INSIGHT: F1 walking a COVID tightrope

Glenn Dunbar/Motorsport Images

INSIGHT: F1 walking a COVID tightrope

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: F1 walking a COVID tightrope


Now we’re all set up for round 11 of the 2020 season, it’s easy to forget just how thin the ice is that Formula 1 has been walking on this year.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to dominate headlines around the world, and F1 was the first international sport to restart its season, traveling to multiple countries — often on a weekly basis — to make sure 2020 still registered as a world championship.

The sport needed to get back to racing, not just because that’s what it exists for but because there were contracts that needed fulfilling, money that needed bringing in and jobs that needed saving. To not try and race this season was simply not an option.

But no matter how careful the sport is, F1 is not immune to the wider world, and Europe has been seeing a rise in coronavirus cases since entering fall, when colder weather started to hit.

In the UK, greater levels of testing means the numbers being registered now each day — 17,500 new cases on Thursday — are records, but still a long way short of the estimated rates earlier this year. Despite that, the rate of infection is increasing, and so too are the restrictions that come with it.

Why is the UK situation of major significance? Because it’s where most of Formula 1 as a sport is located. Eight of the 10 teams have some sort of base in England — seven teams are headquartered there, while AlphaTauri has an aerodynamic department to go with its Faenza HQ. And the likes of Ferrari and Alfa Romeo still have British employees who retain roots in the country. Even F1 itself as a company is based out of London.

So as the COVID-19 situation worsens again in the UK, so too do the chances of something affecting F1’s attempts to complete a season.

COVID-19 protection signage on display in the Mercedes garage. Motorsport Images

F1’s protocols on-site have been effective when it comes to severely limiting the numbers of positive cases registered at an event, with the highest number officially announced after a race being the 10 that were most recently published the week after the Russian Grand Prix. But that doesn’t take into account the situation back at team factories and at home.

Teams also have their own testing protocols when not at races — ranging from regular testing to none at all — and with growing numbers in the UK then it is certainly understandable that there has been an increase in the likelihood of team members picking up the virus away from events.

On Thursday in Germany, Mercedes announced it has had a team member test positive at the Nurburgring, and was following FIA protocols to handle the situation. It’s not the first positive result and won’t be the last, but while Sergio Perez’s spell on the sidelines at Silverstone showed how well the protocols can work if applied correctly, the Mercedes statement was a stark reminder of how the sport needs to avoid an outbreak.

Not only can F1 not afford to have to cancel a race due to a large number of cases in the paddock — and for clarity, that’s certainly not what’s at risk right now, as multiple positives can be dealt with — but it has a bigger problem of having to ensure there is no chance of it causing an outbreak in any of the countries we race in. These are countries that want a sporting event to show how well they are dealing with the situation, not one that causes more problems.

The return of fans isn’t the issue, as local governments decide whether that is safe or not in each specific region. Of course the hope is that big crowds enjoy the race safely, but F1’s protocols can only realistically extend to the execution of the grand prix itself.

The sport, and people working in it, are taking risks just by going racing, and it’s just an accepted fact that those risks will increase as infection rates in Europe increase, even with the protocols remaining the same. But in that same vein, F1 — like many other sports — can highlight both how it’s possible to keep things under control if you’re vigilant, and how quickly it will threaten to go wrong if you’re not.

“For the guys that work so hard, we’ve had this week in between, and those guys work so hard to stay safe and to be here on the weekends,” Lewis Hamilton said after news of the Mercedes case broke. “So it’s definitely a concern.

“It’s obviously important for everyone around the world, to be continuously reminded that this thing has not disappeared, that it’s still here, we still need to continue to follow protocols and wear masks and keep our hands clean, keep our distances.

“I can’t say what it’s going to do to the weekend. We have a lot of great people within our team; it’s not just about one person. We’ll try and make him proud this weekend, and it’s just going to take a different type of work, a lot of work to make sure that we continue on without any disturbances.”

Hamilton means that from a performance perspective for Mercedes, but F1 itself will hope that remains the case for the sport as a whole through to the end of the season. It will be some achievement if it does.