Formula 1 season starting four months later in a different world

ERWIN SCHERIAU/APA/AFP via Getty Images
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SPIELBERG, Austria — Four months after the opening race was called off at the last minute, the Formula One season finally gets under way this weekend on another continent and in a different-looking world.

There will be no fans on hand at the remote Spielberg track in Austria, with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic still creating uncertainty over how many races can actually be held – and where.

That may not be the only unusual sight, as drivers are discussing whether to take the knee together on the grid before Sunday’s race in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Defending F1 champion Lewis Hamilton has been an outspoken supporter of the movement and will be competing in an all-black Mercedes car – instead of the usual silver – as a statement against racism.

SPECIAL TRIBUTE: Mercedes’ cars will honor BLM movement

“It is so important that we seize this moment,” said Hamilton, the only Black driver to become F1 champion.

The truncated campaign kicks off with back-to-back races in Austria, as part of a hastily reworked schedule. It was meant to start nearly 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) away in the Australian city of Melbourne.

But the fast-spreading impact of the pandemic led to the Australian GP being canceled on March 13, two days before the scheduled race, while people were still queuing for the first practice sessions. Several other races, including the showcase Monaco GP, also were canceled.

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel (center) inspects the track with his team Thursday at the Red Bull Ring racetrack in Spielberg, Austria (AP Photo/Darko Bandic).

A rescue package with eight European races squeezed into 10 weeks, culminating with the Italian GP on Sept. 6, was scrambled together. F1 still hopes to rearrange some of the postponed races in order to finish the season with 15-18 of the scheduled 22.

There will also be two consecutive races at the British GP. If the season continues beyond Europe, it will end with races in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi in December.

“We actually don’t even know the amount of races we are going to do,” McLaren and future Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz Jr. said. “It’s an unprecedented scenario.”

Spielberg’s Red Bull Ring, cut off from major towns or cities, offers a reassuringly secluded feel amid coronavirus fears.

But strict health and safety measures have been put into place.

Everyone entering the track, including a greatly reduced number of media representatives, must have tested negative for Covid-19 and further tests will be carried out every five days. F1 teams are not allowed to mingle with each other – on or off the track – and media have no access to F1’s paddock area.

Drivers would normally have faced a barrage of questions in a news conference room, but health requirements dictate that drivers hold news conferences via video link and with questions sent in advance.

And, of course, Spielberg’s 4.3-kilometer (2.7-mile) circuit will be largely empty. It is normally swarming with tents, camper vans, makeshift barbecues and tens of thousands of orange-shirted Max Verstappen fans.

The Red Bull driver, hugely popular back home in the Netherlands, has won the past two races here.

The track is among the shortest in F1 but also one of the most aggressive. Drivers spend about 72% of the time at full throttle, second only to Italy’s Monza track with 77%.

Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc rides a bicycle Thursday at Red Bull Ring ahead of Sunday’s Formula One season opener (Clive Mason – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images).

That’s perfectly suited to Verstappen’s bold and abrasive racing style. Last season he chased down the leading trio before making a typically brazen overtaking move on race leader Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari.

The 22-year-old Verstappen showed last season that he is closing the gap to Hamilton in terms of wheel-to-wheel driving. Red Bull’s car also made a considerable jump in speed, while Ferrari’s faded, and Verstappen is emerging as a major title threat to Hamilton.

The 35-year-old British driver is chasing a record-equaling seventh F1 title to equal Michael Schumacher’s record, and only needs to win eight more races to beat Schumacher’s mark of 91.

Aside from Verstappen and possibly Valtteri Bottas – Hamilton’s improving teammate at Mercedes – the other main challenger is Leclerc.

The 22-year-old Monaco driver is extremely quick and impressed observers in his first season at Ferrari with seven pole positions – two more than Hamilton – and two wins.

He is now Ferrari’s No. 1 ahead of four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel, whose star has faded after he wasted mid-season leads in 2017 and 2018 and lost those titles to Hamilton.

The German veteran is leaving at the end of the year after failing to agree on a new contract, and his future in F1 is uncertain.

Like so many other things this season.

Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.