This time next week I’ll (hopefully) be filing to you from a very quiet media center at the Red Bull Ring, reporting what drivers have said in socially distant press conferences or via Zoom calls ahead of the first official practice session of the 2020 Formula 1 season. And yet, even at this very late stage in proceedings, there are still so many unknowns about what is going to happen.
Some of those are through a lack of organization – or at least, lack of clarity. But others are simply because F1 is heading into a new normal that is very different to anything anyone will have experienced before, even after applying the lessons it can learn from other events.
Traveling across countries, flying and transferring, all comes with an element of risk. The coronavirus has not disappeared – far from it – and all manner of precautions are being taken to try and ensure that F1’s presence and movement does not lead to outbreaks, or unduly compromise anyone’s health.
A recent tennis tournament organized by Novak Djokovic in eastern Europe highlights the risks involved: numerous players and staff tested positive for the virus after not staying socially distant, because local guidelines said it wasn’t mandatory. They drank together, partied together, played basketball together – as they were allowed to – and it all went horribly wrong.
The fact that cases may have been dropping to very low levels in the places where F1 is starting its season, doesn’t mean that an event can’t become a hotspot after just one lax moment. All those attending are under strict instructions to stay vigilant, and that will not be easy despite the best intentions.
The UK and Italy have imposed severe restrictions over recent months, and being locked down at home has already been a test for everyone, but for most that meant being isolated in a comfortable environment with loved ones. It was the same for all.
Now, heading to a race, they will be removed from their families and some friends, and told to stay away from other friends and colleagues who work in F1 if they are not part of their “bubble” of those they need to immediately work alongside. They will work under tough garage or circuit conditions, and then have to return to what tend to be pretty basic hotels in this region of Austria and not socialize or seek distraction outside of their hotels.
In such a high pressure environment, small windows to decompress are vital. So there is already a sense of trepidation among many about just how stressful this period on the road will be, even before we start talking about the fear of the unknowns.
Some team members and stakeholders have been undergoing testing for a while – the Netflix crew has regularly been doing so in order to film with teams ahead of the restart – and many others are undergoing the procedure this weekend ahead of departure for Austria. But as they leave for the opening round, there are still many question marks that they have to face.
Additional medical steps are being taken by certain teams that insisting they will have extra support on the ground at both the track and hotel in case any members of staff fall ill. But some teams are lacking clarity about what will happen if they have a positive case, especially in terms of the next steps for the infected team member.
F1 having committing to the season and set things up in a way that a number of positive case would not stop the events happening – keeping people working in small bubbles should prevent an outbreak any bigger than that specific bubble – means the sport and teams will roll on to Hungary regardless, leaving question marks over anyone who might have caught the virus and therefore be unable to travel.
At this stage, there’s an even bigger asterisk alongside the quarantine regulations that could have a major impact on the two planned races at Silverstone. The UK Government’s mandatory 14-day quarantine for anyone arriving in the country remains in place, and an exemption for elite sport has yet to be formally finalized.
The hope is that there will be progress in the coming week, but as it stands, teams will be heading out to Austria with no idea if they will be forced to quarantine for 14 days on their return. Not all staff are staying out for the full duration of the first three races — some will head back to the UK after the second Austrian race (leaving a bubble is fine, but somebody new entering it is to ideally be avoided), and they could well be out of action from that point on.
Even more seriously, if the exemption is not finalized then those returning from Hungary will be unable to work at the first race at Silverstone, and the likes of Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and AlphaTauri could find themselves struggling to enter the country to even participate in the race at all.
From a media perspective, there is also uncertainty about being able to enter Hungary for the third race without needing to quarantine for 14 days. F1 teams are exempt due to the regular testing at the Austrian events – every five days – and invited media also have to adhere to that schedule. While that will be covered by the FIA, it has not been specified whether that will then allow entry into Hungary without observing a quarantine period that is currently in place.
And all of this is before we even dig into the to-be-confirmed nature of many procedures at the track – such as the grid or driver interviews – that are intended to be seen by millions around the world.
Much of these are issues that are a reflection of the ever-changing nature of the pandemic in Europe and the varied approaches being taken by different countries. They are also largely behind-the-scenes problems that will hopefully never appear to influence anything that fans see on their televisions from July 5 onwards.
But thousands of hours of planning have gone into starting the season and thousands more are probably needed to cover off many more eventualities. The work won’t be able to stop just because racing is about to start, and success is going to be down to everyone involved doing their bit to pull it off.
Of course, F1 could execute everything perfectly, but a worsening situation in a country that is home to a team or is set to host a race could throw a wrench in the works. For all the preparation, so much remains out of the sport’s hands.
So right now, nobody knows quite what they’re letting themselves in for.