In some ways it’s just like another trip to the beautiful Red Bull Ring, the thing we do every year.
The Styrian valley is still breathtakingly gorgeous; blue skies, verdant hills, formidable mountains in the distance, strips of cloud floating here and there, gathering up their strength for a rainy ambush on the valley later in the day.
Air guns clatter, team personnel walk the track, technicians lay communications cables, polished nosecones sit in the pitlane sunshine, the air is thin and warm.
But there’s a glitch, a bug in the matrix, something we wouldn’t have been able to make sense of if we’d seen footage from the future a year ago.
Masks, extremely stand-offish body language and an empty media centre – 22 journalists in a room designed for a couple of hundred – one-way walking routes.
It’s the first proper meeting of the two worlds: before and after COVID-19.
We got used to the precautions in those few months of lockdown when racing became just some sort of abstract idea, or a game played on computers. But here they are, those two worlds, buttressing up against one another. We had a brief foretaste in Melbourne, but before the full implications of everything were apparent and systems put in place that made the weird normal.
This is just the raw core of the show, a bunch of addicted nerds doing what they do, all of us, but doing it in a vacuum
So there’s no way of peering behind the façade now, the paddock strictly off-limits, trackside access denied to keep us from infringing upon a different bubble of people.
It’s natural enough that F1 and the FIA are nervous about getting this right. F1 is visiting a country that has quite successfully controlled the virus – and triggering an outbreak would be potentially disastrous for the sport.
So F1 is doing everything to reassure the event organisers, not just of this race but all the others that are coming up. That burden of responsibility is being passed down the line and we all feel it and understand its necessity.
It creates this mood quite different from the usual celebratory one. Usually, you’re in the middle of this wildly festive event and even though you’re working, that atmosphere pervades. But this is just the raw core of the show, a bunch of addicted nerds doing what they do, all of us, but doing it in a vacuum.
It’s kind of joyless being here, but fascinating all the same. Kind of like Kraftwerk music after you’re used to listening to The Beach Boys, a bit dystopian.
Before heading to the track I stopped off to pick up my car parking pass in the neighbouring town of Knittenfeld and as I was driving down a back road to get to the track I happened across the airfield, just the other side of the main road from the Red Bull Ring, where the first championship-status Austrian Grand Prix was held, in 1964. When the world was so much simpler, but primitive.
In some ways the gap between then and last year feels smaller than between last year and now.