I was hoping that the longer the season went on, the less I would be writing about COVID-19 and its negative impact on Formula 1. I was ideally going to be talking instead about an easing of restrictions, getting fans back to races and baby steps towards normality.
Instead, F1 is having challenges thrown at it left, right and center. And it is not always passing the tests with flying colors.
Let’s start with the most immediate issue, and that’s the one surrounding Sergio Perez. When Perez delivered an inconclusive COVID-19 test result last Wednesday, he went into self-isolation while awaiting a second result. On Thursday, the test result was positive, and so he had to miss the British Grand Prix.
Nico Hulkenberg replaced him and it didn’t go particularly well, but at least Hulkenberg would get a second go at it this weekend, right? Maybe not…
Perez’s inconclusive test from Wednesday arrived at a time when the UK guidance was for anyone who tests positive to isolate for seven days. By Thursday, that guidance had changed to 10 days because of growing evidence that you could still be infectious up to nine days after showing symptoms.
It should be made clear that Perez insists he hasn’t shown symptoms. But after that, it all appears a bit dodgy. Racing Point has – in true F1 fashion – found a loophole. If Perez was inconclusive on Wednesday (note: Otmar Szafnauer says inconclusive by FIA standards, but positive by others) but tested positive on Thursday, then the team says he was actually positive on Wednesday and that’s what the inconclusive result was flagging up.
Based on that, Racing Point has asked Public Health England whether that means Perez should actually only have to adhere to the guidance as it was when he first had an unusual test result (Wednesday, seven days isolation) rather than the final positive (Thursday, 10 days).
Public Health England has now come back and said he has served his isolation time, so Perez can race this weekend if he provides a negative test result as required by the FIA.
Now, it’s not the fault of Perez nor Racing Point that the UK has such confusing and frankly ridiculous guidelines – essentially saying the virus was less contagious on Wednesday last week than Thursday – but not taking the safest possible advice at a time when F1 has been working so hard to enforce safety protocols doesn’t send the right message.
Wear a mask at all times, even outside, keep the great unwashed away, don’t leave your hotel rooms – but if you want your driver to race, feel free to exploit some grey areas in the local health guidance.
It’s an attitude that is surprising, but not uncommon. Sebastian Vettel’s admission that he joined Szafnauer in his personal car to visit a gas station after last weekend’s race (apparently it had nothing to do with a future drive…) further attests to that. Many team members were under house or hotel lockdown between events, and Vettel is openly saying he jumped into a car with a rival team member who is clearly not in his bubble, just to socialize.
I’ll admit that a lot of the rules don’t make sense and seem hugely over the top when measured against official health guidance, but if you’re going to come up with them, then they should be enforced properly. Health issues should be treated like Technical Regulations, when it comes to searching for loopholes.
Still, while much of that appears to be moving into the sport’s rear view mirror with no consequence – see also Charles Leclerc’s well-publicized evening out in Monaco between races in Austria – there’s even bigger trouble on the horizon.
A spike in COVID-19 cases in Spain – and notably in Catalonia, where the Spanish Grand Prix is set to be held next week – led to the UK Government imposing a mandatory 14-day quarantine on those returning from the country 12 days ago. When that news was announced, I simply tweeted the word “Ah…” alongside the news story, because it was another hurdle for the sport.
Almost instantly I got an email from a senior member at F1, reiterating that the sport has a quarantine exemption. Less than a week later and it was confirmed that exemption no longer applies to everyone who works in the sport, and some people would still have to quarantine. Although because you can’t keep anyone prisoner, you are still allowed to leave the country during that quarantine period.
Not ideal, but not a disaster. Now, Belgium – the scene of the next race after Spain – has also been added to the same quarantine list, and there is uncertainty over Belgian guidelines. Anyone arriving from Spain has to isolate for 14 days, but it appears anyone who has been in Spain within the last 14 days is also subject to the same restrictions.
The gap between the Spanish Grand Prix and Friday practice for the Belgian Grand Prix? 12 days.
Throw in the current guidance for Switzerland (where a number of drivers live and Alfa Romeo is based) suggesting that all returning from Spain will also have to isolate for 14 days, and you see the monumental task facing F1 in trying to keep the current season on course.
To do so takes strong leadership, brave decisions and a not insignificant element of luck given the rapidly-changing picture in many parts of the world.
I heavily criticized F1 for its handling of Australia, but have praised it since for the approach to the season restart. The fact that Perez could test positive and there wasn’t a single second that I worried what it might mean for the race weekend or for the health and safety of anyone else in the paddock – shows how robust the current protocols are.
But trying to find gaps in health guidance, and ignoring the potential impact of racing in a specific country on anyone who tries to return home, both send a worrying message that this ship will not change tack now we’re racing again.
Hindsight might well prove it right in the long run, but for now it just looks like the sport is sailing in choppy seas.