Austrian GP: Preview – Red Bull

The last time you were in the RB16 was in February at winter testing in Barcelona. Is this the longest you haven’t raced for since you were karting?
Max Verstappen: It has been really weird that I haven’t been able to drive in such a long time and It’s the longest it’s been since I started karting. Luckily, I have a simulator at home and as you’ve probably seen, I have been using that a lot during the shutdown period. I’m glad we can get back to racing now but this time has been very challenging for so many people, so we have nothing to complain about at all.

Are you excited to get back on track later this week?
MV: Yes definitely. It will be weird without fans but I really want to get back in the car and be as fast as possible. My training in the lead up to the race has been better than ever because I have had so much free time. I’ve had about six full weeks of training and I feel in even better shape now than I did before Australia. It’s also great that we have the first two races of the season at our home track and it will be a special moment for sure.

How much will you miss the “orange army”, especially in Austria?
MV: Of course, it is going to be very different without the orange army and it’s going to feel a little strange. There are usually so many great Dutch fans in Austria. I have lots of good memories from that track, 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.

You have two attempts to win the Austrian GP this season. Do you think that is possible in the RB16?
MV: It’s been such a long time since I drove the RB16, at the time it felt good but there’s always room for improvement, I always want to do better. The Team have been working really hard in the lead up to the race and there will be upgrades to our car, but all teams will have those so it’s not clear where anyone is at the moment. The weather conditions in Austria can also change quickly so that will play a part in the results. I will just focus on what is happening at the track and making sure we get the best performance out of the car.

What would a hat-trick at the Red Bull Ring mean to you and do you consider yourself as a favourite?
MV: I would prefer to win a Championship! I don’t really think about a hattrick, the most important thing for me is to have a competitive car and perform at my best. I never consider myself the favourite because actually when you look at the track it’s not even our best track, but last year, of course, it was very warm. We were really good with keeping the engine cooling down. So I don’t expect it to be an easy win, I think Mercedes again will be very strong. Who knows where Ferrari will be as well, so no, it will be a very hard and tough battle again to win that race, but we’re going to try.

There are a lot of races in a short timeframe this season. Do you like that and is the intensity of that pressure good for you?
MV: You are away a lot of course and you can’t go home in between races, which is going to be difficult especially for the team members with families. I don’t really think about it as pressure though as it is what we love and what we are here for.

How do you feel about having back to back races on the same track?
MV: Well it depends how the first race went, but of course, it makes it a lot easier for everyone not having to travel somewhere else at the moment. Everybody knows the track; everybody has done a lot of laps. So it will be very close and the differences will be very marginal, but yeah, it’s good a thing too if you issues in the first weekend to try some new stuff on the second weekend. It’s going to be really different, but in a way it’s maybe good to learn more about the car in the early races.

Is 2020 the first real chance for you to battle for the Championship?
MV: I hope so, it’s so hard to say. One thing I know for sure is that we will do everything we can to fight for it. Mercedes are still the ones to beat, because they have been the dominant team for so long now. They are still very strong and will be hard to beat but as a Team we learnt a lot over the last year and I really think that we are stronger. We’ve got some good races coming up this season so I will of course try to close that gap and hopefully we can make it difficult for them, it will be a good challenge to try and beat them.

Honda have been working hard over the winter, do you think they have done enough to close the gap?
MV: Honda for sure worked very hard over the winter again and it all looked very solid at testing in Barcelona. Our top speed looked decent, so I’m very happy with the work that has been done. Honda are very motivated and want to fight for the title like we do.

How did you react to the sudden cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix?
Alex Albon: I would say on a personal side the whole feeling of that situation in Australia was obviously very unique. You have so much adrenaline building up, I think that coming into winter testing and then having that mental preparation, the whole team has that atmosphere that we’re going racing, and everyone is streamlined, and everything is going in an upwards trajectory. I remember sleeping in my hotel that night, and getting amped, it was Friday, it’s FP1 on a street track like Melbourne, you don’t sleep that well, and then that morning I was just having breakfast and just got told ‘we’ve booked you a flight back’ so it’s very strange, and it kind of resets you. You feel like ‘what’s my purpose?’ kind of thing. And you go back, and it was a reset. We were just waiting until we got this date which is now in Austria. Now the season restart has been confirmed, I’m excited to get started again. My first day back at the factory after shutdown felt like my first day back at school. It was nice after all this time away from racing to get back to it finally.

Arriving home from Australia, what did you do to keep busy whilst plans for the 2020 season were up in the air?
AA: Coming back to the UK, the first thing was really just making sure, I think as a team we were very cautious with just the situation. We obviously had a couple of outbreaks inside the paddock and I think that was the first thing as a team, safety first, so we all isolated really, and there isn’t much you can do. It was very much stay at home, the first thing I did was speak to the guys at the factory to collect some gym equipment because I had none at home, and just have everything ready so I could top up (fitness) but without having a date you were kind of just living day by day not having so much of a focus and to keep the motivation was not easy actually. You were just kind of waiting for news and speaking with Christian, just getting texts, the odd updates of what was happening, but that was about it. We’re athletes so it’s our job so we’re still making sure we’re ready at any moment, but it was just a weird situation, especially because I have never spent this long away from a racing seat since I first started which was when I was seven (years old).

What have you missed most about racing?
AA: I’ve missed just the feeling of the speed, being in the car, kind of that process of arriving to the track and perfecting on a lap, and pushing it to the limits, it feels very strange to be at home and not having that sense of speed. Doing the filming day was just a highlight of that where I was a bit like ‘my god, this thing is so fast!’ You kind of think it feels so good to be back in it.

After so long without racing or travelling, how important is it to be 100% ready from Round 1?
AA: We are going from one of the quietest periods of time, to one of the busiest we will have ever experienced. It’s going to be crazy for all of us. The whole atmosphere is going to be really different. There will be no fans, which is really what makes the sport, so that will also add to how strange it’s all going to feel. Racing week after week for however long is going to be tough for everyone in the Team, and it’s going to be important to start the first few races strong. We didn’t run in Australia so everyone is going to be learning and I think the teams that really get into the racing rhythm first will be the best and the ones to beat. It’s important to go into the first race with as much energy as you can – it will be about maintain your energy and keeping it as high as you can for as long as you can.

How do you feel and are you ready to hit the ground running in Austria?
AA: I feel good. There’s so much time that, with any driver, there’s going to be that level of uncertainty as to what’s going to happen. I’m glad I did the filming day to get that initial dust off my shoulders but I’m excited, I think we’ve all been waiting for this. There’s been a long drought, we all do this because we love it and we’ve missed it, so I can’t wait to get started.

How will having back to back races at the same circuit affect the way you approach the weekend?
AA: The dynamic is more or less very similar on that first race weekend, so the first race weekend you would treat like another one, procedural things like FP1, FP2, FP3 would always be the same. Where it changes most probably is that second weekend where you’ve got a perfect opportunity to directly compare to your first weekend, try some things which are very risky to try during a normal race weekend because it’s a new track and everything has changed. Now you’ve got the same circuit, pretty much the same weather and you can try things so I’m sure every team is going to treat the second weekend with a bit more risk and try some things out because you know if it doesn’t work out you can go back to your first weekend car.

At same circuit back to back races, do you think the fastest team and driver at race one will be the same at race two?
AA: If the people are fastest by a good chunk then it’s always hard to get that lap time back but saying that, yeah there’s a good chance there’s going to be differences and that’s where I think top teams like ourselves will have to go through that data, be careful with our feedback as drivers to maximise and focus on the areas we need to improve on after that first race.

With the calendar not finalised and the number and location of races not fixed, is there added focus to maximise every race this season?
AA: Just because there’s an unknown kind of feeling of even how many races we’re going to do, what circuits we’re going to go to, there’s no change in our job and that’s really just to maximise every weekend – that’s all there is to it. Being back to back to back, we will have less time to prepare, unlike a normal weekend where we do some simulator, and of course there will be tracks which we’ve never been to, but I think that’s a good opportunity. I think the good teams will be quite flexible, the same with the drivers, being on top of it and understanding the car and the tracks as quick as possible, and I think that’s an area where as a team I believe we will be pretty successful. Just looking historically at how Red Bull are good at interpreting and getting up to speed quickly. It should be good!

In this condensed 2020 season, will driver fitness play a bigger part in performance this year?
AA: I think there’s definitely an element to it. The first two races not too much, Austria is quite an easy circuit with few corners and quite a lot of breathing time in between with the long straights. Once we get to Hungary, that will quickly change and normally we will arrive to Hungary with how ever many rounds we’ve done and so by the time we’re there, it’s all easy flowing. It will be three weeks (in a row) so we won’t have much rest. It does play a part, Hungary, Singapore last year for instance, there is performance in your fitness so yeah it will do, if it’s a tie breaker we’ll see.

Is the pre-season form guide still accurate given it was so long ago now?
AA: Barcelona already from winter testing is quite inconclusive. You don’t know where the teams are, but everyone has a fairly good understanding of where everyone is at, adding another four months on top of that, it really jumbles up everything. There has obviously been a summer factory shutdown, which means teams haven’t really had too much time to play around with it.

How important is it to qualify well at the Red Bull Ring or are there opportunities in the race?
AA: With such few corners it is hard to maximise your car in terms of making a difference so qualifying is generally pretty close, but at the same time it really doesn’t define what happens in the race as we’ve seen in the past two years with Max. A good car can really save the tyres there, temperatures are normally really hot as well so I’m sure it won’t be any different. The main thing is just to wait and see. I think coming from winter testing we’ve a good car and I’m sure even from the filming day we did, everything feels pretty good so we’ll see.

Lastly, we will have a new “normal” way of working with the COVID-19 protocols in Austria. How have you found it so far?
AA: It seems to be extremely well organised already. It is going to be quite complicated but from my experience with the guys at the factory, they are all on top of it already. I was at the factory and the lengths the Team is going to is great to see. It’s more about just keeping safe. We are going to be travelling and together a lot, we are going to be in our own little bubble. We all have to be really careful with everything at all times.

Talk us through how the team have kept morale high during the extended shutdown?
Christian Horner: Well it’s highly unusual for a Grand Prix team to go into hibernation for what was essentially two and a half months so obviously during that period you want to retain that sense of team. So activities, whether it be online fitness classes, Friday night quizzes, town hall meetings where the staff would have the ability to ask me questions, passing on information and updates, keeping the drivers engaged with the team members as well, were all hugely important during what was a very uncertain time.

Tell us about how you worked with the other Team Principals in order to secure the future of the sport?
CH: During the lockdown there was a lot of work that went on behind the scenes with current and future regulations and there was a sense of camaraderie to try and find a majority of solutions with that because it was in the interests of not just individual teams but the whole sport. Things like delaying the introduction of the new regulations, reducing the cost cap to a responsible level, sensible compromises were found and that’s when there is a crisis the collaboration of the teams can be very effective.

Is there more fine tuning and clarification needed on the new regulations?
CH: As we return to racing of course there’s going to be things to fine tune in this new environment that’s obviously going to be a lot more restricted in terms of our activities so inevitably there’s going to be tuning there. With the new regulations for 2022, I’m sure there’s going to be clarifications, on the financial regulations which are all new, again I’m sure there’s going to be further clarifications, but the bulk of the big ticket items have certainly been dealt with.

How much preparation has gone in behind the scenes from Red Bull in order to safely host the first race of the season?
CH: From very early on in the pandemic Red Bull were keen to help and as races dropped off (the calendar) they set their sights firmly on getting Formula One going again, so thanks to Dietrich Mateschitz and the whole of Red Bull. The effort that’s gone into getting this race off the ground, working closely with the promoter, the guys from liberty and the governing body, a huge amount of effort has gone into providing the right and safe environment to get Formula One running again and not only one weekend in Austria but two, so we’ll get to enjoy two weekends at what is essentially our home Grand Prix.

What measures are in place to protect team personnel and the communities we visit when we return to racing?
CH: There’s been a huge focus on protecting staff and all members in Formula One and the host countries that we’re going to, so teams will essentially work within their own isolated bubbles. We won’t be sharing hotels, our hospitality units won’t be at the races, we’ll be wearing face masks during any sessions on the pit wall, there won’t be the usual pre-race build up with the grid, or maybe even podium ceremonies, so life will be quite different but it’s all focused on creating a safe environment. Testing is becoming de rigueur as we are constantly tested throughout the process of going back to racing so it’s all providing a safe and controlled environment.

Are you excited about the return to racing?
CH: Well Melbourne feels like an awfully long time ago now and to think that we’re only starting our season at what would be pretty much the midway point is a little strange, but the racer in us all just wants to get going again. It was great to see the car at Silverstone and it reminds you of what it’s all about, why we’re working so hard and what our goals are, so it’s going to be exciting to get racing again. It’s going to be different, but I think when those lights go out and we’re focused on our cars and the competition, it’s all going to be about what happens on track.

What is the key to mounting a championship campaign in such a short and condensed season?
CH: It’s going to be crucial to be reliable. There’s going to be a lot of races that come thick and fast and it’s going to be an intense period for everybody involved. They’re going from 0 to 100mph from having not raced since November last year, we’re going to be in July so over seven months downtime for these drivers. It’s going to be an exciting first few laps, and it’s going to be important to maximise our chances and opportunities. It’s an unusual year, but maybe that’s what we need to take the challenge to the all dominant Mercedes who have won everything for the past six years.

Do you think this F1 season could be one of the most exciting we have seen?
CH: I think this is going to be a fantastic season. Sure, I think the drivers will have an element of race rustiness, but these guys are professionals, they’ll get over that pretty quickly I’ve got no doubt. It’s going to be intense and it’s going to be slightly different to what we’re used to and that brings different pressure and dynamics so I’m really looking forward to it and I think we’re well positioned to hopefully have our strongest year since 2013.

Do you think Max feels the pressure as he is positioned by the media as Lewis’ main title challenger?
CH: Well we all go into the first race with the same amount of points, so I think the pressure on Max is no different to previous years. I think he recognises we had a good winter, we came out of pre-season testing well, Mercedes were still the form team to beat but it felt like we had some real potential in our car so that’s going to be crucial as we head into the season. For sure they start the season as the favourites, but I sincerely hope and believe in Max and Alex that we have a very strong team and hopefully we can provide them with the equipment and tools to mount a challenge on Mercedes this year.

This is only Alex’s second season in F1. What are the team looking for from him this season?
CH: For Alex, people do forget it’s his second season in Formula One and he’s missed sort of the first half of that so it’s been a baptism by fire but he coped with that incredibly well last year. He seems to deal with pressure very well and I think we’re just looking for him to make progress on where he finished last season. I think opportunities will present themselves for him and I really think he could be the surprise of the season in many respects this year.

How much has the RB16 been developed since Australia and do we know where we stand going into Austria?
CH: We don’t really know where we stand going into Austria and of course the car would have been developed. There would have been updates at the first European races at Zandvoort and Barcelona, there would have been further updates for Montreal, so of course all the updates that were in the pipeline prior to the shutdown, plus whatever we’ve learned subsequent to the shutdown, have been implemented to the car so there are subtle revisions all over the car as part of that update process which I’m sure the other front running teams have also done. We also have an engine upgrade as we essentially introduce what would have been engine number two, which becomes our first engine, so in all aspects of the car there has been an awful lot of work go into and it’s been a race against the clock to get those updates onto the car since reopening the factory at the beginning of June.

How has the relationship with Honda developed as the team moves into a second season with them?
CH: As we head into our second year of our Honda relationship it feels much more integrated within the Team. We enjoyed a great debut season with Honda winning three races, and of course now we’re looking to build on that. They’re ambitious, they share the same ambitions that we do, they’ve been working tremendously hard during the off-season and of course come into this year with higher expectations. It’s a key part of the car and a key partner for us as we move forward and look to mount a challenge for championships in the future.