Well, we were in Melbourne, about to start another Formula One season…and then the world changed.
It has, in fact, changed beyond all recognition in the space of a few short months. Social distancing is the new normal – masks, gloves, two metre gaps, elbow bumps – and the Black Lives Matter campaign has swept around the globe after the death of George Floyd.
These have been truly unprecedented times, but, as curves have been flattened and lockdowns lifted, the world of sport is slowly, cautiously peering out from the rubble.
With cases reducing in most countries and both testing kits and protective equipment now far more readily available, many sporting bodies have decided that, with the correct safety measures in place, it is safe to resume.
Premier League football has now restarted, with players and staff being tested twice a week, a maximum of 300 key people allowed inside the stadium and regular disinfection of equipment.
So how will F1 look upon its return?
Formula One’s ‘New Normal’
As sports go, the core elements of F1 are already fairly socially-distanced; drivers are in their own cars, in the most advanced protective equipment, and if they get within two metres of their rivals then they’ve probably crashed into one another…
This means that most of the changes will be aesthetic and/or behind the scenes.
The new regulations have been produced in conjunction with the WHO and feature all the measures with which we have become accustomed recently – two metre distancing wherever possible, PPE throughout and the expactation that “all attendees show responsible measures are being taken”. There will be a daily questionnaire regarding potential symptoms to be completed by every member of the paddock, in addition to a contract tracing system, daily COVID briefings and an isolation hut on the premises.
What does it mean in terms of the show? Not a huge amount, really.
The grid process is to be shortened significantly. Media scrums are obviously a thing of the past; the media’s entry will be limited to mostly video or ‘pool’ interviews – where all outlets’ questions will be asked together. The weighbridge will be disinfected after each car’s visit and the podium celebrations will be moved to the grid, in order to enable two metre spacings between the steps. There has been no word on the champagne as yet; maybe they’ll spray disinfectant instead.
What Could the Calendar End up Looking Like This Year?
It seems astonishing, in hindsight, that the opening Grand Prix of the year very nearly went ahead. It may well have done, too, but for a member of the McLaren crew testing positive for the virus on the Thursday night.
In the aftermath, Grands Prix were gradually postponed, with Monaco being the first to fully cancel its 2020 event. The difficulty of assembling the infrastructure necessary for a street race made the event impossible, even with restrictions beginning to relax. The same obviously applies to the street races in Singapore and Baku, who duly followed suit, and the Australian, Dutch, French and Japanese Bahrain-grand-prix-to-go-green-from-2022/news/admin/" class="wpil_internal_link" >Grands Prix weren’t far behind, cancelling for a variety of reasons.
The requirement for a season to qualify as a World Championship is a minimum of eight races. The talk of a three continent requirement can be put to bed after Managing Director Ross Brawn confirmed that, in the exceptional circumstances of the COVID-19 crisis, this “recommendation” will not have to be met.
The FIA released a rescheduled calendar in early June, with the first eight races confirmed. They include – for the first time in F1’s history – a second race in both Austria and Great Britain; which have been named the Steiermark GP and the 70th Anniversary GP, respectively. The aim is to hold between 15 and 18 races overall, with the season potentially stretching into early 2021.
Beyond this, things remain largely up in the air. The races in Canada and Vietnam continue to be a possibility and there may even be another double-header in China, ironically. Bahrain and Abu Dhabi look fairly solid bets to host at least one race.
The United States is far from over its Coronavirus struggles, whilst Mexico and Brazil appear to be going in the wrong direction, so the prospect of races there seems problematic. However, with Liberty Media waiving race fees and, in fact, paying to rent the facilities, there are some old faces throwing their hats into the ring. From the more recent past, Hockenheim is looking likely to host a race, having dropped off the calendar for 2020. But blasts from the past such as Imola have been mentioned; both Estoril and Algarve in Portugal (and even Mugello in Italy) are being considered.
It’s hard to say currently how many races we’ll end up with and where they’ll be, but let’s just be glad that we have a championship at all.
Since You’ve Been Gone
So, if you’ve been out of the F1 loop during lockdown, what have you missed? Here are the main headlines…
Silly Season Before the Season Even Began
In the space of a couple of days, the F1 merry-go-round suddenly kicked into gear, sparked by Sebastian Vettel’s announcement that he would be leaving Ferrari at the end of 2020. Within a few hours, Carlos Sainz was confirmed as his replacement and, not long after that, Daniel Ricciardo announced he was swapping the yellow of Renault for the papaya orange of McLaren in 2021.
Vettel stated that “the team and I have realised that there is no longer a common desire to stay together beyond the end of this season”. Was he just burnt out after years of near misses and disappointment with the Scuderia? Or was it the team that have decided they want some fresh blood? Either way, it can’t have been easy to give up on his dream of emulating his idol, Michael Schumacher, with a championship at Ferrari and his options for 2021 now look limited.
There were initial rumours of a Mercedes seat, but Toto Wolff has all but ruled that out, leaving his best chance at Renault. Will Vettel take a chance on what is currently a midfield team, with former team-mate Ricciardo clearly having jumped ship? Or will he retire? It would be a great shame for the sport to lose a four-time world champion, but you sense recently that his love for F1 has been dwindling a little.
It is an incredible chance for Sainz, however. Many have seen him as a future de facto number two to Charles Leclerc, but let’s not write him off so soon. It is worth remembering that he largely matched Max Verstappen whilst the pair were at Toro Rosso and a stellar 2019 season refreshed memories of his considerable potential, after an uninspiring spell at Renault.
Ricciardo will be hoping that McLaren can continue their current upward trend and take advantage of the new regulations, which have now been delayed by a year to 2022. Unless he miraculously challenges for the title this year, it will have to be said that his Renault experiment was a failure. It surely won’t wipe that perpetual smile off his face though and a pairing of the Australian and Lando Norris will certainly make 2021 an entertaining season for McLaren, in every sense.
Hamilton Leads the Fight
For once, that headline has nothing to do with Lewis Hamilton’s dominance on the track.
The world champion has launched ‘The Hamilton Commission’ with the aim of increasing diversity within motorsport. “The time for platitudes and token gestures is over”, wrote Hamilton in a column for The Sunday Times. “Despite my success in the sport, the institutional barriers that have kept F1 highly exclusive persist.”
The 35-year-old has campaigned passionately during the enforced break, with a series of powerful statements on social media and participation in the peaceful BLM protest in Hyde Park.
And F1 has now followed his lead by launching the ‘We Race As One’ initiative, which has the aim to “impact long-lasting change, particularly regarding diversity and inclusion”. All cars will display a rainbow, comprising the colours of the 10 teams, throughout the 2020 season and the sport will also show support for key workers and families amid the fight against COVID-19.
As stated at the top of this article, the world has changed.
But maybe it was time for a change.
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