Both Alike in Dignity

Remember when Mercedes' DAS was the most interesting thing about Formula 1 in 2020? Now it's not even the most interesting thing about the Mercedes car - the Brackley machine having been newly repainted in a handsome gloss black in an striking show of support for anti-racism. It's a commendable move from the German marque, and should go some way to silence the concern trolls who pretend to care about the more shameful parts of the three-pointed-star's history every time Lewis Hamilton has the audacity to talk openly about his experiences as a black man in a disproportionately white sport. I'm very fond of international racing colours - perhaps moreso than is reasonable for someone too young to remember the ground effect ban - but losing the Silver Arrows from the grid is a modest price indeed if it helps push inclusivity nearer the top of the motorsport agenda. That said, even setting the worthy cause aside, the reliveried W11 really is a stunning machine, evoking that most classy of 90s racecars, the Sauber C12. People wax lyrical about the soda-can flamboyance of the Jordan 191, but for my money the white-tie Sauber of 1993 edges it for elegance. If James Bond took up Grand Prix racing, he'd drive a C12. Yet even the De-silvered Arrows aren't the most interesting thing about F1 in 2020, because more enticing still is the prospect of seeing Grand Prix racing at two new, old tracks. In more normal times, F1 venues are so brand-spanking new on debut that as the first team lorries arrive the paint is still drying in the brashly nationalistic run-off zones. However, these are not normal times, and in their scramble to piece together a workable calendar F1 bosses have had to rustle around in the spare racetrack box, as if searching through a drawer of tangled cables in the hope of finding the right charger for a Nokia that's old enough to drink. Amidst the forty-odd circuits with the required Grade 1 license to host Grands Prix, there are some duds - like the uninspiring Korea International Circuit, and some relics - like Estoril, just outside Lisbon, which was the last venue to host the Portuguese Grand Prix back in 1996. However, there are also some gems. And by a combination of good judgement and good fortune, it's those gems which the F1 top brass have chosen to bolster the calendar. For the first time ever, in 2020, the circuits of Mugello and Portimao will host World Championship Grands Prix, and I'm more than a little excited. It seems fitting that both of these racetracks will make their World Championship debut this year, for in many ways they feel like sister venues. They're a similar length; Mugello is 3.26 miles long, while Portimao - or the Algarve International Circuit, to give it its proper name - is just a little shorter at 2.92 miles. Both feature fast, sweeping curves that reward bravery and sensitivity in equal parts. Both have a classical feeling, even in slower corners retaining a sense of flow that often eludes modern tracks. Neither track was based on existing roads, in the manner of Spa or Le Mans, but each has an organic flavour such that if someone confidently told you that they largely followed the course of ancient farm tracks, you'd believe them. Best of all, both tracks are draped across sun-baked hillsides, rising and falling with the natural terrain, so that the whole way round the lap the cars constantly change tack in one axis or another and nowhere does the course seem to repeat itself. Expect to see the word 'rollercoaster' over-used. Teammates will be separated by bigger gaps than usual, and those who underperform will find few places to hide. When it comes to picking favourite racetracks, Mugello and Portimao are deep cuts, for those who consider Spa, Suzuka, or the Nordschleife too mainstream for their tastes. But expect to see them win many more admirers as they put 2020's crop of cars and drivers to the test in breathtaking fashion. For just one season, we are going to see what Grand Prix racing is like when nearly every race is on a top-tier racetrack. It will be spectacular, and it will make returning to sub-par venues next year hard to stomach. In a season where issues of diversity and inclusion have come to the fore like never previously, uncomfortable conversations will be had about the merits of trading thrilling European venues for less-than-thrilling circuits further abroad. It would be amiss of me not to raise the main caveat surrounding these facilities - the issue of overtaking. Saturday at both Mugello and Portimao is going to be unmissable, but with modern cars still hamstrung by wake turbulence, on-track passes may prove a little scarce. While often criticised for lacking flow and soul, tracks like Bahrain and Shanghai feature straights well over a kilometre long followed by hard braking zones designed to enable divebomb moves for a trailing driver with better rubber. Neither Portimao, which has a fast right hander after its longest straight and a relatively short straight before its tightest corner, nor Mugello, which features just one serious straight followed by a medium-speed right hander, lend themselves especially well to this style of overtaking. It must be said that the more modern and wider Portimao, with its graceful switchback corners, should offer creative drivers oppertunities for more unorthodox manoeuvres, but the narrower Mugello will pose a challenge even to the daring and deft-footed. Nonetheless, the pure spectacle of Grand Prix cars on the limit at lush Mugello and fierce Portimao, two tracks both alike in dignity and both overdue the chance to awe Grand Prix spectators, will surely prove among the highlights of the season. What a silver lining that will be in an otherwise sombre year.
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