Formula 1’s pre-season is usually a time of huge excitement. Getting a first glimpse of new cars on track, analyzing lap times at Barcelona, catching up with everyone after a winter break… as a paddock, we complain about facilities or long days (to varying degrees), but it’s a lot of fun. But now we’re in the midst of the strangest pre-season ever.
Sure, we still had all of that testing back in February, but we haven’t had a single session of the 2020 season yet, and we’re just entering the two-week countdown to the first race. When you consider that all races are, at most, two weeks apart – save for the summer break – in a usual season, this is the timeframe for a normal build-up.
Yet instead of picking tire compounds, furiously scraping together as many spare parts as possible and talking about where they think they stand in the pecking order, teams are facing very different situations as they prepare for Austria on July 5.
It all kicked off last week with Mercedes running a 2018 car for two days, in part for Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas to get some track time, but mainly for the team to understand what challenges it will face when it reaches the Red Bull Ring. The most daunting aspect of the new season for each team right now isn’t how quick the car will be, it’s how they will deal with some pretty severe restrictions on the way they work at a track.
There are increased limits on personnel, social distancing measures, isolation and the need to operate in different “bubbles” to try and reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. And that’s just from a team’s perspective.
This week, Renault managed to complete a two-day test at the venue of the opening two rounds, but it had to use its test team due to quarantine regulations when returning to the United Kingdom. That means that the mechanics and engineers will have to pass on their experience to the race team, while only the drivers have had a true taste of what it will be like.
Also yesterday, Racing Point become the first team to run a 2020 car since lockdown when it used up a promotional day at Silverstone. And technical director Andrew Green was certainly not worried about performance…
“It was good to see the car running again,” Green said. “We achieved what we set out to achieve, which was to try and understand how we work in this new environment, and what it takes to work in this new environment, and that was the main purpose of the exercise. We learned a lot. It’s very different and it’s going to be a real challenge going forward.
“The new normal… it’s basically down to respecting the distance between engineers when they are working on the car, and the type of personal protection they have to wear when they are working on the car and that effectively changes the time it takes to do jobs on the car. Jobs now take a lot longer, and we have to try and manage that.
“We only have a certain amount of time trackside to work on the car. When we’re in a race environment, we have curfews in place, so we have to now look at how long it takes to change and modify parts on the car that we would normally do, but reschedule them to make sure we are doing what we need to do during a race weekend and not contravene the curfew regulations. That’s a big part of what we were trying to learn yesterday.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking these are small differences, given F1’s ongoing pursuit of saving thousandths of a second, but we’re talking major changes.
“I suspect changing an engine now will take quite some time,” Green said. “We can only have certain members of the crew working on the car at any one time, and that does limit the speed in which you can do a power unit change. Depending on when a power unit change is required, it’s going to be very challenging.
“A lot depends on what part of the car you are working on. When we get into the real meat of the car, and center around the power unit, we’re probably looking at in some cases it taking twice as long.”
Once Racing Point had cleared out, Silverstone became home to Carlin, where McLaren’s Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris were hoping to get some mileage under their belts in Formula 3 cars. Unfortunately the good old British summer delivered a near-total washout, so they’ll need to try again on Friday.
But not all teams are even going to those lengths in preparation. While McLaren says it doesn’t have a representative older car to test with, Haas similarly is unable to run F1 machinery in the short timeframe available due to the current global restrictions.
“We are not having a shakedown,” team principal Guenther Steiner said on Thursday. “Obviously you would need to use a filming day, and also we don’t have the capacity. The drivers are ready to go. I don’t think they need a lot of training. It’s nice to do, but for us at the moment it’s not a priority to do a shakedown.”
As unusual as the whole situation feels, as the first race draws closer, the competitive aspects comes into sharper focus. Teams are looking at the varying approaches being taken by their rivals – running current cars, two-year-old cars, F3 cars, no cars at all – and seeing where gains are potentially being made.
“I think (a shakedown) is an advantage, I wouldn’t deny that, but it isn’t big,” Steiner admitted. “Our guys are working in the factory in Banbury to put the car together. They have to do social distancing there while they work. So I’m not worried about that one. And for sure we practiced the new protocols in the garage instead of out on the track.
“It’s used a little bit as an excuse to do a shakedown, which I guess if you have the finances you do it, but we take a little bit more risk in these things because I know we have got good people and we will deal with it the best we can, and be in the best position we can be for Austria. Could we do a shakedown? Yes. Are you worried? No.”
And even those who have done running concede it is far from sufficient to be fully prepared for what lies ahead.
“It was a very limited exposure to this way of working,” Green said. “You could attempt to do a lot of this work in the factory if you wanted to. Trying to put it in a live environment… by no means have we got all our protocols in place. It was definitely a big learning morning, a steep learning curve, and we’ll make modifications over the next few events to suit.
“We’re still learning, but it did give us a real heads-up on how challenging race weekends are going to be while you’re trying to run the car.”
It all kicks off in just 15 days, but for now, the practical aspect of physically executing a race weekend is taking priority over the competitive side of how it will all play out on track. Why? Because the cost of getting it wrong is so high – even one team member testing positive could result in that team missing the race completely.