Motorsports fans, finally, mercifully, get ready to rev your engines and gear up for the most delayed Formula One season in recent memory.
After breaking into June (remember, the curtain raiser was scheduled to be on March 15 in Melbourne), the powers that be at F1 have announced the new calendar, beginning on 5 July in Austria, the first of two double-headers in an eight-race season (the minimum number of races required for it to be considered a ‘championship’. The schedule so far revealed isolates the competition to Europe, but grants a debut for the ‘Styrian Grand Prix’ (or the Formula 1 Pirelli Großer Preis der Steiermark if you want to attempt this mouthful), that’s retained at the Red Bull Ring immediately after the opener.
Attempting to conclude all eight in the space of ten weeks, the Hungarian Grand Prix will follow a week after that, before a break. Then there will be two back to back races at Silverstone in order to mark the 70th anniversary of the GP at the historic track, followed by the Spanish Grand Prix at Montmeló, Barcelona and then tied up by the Belgian and Italian GPs at the end of August and very beginning of September, respectively, in the provisional set-up.
So what are you looking forward to the most? Lewis Hamilton retaining his crown and going for the record-equalling number seven title, young upstarts, the last dance of Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari, or simply just how on earth it will all play out still in the midst of the pandemic? The last time a campaign had significant postponement was exactly a quarter of a century ago, in 1995. So what lessons can be learnt, and what could we expect?
Circuit Social Distancing?
Forget the war on the track, the biggest battle F1 will face will still be keeping coronavirus at bay. All races announced so far will be staged behind closed doors with a limited number of team personnel at the circuits. Social distancing measures will also be in force and on-site testing for coronavirus (with compulsory tests every two days). Each driver in the cockpit should ideally be unaffected, being shielded and relatively isolated in their role come race-day at least until it comes to the three lucky men taking their place on the podium.
However these restrictions (remember, for the time being it’s still two metres, people) may have more of a profound effect on such vital elements of Formula One racing, such as the close-knit co-operation of each team when it comes to a pitstop, with the need for a quick turnaround of tyres and refuelling needing the cast of characters of Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, Haas et al. to operate as part of an extremely oily ballet. The two forces of social distancing and the preciseness of the pitstop just doesn’t sync. The two-metre rule looks to be out of the window.
“There are aspects of operating at a Grand Prix that really preclude social distancing," said F1 Chief Technical Officer, Pat Symongs (Enginuity via LES), "Our fans need to understand that everyone won’t be two metres apart, you can’t envisage a pit-stop where that happens, so we have to take even more precautions.
“It’s an incredibly complex operation that’s changing day by day as regulations and our understanding changes but we want to ensure safety above everything – that is our critical remit.
“There are bubbles within bubbles. We are trying to keep that level of isolation without the social distancing that we all know is so effective.”
Best of all, are we about to witness a substitution of the showering of champagne that concludes proceedings, to the celebratory spraying of disinfectant?
Crash Course On What And What Not To Do?
Following a similar vein as the above point, with the start of the season, the multi-millionaire F1 driver will no doubt be handled even more delicately with kid gloves to avoid catching that gnarly staring of COVID-19, do all precautions go out of the window in the event of a crash? Depending on your individual perspective, (fatality free) crashes and collisions are a fundamental and enjoyable part of the sport to witness.
However, within this brave new world, any such accident would further pose the issue of accurate and efficient testing, affecting paramedics and the frontline. After consistent messages of ‘Stay Inside’ to stop unnecessary burdens upon health services, igniting one of the world’s most dangerous major sports may be seen as ultimately counterproductive, particularly to those already cynical about F1.
“There are bubbles within bubbles,” explained Symons, “We are trying to keep that level of isolation without the social distancing that we all know is so effective.”
While it will be purportedly available on-site, any external factors, influences, or presences could be detrimental to the driver, their season, and the championship as a whole. It would be a bit ironic if you managed to escape unscathed from a crash but were unfortunate enough to catch COVID from that chap wielding the fire extinguisher.
Williams’ Last Hurrah?
With F1 facing a giant loss of revenue due to the lockdown and Williams edging ominously towards the back of the pack (in 2019, they finished last in the constructors' championship for the second successive season), the historic Williams Formula 1 team and its wider company group , founded by Sir Frank, are up for sale after posting a £13m loss in 2019.
Williams is one of the most successful teams in F1 history, and were heavily involved in competition throughout the 1980s and 1990s, being steered to a respectable tally of championships with excellent drivers such Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost and Damon Hill. If the sale does proceed, will the one last ride prove to be a memorable one for Williams & Co.? And what mysterious figures may yet emerge out of the shadows to take over the ailing engineer?
Double Means Less Trouble?
As mentioned, both the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg and the Silverstone Circuit in Northamptonshire will play host to two races apiece in this expected shortened season. Formula One has prided itself as a global event, with 2019 journeying from Oz to the Middle East to Monte Carlo, Sochi, Sukuza, São Paulo, Singapore, Shanghai.
The preliminary ‘20 calendar so far only stretches as far West as Spain and east as Hungary. Importantly, any anticipation of further waves and resurgence of the disease, that would in theory pop up from any of the 200-odd nations on the planet, would most likely require the reversal of any too-ambitious plans to restore the competition’s universality. One little outbreak could put the brakes on F1 once more (pun absolutely intended). In attempting to curb the spread and avoid risk as much as possible, are Euro-centric circuits to become once again the default, in a near throwback to the ‘50s?
Ice-Cold Hamilton In For An Even Frostier Reception?
He may be champion of the world and aiming by the end of 2020 to be sharing Michael Schumacher’s mantle for most Drivers’ World Championships, but Hamilton’s outspoken comment during the international protests following the death of George Floyd. The British six-time Formula One World Champion not only expressed his personal anger at the police brutality responsible, but also produced a scathing criticism of his contemporaries within motorsport.
'I see those of you staying silent, some of you the biggest stars yet you stay in the midst of injustice,” Hamilton said via Instagram, “Not a sign from anybody in my industry which of course is a white dominated sport. I'm one of the only people of colour there yet I stand alone. I would have thought by now you would see why this happens and say something about it but you can't stand alongside us.
“Just know I know who you are and I see you.”
His fellow drivers who will be likely to be starting on the grid with Hamilton on July 5, Charles Leclerc, Daniel Ricciardo, Lando Norris, Nicholas Latifi and Sergio Perez consequently responded.
Hamilton may be used to being front of the pack, but that target on his back might have just got that little bit bigger.