Eerie atmosphere for early arrivals at belated Formula One opener

AFP
Masked Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc inspects the Spielberg track on a racing bike (AFP Photo/JOE KLAMAR)
Masked Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc inspects the Spielberg track on a racing bike (AFP Photo/JOE KLAMAR)

Spielberg (Austria) (AFP) - Early arrivals at the Red Bull Ring on Thursday faced an eerie and unprecedented scenario as they donned protective masks and went in search of their workplaces.

Signs at the entrance made clear safety face gear is compulsory for all entering the paddock for this weekend's belated season-opening Austrian Grand Prix.

Inside, there was none of the once-usual hubbub of gossip as team members and journalists obeyed social distancing protocol and remained in defined 'bubbles' in the sunshine of the Styrian Alps.

Outside, there were no fans gathering in hillside campsites. Instead the fields were filled with grazing cattle.

Tents and canopies replaced the usual high-rise team motor homes as the F1 circus came together for the first time in seven months following the COVID-19 pandemic.

The teams arrived at nearby Zeltweg on private charter flights before being transferred to hotels from which they are shuttled to the circuit.

Under a strict protocol, the teams are not allowed to meet and mix and within each team 'mini-bubbles' of staff function separately to minimise the risk of contact.

The news media contingent, amounting in the past to more than 300 people, is severely pruned with only around 20 journalists confined to the media centre – all reliant on video interviews without any direct contact with drivers or teams.

Everyone had passed a coronavirus swab test before travelling.

"It is more like a private test than the start of a season," said Jonathan Noble of Autosport. "There's not much security outside the venue, but pleas for fans to stay away seem to have worked."

On arrival, all went through temperature tests and a hand-wash before a final identity check.

Inside, the media centre operates a one-way system and uses a sealed room for controlled news conferences.

"Media scrums and live questions are out," said Noble. "Everything is being done remotely.... Media have to pre-submit questions to be asked by the host. Zero risk is being taken in terms of mixing the social bubbles."

Reporting on the Autosport website, he added secret chats with team people were out, too. "WhatsApp will be the place for that!"

Even UK rights-holders Sky were operating under restrictions with Sky Sports News reporter Craig Slater back in London, instead of at the track, hosting reports with Sky Sports' Ted Kravitz.

This weekend's race is the first of two on successive weekends in Austria, followed by the Hungarian Grand Prix a week later as F1 holds nine races in 11 weeks.

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