While NASCAR is back in action and IndyCar has set its sights on a June 6 start, Formula 1 has yet to announce its calendar for 2020, and that’s certainly not a surprise.
As IndyCar’s ever-changing schedule shows, there are still no guarantees when it comes to trying to push ahead with a season during a cautious re-opening from COVID-19 shutdown measures. It’s more than just opting for a few potential dates: it’s ensuring that if there is going to be a huge effort to host one race, then a full season will follow.
July 5 at the Red Bull Ring remains the firm target to get F1 back on track, with no testing beforehand. A pair of races in Austria were then supposed to be followed by a similar doubleheader at Silverstone on July 26 and August 2 but things don’t seem to be going to plan right now.
The problem revolves around a United Kingdom government restriction on new arrivals in the UK. Yes, it might seem crazy, but after not requiring people arriving in the country to isolate or similar during the height of the pandemic in Europe, the government is set to impose a mandatory 14-day quarantine period for arrivals by air – just as neighboring countries are seeing improvements in their own infection figures.
This poses a huge problem for Formula 1, with seven of the 10 teams and also so much of the sport’s organization itself being based in the UK.
UK sports have been taking matters into their own hands in order to try and restart as soon as possible. By investing in testing and protective equipment – from avenues not used by the health service, they insist – they are working to make their own industries as safe as possible.
In F1’s case, the “biosphere” that Ross Brawn talks about is intended to be free of COVID-19, with testing from the outset of all those who would travel. While you’ll never make any situation 100% safe, by ensuring everyone traveling is virus-free and isolating the sport to the greatest extent possible, the number of people outside of that bubble that can come into contact with those in it is extremely low, and therefore both the threat of infection and of spread is significantly lowered, too.
Add in the regular testing, and the theory is that you will quickly identify and fully isolate anyone who might still somehow pick up the virus, while also being able to treat them efficiently. As the chairman of the FIA medical commission Professor Gerard Saillant told Sky Sports this week, it is no longer a health issue, and more an image one.
“I think the situation is quite different between Melbourne and Austria now,” Saillant said. “The knowledge of the virus is quite different. It is possible to prevent and to anticipate a lot of things. If we have one positive case, or maybe even 10, it is possible to manage perfectly with a special pathway for the positive case. Medically speaking, it is not a problem and whether it is a marshal or (Lewis) Hamilton, it is the same, medically speaking.
“But, in terms of the sporting or media consequence, it is quite different. We have to try to anticipate that, to know where the red line is beyond which it is impossible to continue. But I think it is not a problem for us now.”
Perhaps it is an image issue that the UK Government is facing, too. A 14-day quarantine was only ever introduced by other countries due to the lack of screening available as the virus emerged. To be safe, everyone from a hot-spot was told to isolate for 14 days because that is the window in which the virus would show symptoms.
If you’ve been tested to prove you are negative, there is no need to quarantine at all. But once exemptions are provided, regardless of how sound the reasoning, then you open yourself up for potential criticism if cases increase once again.
So F1 is already working on a viable back-up option if Silverstone falls through, in which the sport will head straight from Austria to either Hungary or Germany. A doubleheader at the Hungaroring or Hockenheim could replace the British Grand Prix plans, and the return of the domestic soccer league in Germany is already providing some examples of how to put on sporting events in the current climate in that country.
Both Hungary and Germany share a border with Austria, so on paper, it makes a lot of sense. All those involved travel straight from one race to the other, then return to the UK after four rounds for a period of quarantine (if no progress has been made regarding exemptions by the end of July) before heading to a separate group of races later in August. By then, the expectation is that such travel would be allowed without having to quarantine upon return.
But there’s no certainty to the easing of restrictions, as this whole situation has shown. And as keen as everyone is to get racing again, you’re instantly asking people to be away from their families in a time of crisis for a full month. And some of the perks that often make the time apart worth it for team members involved in the sport will be off-limits, given the need to isolate throughout.
Despite the tough schedule, it is understood that teams are sympathetic to F1’s potentially demanding restart as it is being necessitated by government policy and not the original scenario the sport was aiming for.
The calendar is a balance of risk versus reward. The risks are becoming smaller from a health perspective, but the earlier you restart, the bigger they will still be. On the flip side, the rewards are greater the sooner racing can resume, with teams struggling for survival and the sport generating so little income.
While NASCAR and IndyCar’s restarts juggle different levels of lockdown in different states, F1 has the same issue in Europe but with greater travel complexities thrown into the mix. That said, there is much that it is going to be able to learn from both American series, and F1 is actively engaging with its NASCAR counterparts to try and ensure a smooth restart.
If it can successfully execute what is looking increasingly like being a quadruple-header of back-to-back races in Austria and either Hungary or Germany, F1 will have a blueprint for all other races to follow in case any still harbor concerns.
The UK restrictions have thrown a wrench in the works but the sport is adamant they are not a show stopper, they just look set to force changes in terms of where and when the show returns. But not how soon.