The Formula 1 season starts on Sunday in Spielberg. F1-Insider.com spoke in advance with Red Bull chief consultant Helmut Marko
Dr. Marko, the Formula 1 season starts on Sunday in Austria at the Red Bull Ring with the first of two consecutive races. How difficult was it for Red Bull as the organiser to get this double header off the ground?
Helmut Marko (77): In the beginning there was just the idea. Once the initial shock caused by the pandemic had subsided, it was clear to us that life can’t stand still even under the given circumstances. So we thought about what we could do. Acting without reflecting is just as ineffective as reflecting without acting, especially in difficult times. For us, May was the time to act. When Mr Mateschitz gave the green light, we immediately began talks with Liberty, the Formula One rights holder. We had to present the Federal Government with a concept that would grant all the security measures and could therefore be accepted. The most important thing: There could be no spectators and Formula 1 had to cut its number of personnel to about half. And: A complete capture of the necessary corona tests had to be guaranteed.
How can someone imagine the weekend for the participants?
Marko: Each team travels on its own and then stays on its own. On the race track, then in the hotels. Without a negative test result nobody comes into the area. In my opinion, FIA and Liberty have developed a faultless system that is strictly controlled. There will also be two tests between the two races, which will be carried out by contracted companies. Everyone is particularly careful because our races are also considered to be tests for the upcoming events. Nothing is allowed go wrong! Especially the Austrian race was so far considered as one of the best, because the fans there have created a unique atmosphere.
But now they are missing…
Marko: Yes, that’s a pity, but under the given circumstances an event with fans is not possible at the moment. The alternative would have been not having a race at all. The Bundesliga has shown that with courage, consistency and concepts adapted to the situation, the sport can be continued successfully.
How important was it for you, too, that the German Bundesliga started playing again so early?
Marko: They set the ball rolling – literally. I take my hat off to that. The organizers there have shown that you must never accept a situation as a given, but you have to make the best out of it. That’s how we see it, too.
Let’s get to the sporting aspect: How do you rate the performance of the individual teams at the season opener?
Marko: If you evaluate the tests at Barcelona in February, Mercedes is slightly ahead. Then it’s us and then, with some distance, Ferrari. We expect a fight for the title between Lewis Hamilton and our Max Verstappen. In any case, we are well prepared. This season, you can’t afford to make any mistakes, which isn’t easy at all, because due to the uncertain calendar situation you have to risk more at every race in order not to give away any points.
What does that mean as a matter of fact?
Marko: As a matter of fact it means: So far, eight races have been fixed for sure, 15 are planned. Nobody knows exactly how many we will be able to have in the end. Roughly speaking, this means that every race is like a final game that you want to win. We have learned from our mistakes of the past few years. There we were only really competitive from the middle of the season. We were able to change that, you could already see it in Barcelona.
Was it possible to do a lot of development work on the car after the Barcelona tests?Marko: Since the re-opening of the Milton Keynes factory we could use the time there quite well. We worked in a three-shift operation. In Austria we come to the start of the season with the third update since Barcelona. But it is only theory. Like everyone else, we could only obtain our data from simulations, CFD analyses and wind tunnel tests. In Spielberg the truth will out on the track. But we are in good spirits, also because of Honda. They were already very good last season and they are constantly learning. But the benchmark is still Mercedes. For sure they haven’t fallen asleep either. One thing is certain: Mercedes and Lewis want the seventh title. We want to be world champions, with Max becoming the youngest title holder ever. So we both have internal pressure.
What about Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel?
Marko: You can never write both of them off. But I simply have the impression that Sebastian doesn’t have a car to race for the title this season. I hope I am wrong. It’s good for the suspense and Formula 1 when more than two teams compete for the title.
Were you surprised that he is parting ways with Ferrari?
Marko: Not really. It has become apparent during the last months. I think he has somehow lost faith in Ferrari.
Also because of Leclerc?
Marko: Yes, but not only because this guy is such a great talent. I think there was a lot of politics going on around Leclerc, caused by his environment. Vettel doesn’t like that. He wants to step on the throttle, win and not waste energy on unnecessary team politics. I hope Ferrari will give him a chance to show off his skills in his last season.
Can Formula 1 2021 afford to lose Vettel, who won four world titles with Red Bull and is still the youngest world champion of all times?
Marko (laughs): That is exactly what we want to change this with Max. Seriously: Of course it would be an enormous loss. Just the rumours that he could drive alongside Hamilton at Mercedes in 2021 caused an earthquake in the media. That says it all. I’m just afraid that Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff won’t put this duel of the century onto himself. Then Sebastian will have to take a year off and weigh up his chances for 2022. He is actually still young enough for that.
Red Bull could take back his prodigal son after all? It wouldn’t be any less interesting to stage a mega-duel between Verstappen and Vettel. And Red Bull has never lacked courage…
Marko (laughs again)…: We have contracts with both Max Verstappen and Alexander Albon. That’s the current situation. But in Formula 1 there are always things that can change. After this season, whenever it ends in whatever way, we will know more…
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