019 but there will be no cheering around the scenic circuit as the sport goes behind closed doors for the first time.
The COVID-19 pandemic means the championship is starting nearly four months later than planned, under strict health and safety conditions and without spectators.
“Of course, it is going to be very different without the orange army and it’s going to feel a little strange,” said Verstappen.
“I remember looking up at the fans at the end of the race last year and they were all standing up and cheering, it was crazy. It gave me an even bigger smile after the win.
“It’s a shame we don’t have that this year but we will try and put on a good show for everyone watching at home on TV.”
The long wait since Melbourne, which should have hosted the opener on March 15, means Red Bull will have an upgraded Honda engine.
Champions Mercedes, their ‘Silver Arrows’ cars now black to reinforce the stand against racism and support of six-times world champion Lewis Hamilton’s campaigning voice, will also have performance improvements.
They could also debut a controversial new Dual Axis Steering (DAS) system.
Hamilton, who can equal Michael Schumacher’s record seven titles and surpass the German’s 91 wins this season, is raring to go even if Spielberg also holds some bad memories.
The 35-year-old Briton is on a record run of 33 successive points finishes but the last time he failed to score was in Austria two years ago.
Ferrari, with four-times champion Sebastian Vettel now starting his last season with the team, had Charles Leclerc on pole last year but testing highlighted problems and triggered a design rethink.
In a tight midfield, there will be much interest in Racing Point’s ‘Pink Mercedes’ – so called for its strong resemblance to the 2019 Mercedes — and whether Renault have raised their game after being overtaken by McLaren.
Further back, Canadian Nicholas Latifi — the sole rookie — finally makes his Formula One debut with former champions Williams.
Williams, last overall in 2019, will be looking to take a big step up with the team potentially for sale and looking for investment.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Christian Radnedge)