Formula One back on track with Austrian Grand Prix – but shadow of coronavirus looms large

Return will delight fans, even with empty grandstands at the races, but with the sport on its knees financially, a restart was inevitable

Formula One shakes off the moth balls and the wheels start rolling on Friday on a much-manicured Austrian hillside after the longest break in the sport’s history.

And it does so, much like a punch-drunk boxer; dazed by the crunching blows of circumstance, still ducking and swinging but desperate to avoid the final haymaker and get back in the fight.

Some sports have pushed everything back to 2021 and out of harm’s way. Others, such as the top-flight football leagues in England and Germany, are already underway behind closed doors.

There may be a massive sigh of relief from fans but the wisdom of F1 re-starting now – even with empty grandstands – is debatable. But it had little choice, the sport is on its knees financially. Races and the resulting revenue are it’s lifeblood.

Most teams have furloughed staff, former champions Williams is up for sale, McLaren have made 70 staff redundant and taken out a £150 million (Dh685m) loan from the Bank of Bahrain.

Just four years into a £4 billion acquisition, Liberty Media has found itself managing the biggest crisis in F1 history while shouldering an epic 84 per cent collapse in income.

This wasn’t about satisfying desperate fans. It was a financial imperative.

Having raced on proudly over the decades, through recessions and past controversies such as apartheid, oblivious to the ills of the world, F1 returns in a different frame of mind.

Safety measures will be intense. Teams are chartering their own aircraft and flying staff direct to the Spielberg air force base half-a-mile from the circuit.

Masks will be everywhere and communication between teams outlawed. Each is allowed a workforce of just 80, sub-divided into groups not just based around individual cars and drivers but catering, engineers, tyre men, management, mechanics and designers so that a positive test in one group will not stop a team, let alone the sport.

Reserve staff and drivers will be on permanent standby. No-one will be admitted without proof of a negative virus test and even so will face another, a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) swab as well.

The intention clearly, is to race on through anything less than a paddock-wide outbreak.

For drivers, the slightest infection could mean the end to their championship hopes with a compacted calendar of eight races in the first 10 weekends.

In this strange dystopian world F1 fires the starting gun not knowing where the finish line will be. Or when.

Is it an eight-race dash to Monza or will it push on through Asia to the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in late November? All at the mercy a stuttering killer virus rippling the globe.

Into this bizarre framework comes Hamilton bidding to win his seventh title and match a feat only ever achieved by Michael Schumacher.

And he does it with Mercedes entire top management team, save chief designer James Allison, out of contract in December. An unusual state of flux for the rock-steady  Germans.

Hamilton has refused to put pen to paper on a new deal, boss Toto Wolff is ‘considering his options’, engine guru Andy Cowell left this week and Valtteri Bottas will also be out of contract.

While Sebastian Vettel returns to race for Ferrari having been pushed out the door for 2021 in favour of Carlos Sainz.

That leaves the curious situation in which Vettel and Hamilton are effectively racing not just for glory but the only competitive seat still available for 2021: the Englishman’s own place at Silver Arrows.

Wolff may prefer to re-sign Hamilton but his Daimler overlords could see more benefit, especially to the domestic market, in having a German in their car next year.

Plus, Hamilton takes on his old rival with his own emotions running closer to the surface after plunging personally in to the Black Lives Matter controversy. More than ever, a victory will be a triumph for his colour as much as his team.

Ferrari’s re-design means they will not be contenders until the third round so Hamilton’s most likely challenger on Sunday is the home team and last year’s winner there, Max Verstappen.

Verstappen is a good bet to win the first three tight ‘street track style’ circuits which usually suit his nimble Adrian Newey racer. Thereafter, the chances tilt in Hamilton’s favour as the battle moves to the high-speed tracks..

Down the grid the battle at the head of the mid-field is likely to be disputed by McLaren, Renault and Racing Point, their new racer so complete a copy of the 2019 Mercedes title-winner it has been dubbed Tracing Point.