When is early too early, and when is early not early enough?
It is a question that makes almost no sense at all, yet will have been uttered in governing body boardrooms from London to Zurich to Dublin repeatedly this year as sports attempt to find the perfect date to resume. That question was answered two months ago in Paris when the FIA and Formula One announced that the weekend of 3-5 July would see motorsport resume in Austria, with the first of two back-to-back Grands Prix at the Red Bull Ring. And in no time at all, here we are.
So I ask again: Is this weekend too early? Or is it not early enough?
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On the face of it, Formula One has done extremely well to return from its hiatus this early. Three and a half months ago, Melbourne was primed for the opening session of the Australian Grand Prix, only for a McLaren team member to go down with Covid-19 and the season-opener to be canned. At that stage the threat to the UK was a relative unknown in terms of how serious the next few months would play out, while in the world of F1 few would have expected the first half of the calendar to be chalked off in its entirety.
For a sport that features 20 drivers, 10 teams and thousands of personnel travelling the globe across 22 rounds in as many countries, the coronavirus pandemic was a big problem. Not least does the sport have to meet the strict safety protocols that all sports are now having to adhere to, but they must also find ways to circumnavigate the various quarantine laws in place in each different country. Add to that the close-knit nature of a pit garage and the risk of a sudden explosion of positive coronavirus test results – should one mechanic contract Covid19 – and the show could find itself coming to an abrupt halt once again.
So is this too early? Only time will tell, but the general feeling within the paddock is that it is not.
That’s because F1 is very much the perfect guinea pig for the new safety protocols, at least when it comes to the environment it works in. Long gone are the days of oil-splattered mechanics and their dirty rags taking apart and rebuilding engine after engine with complete disregard to their hygiene. F1 garages are cleaner than most hospitals in 2020, such is the way every team attempts to present itself to sponsors and VIPs. It is not just the cars that are kept in pristine conditions, and teams will not find it hard to ensure every nook and cranny is wiped down and disinfected on a regular basis come Friday morning.
Then there’s the drivers. One of the worst-case scenarios flagged by officials is the event that a driver tests positive for Covid-19. Yet outside of the track sessions and regulatory team debriefs, drivers love to keep themselves to themselves over the course of a weekend. Isolation is unlikely to be an issue, and contagion will be kept to a minimum.
Face masks have been made mandatory for anyone who enters the paddock while the press conferences will look very different to what we’re accustomed to, with drivers entering on a one-by-one basis to a room with essential personnel only.
The most notable change will of course be the absence of anyone in the grandstands. Fans are important to the sport, but let’s not kid ourselves that they are the beating heart that they may be in others. For years, even decades, Formula One has put its television audience before those at the event itself, while the recent move behind a paywall in Germany follows the example set in the United Kingdom and Italy – its three largest broadcast markets.
If there is a way to ensure F1 can go ahead to ensure the resumption of its revenues, it will happen. Teams will be streamlined, the number of media permitted to enter the track limited, and champagne spraying will be put on ice, but the sport will find a way to continue.
Perhaps the most confusing aspect of it all though is that the season starts with no idea when it will finish. As McLaren’s Carlos Sainz put it this week, “we actually don’t even know the amount of races we are going to do”. Eight European-based events will include two in Austria and two at Silverstone, with additional stops in Hungary, Spain, Belgium and Italy. It’s highly likely that the 2020 campaign will finish in the Middle East, with some sort of double-header across Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, providing there is no global coronavirus relapse, but how we end up there is anyone’s guess. Portimao? Imola? The USA?
There should at least be enough for 2020 to be recognised as something of a full season, which will be crucial if Lewis Hamilton is to retain his title. You see, his critics will not wait a second to point out the looming asterisk that overshadows a record-breaking seventh world championship if he were to go on and tie Michael Schumacher’s record as the most successful driver in the sport’s history. However, 15-16 races was more than enough for the likes of Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Schumacher himself – so why not Hamilton?
If the season winds up being curtailed prematurely after eight races though, even Hamilton’s biggest fan will have a tough time arguing that 2020 actually means something. Every driver finds themselves in the same position and must make every point count, but an eight-race world championship? No thanks.
Having won five of the last six world championship titles, Hamilton knows how to get himself into the right frame of mind to be at his best. The 35-year-old remains one of the fittest drivers on the grid, appears to be the most talented and has managed to combine his relentless drive for success with his music and fashion interests elsewhere.
But not even he will have faced quite what awaits him in Austria this weekend. Hamilton has been at the forefront of F1’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement, calling on motor racing to do more when it remained silent after the death of George Floyd, and attended protests himself while praising those in Bristol for toppling the Edward Colston statue. Hamilton has rarely been one to remain silent, but even by his standards, his voice has been impossible to block out these last few months. With Mercedes running their new Black Lives Matter livery this season instead of the regular Silver Arrows design and the paddock set to Take a Knee before Sunday’s race, the ongoing uncovering of systemic racism in motorsport will be of particular focus as F1 returns.
There is also the small matter of Hamilton’s contract, along with that of his teammate and team principal too. Mercedes have been keen to play it cool, but heading into the second half of the summer with neither driver nor team boss tied down for next season is never a good look. As consecutive six-time world champions, Mercedes can afford to keep their cards close to their chest on contract renewals, but there will come a point when the speculation starts to become a major distraction to their efforts this season.
That’s largely because of the availability of one Sebastian Vettel. The four-time champion lifted the lid on Thursday by revealing Ferrari did not even make him a genuine contract offer once the coronavirus pandemic delayed the season, which made it categorically clear over who made the decision to sever ties in that struggling relationship.
The German remains one of the biggest talents on the grid though, and while he continues to float around on the driver carousel for 2021, both Valtteri Bottas and Hamilton will be watching on with caution. The temptation of an F1 ‘dream team’ between Hamilton and Vettel should have Bottas worried, while any attempt to play hardball by Hamilton over the enormous pay demands being reported could see Mercedes baulk for a cheaper option at a time when economic frugality is required. Both Hamilton and Bottas are supremely confident of being at Mercedes next year, but until the ink is dry on the new contracts, those words mean nothing.
One thing that we can say with some certainty is there should prove to be a new challenger on the block. Ferrari looked poor in pre-season testing and have already ripped up the manual again to redesign their car for the Hungarian Grand Prix in three rounds’ time, with a nod towards 2021 given that this year’s car will be needed to carry over into next season. It was the biggest admission you will see from a team so secretive as Ferrari that they cocked this year’s car up badly, and with Red Bull already snipping at their heels with the ever-improving Max Verstappen, Mercedes and Hamilton face a new challenge.
With the season getting underway in the hills of Salzburg, Red Bull will be licking their lips. Verstappen has won the last two races at the energy drink-owned circuit, whereas Mercedes have struggled to control their tyre temperatures that has resulted in Austria becoming something of a bogey track. That a quarter of the European races will be staged in Austria has not been lost on the world champions, much to their annoyance.
Whether the shorter season plays into Red Bull’s hands remains to be seen, but this is where normality returns. For a championship that has so many tangents already running off it, Formula One remains Formula One when the lights go out and the driver who finds the best package will end up in front of the rest. How they get there? Now that’s the exciting part.