By Ben Edwards
From France to Austria, the Formula 1 circus executes one of its rapid turnarounds this week as we travel from the sunny shores of the Mediterranean to the verdant hills of Styria.
And while all I have to do is pack away my computer and a rather clumsy colour-coded file of F1 statistics, for the teams these back-to-back races are a real challenge.
By the time I did my final round-up for our Channel 4 programme on Sunday, the race cars had been stripped down ready to be rebuilt and the paddock was crawling with forkift trucks and articulated lorries that were providing more close shaves than were seen on track in the French Grand Prix.
Flat-pack paddock heroes
Everyone involved in the process works hard, but my hat goes off to the crews that have to dismantle, transport and rebuild the edifices in the paddock that the teams use as their base for the weekend.
Still referred to as ‘motorhomes’ because of their origins, nowadays they are massive temporary structures which provide offices, catering, hospitality areas and drivers’ hideouts.
As part of the C4 team, I was invited to have breakfast at McLaren on the Friday before first practice at Paul Ricard and we were ushered up the spiral staircase to the third floor of their magnificent structure which sparkles both inside and out, providing views across the track from a peaceful haven within.
For each European race it has to be taken to pieces, loaded onto the artics and driven a thousand miles over mountains and through traffic jams before arriving at the next venue, to be rebuilt in time to receive personnel and guests by Wednesday afternoon.
Just imagine how quickly these crews could assemble your flat-pack Ikea furniture; it would be like watching one of those maddening experts with a Rubik’s cube.
Yet that’s what F1 is all about; excellence at every level, not just within the garage, and McLaren is a team that is beginning to show that excellence on track once again after a long fallow period.
Finally… McLaren’s rejuvenation
Putting both cars on the third row in France was a big achievement, and there’s a very positive vibe in the camp at the moment.
The relationship between Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris is competitive yet good natured. They spend time gaming together and genuinely get along well.
Meanwhile, new team principal Andreas Seidl is already having an influence. Chief executive Zak Brown is doing his best not to get carried away, but there’s certainly a spring in his step.
Reliability has been an Achilles’ heel over the past two races on Norris’ car, and that will need to be addressed promptly, but when you consider that neither McLaren was in the top-10 in either qualifying or the race last year, the performance this time was a real step up.
The hills are alive in Spielberg
The next challenge is to continue the process in Austria. I love the setting of the Red Bull Ring, perched on a hillside in a rural part of the country, with views down to the Zeltweg airfield where the very first Austrian Grand Prix was won by Ferrari in 1964.
Six years later the Osterreichring, as the original circuit was named, hosted the second GP and more than 100,000 fans turned up to watch their national hero Jochen Rindt, who was leading the championship at the time. He took pole position but was out of luck in the race, which was won by Jacky Ickx for Ferrari.
Rindt’s influence on the sport was immense. Tragically killed at Monza later that year yet still having racked up a points lead to be declared a posthumous world champion in 1970, he inspired a passion for the sport in Austria which still rings true.
Success was a part of that, yet so was his driving style, full of both bravado and control. He was a boyhood friend of Dr Helmut Marko, nowadays the boss of the Red Bull driver programme, and when I asked him if there is a driver on the current grid who shows that same mix of racer’s instinct and flair, he didn’t hesitate for a second in nominating Max Verstappen.
Where drivers make the difference
Suitably enough, Verstappen won at the Red Bull Ring last year by taking full advantage of reliability woes for Mercedes as well as smart strategic thinking from his team.
Unfortunately the current competitiveness of his car may count against him, but it is still a circuit where the driver can make a difference, where kerbs rather than white lines mark the borders of the track, and judging the risk and reward of hitting them can be the difference between a front row start or a position in the pack.
Valtteri Bottas has taken pole position in Austria for the past two years, and if he’s going to keep his head above water in the title fight with Lewis Hamilton, he needs a hat-trick this weekend.
Hamilton is turning up the pressure at this crucial stage of the season, and the Finn needs a win to prevent his challenge from ebbing away.
As for Ferrari, their performance in France indicates that a simple strip down and rebuild from France to Austria isn’t going to be sufficient to challenge Mercedes.
Time is running out for the red team, and they’d better hope that the beginner’s luck of those early visits to the region all those years ago can somehow boost their chances in 2019.
Watch Channel 4’s highlights of qualifying for the Austrian Grand Prix on Saturday at 6:30pm with highlights of the big race on Sunday from 7pm.
By Ben Edwards