As the ‘season opener’ draws near, F1 faces one of its greatest ever challenges. Though there remains doubt in terms of exactly how many races there will be, the fact is that the sport must get through the next few weeks if it is to survive, certainly as we know it.
Teams, indeed the sport itself, have been hit hard by the lack of racing which has meant a lack of income, and in its desperation to get the money flowing in again nothing will be left to chance.
While governments are still struggling, F1 will have its own track-and-trace app, the use of which will be mandatory in order that officials can quickly identify those who have been in contact with a ‘carrier’, so that they can be quarantined and tested.
Much like we see in our supermarkets, there will be social distancing and clearly defined ‘paths’ not only for moving around within the paddock but within the own garages.
While it was previously suggested that all personnel will be tested every 48 hours, this has now been revised and the tests will take place every 5 days.
The level of PPE will depend on the job, but those who need to interact with a number of different teams, such as race officials, scrutineers and suppliers, will be required to wear full protective equipment including face screens and masks. All this as well as temperature checks whenever entering the paddock.
As previously reported, each team is limited to just 80 personnel, and while charter flights will ferry staff between races, travel and accommodation at the events has been designed to separate the teams as much as possible.
“We will be operating in team bubbles and unable to interact with other team bubbles,” says Christian Horner, “even those within the paddock who have been tested.
“There are many operational procedures that have taken a monumental effort from all involved within the team to update,” he continues, “and sacrifices have also been made by those travelling personnel as they will be heavily restricted when in other countries.”
“In a very basic way the biggest challenge, especially for the guys in the garage, will be to wear the mask at all time,” adds Ferrari‘s sporting director, Laurent Mekies. “We have started to get used to it as it’s becoming part of our normal life.
“Even though I’m not wearing it here for the purposes of this interview, it’s compulsory here at Maranello,” he continued, “so we wear it in the factory and the office, but it’s one thing to wear it in an office environment, it’s something else to wear it when it’s 40C or very hot at the race track. We think this will be the biggest challenge.
“We will do training to get used to it. We’re trying to put in place some measures, in terms of breathing exercises, and having some breaks to have time to do these exercises and keep in the best possible shape.”
Referring to the fact that teams will be required to work within their own bubbles, and that there will be further ‘sub-bubbles’ within these, he said: “You are forced into operating your team as a bubble, but the fact that we are going to design sub-bubbles inside it is our responsibility. We do it, as we say, to be as resilient as possible in case of a positive case.
“Depending on how we design the bubble limits the interactions and contact between the people,” he continues, “and we are trying to design it in a way that does not affect our operations.
“In the case of changing an engine, if we need to do something like that and break the sub-bubble to go after an operational need, we can perfectly do it, but what it means is that as a team we will be a bit less resilient in case one of these people would be unfortunately testing positive.”
Ross Brawn has already made clear that, unlike Australia, race weekends will go ahead even if a number of individuals test positive for the virus. In terms of those who have come into contact with a ‘carrier’, they will be quarantined and tested before being allowed to back to work. Since this applies to everyone, including drivers, back-ups will be required and consequently a number of teams have already named their reserves.
“We have treated this race a bit like the races we used to go to that needed a visa that took a long time to be issued,” says Mekies, “we have done the same here in that spare people will be anyway performing the COVID test here at the factory in such a way that they are able to jump in if we need to replace some of our people at the race track.
“Of course, there is a limit to what we can do,” he adds, “because it’s not like we have a second race team ready to go, but we are ensuring that a number of additional people that are not planned to go to Austria are preparing themselves to meet the regulations should they need to go.”
With Max Verstappen having won the previous two races in Austria, Christian Horner is clearly already eyeing a potential hat-trick.
“The strangest thing will be either going to the grid or the post-race procedure… what do you do?” asks the Briton. “Tap elbows with someone afterwards if you have a good result?
“There is always a lot of emotion when you are at the end of a Grand Prix, especially if you are lucky enough to get a result, so that is going to test discipline to the full.”
Much depends on the opening two races, possibly the future of the sport, certainly as we know it, but Horner is optimistic.
“Myself and Helmut have been in regular contact with those at the Red Bull Ring,” he says. “They have worked hard with F1’s owners, Liberty Media, and the sport’s governing body, the FIA, and thrown everything at it to get the two races up and running. It has now proved to be a blueprint for the races that follow and all precautions are in place to return to racing safely.”