Warning: I’m very much on my high horse today, but every now and then you need to climb onto it.
Firstly, I’m glad Lance Stroll is feeling better and says he only suffered mild COVID symptoms over the past few weeks (even if I don’t buy that for a second). This virus is horrible, and I would much rather not be writing about it at all. The threat it can pose to anyone who gets it — however small — means it needs to be taken seriously and I’m pleased he has recovered.
But what a massively irresponsible episode this has been.
A short timeline of what we were told starts on Saturday morning at the Nurburgring, where Stroll did not emerge from the pits at the start of the only practice session of the weekend after Friday’s washout. He had been at the track on Thursday and Friday, but Racing Point then announced he was feeling unwell and might not drive.
Nico Hulkenberg was called up, completed a rapid COVID-19 test and took part in qualifying. Team principal Otmar Szafnauer then confirmed Stroll had a number of COVID symptoms (listing flu-like symptoms, fatigue and diarrhea even though Szafnauer said “he doesn’t have the classic COVID-19 symptoms”) but had not been tested since Tuesday and would not again before going home.
“The pre-event test was Tuesday,” Szafnauer explained at the time. “We got the results on Wednesday and he hasn’t been tested since. We are following the FIA protocol, but I think his next was Sunday or Monday. I think it’s five days and you get another test. I think it’s the same for all of us.
“He’s there (in the hotel). We’ve got a doctor looking after him and when he’s fit to leave he will go home.”
It’s all too easy to use hindsight to get angry about some things, but this was case was as blatant as it comes. Stroll was showing COVID symptoms, had been in the paddock and his condition had deteriorated to the point he couldn’t drive the car (even though he now says his symptoms were only mild…). I tweeted at the time:
“Szafnauer says his next test is due Sunday, but that means no result before everyone packs up and leaves. If I was the FIA/F1 I’d request he takes one tonight and is clear to travel again. He’s not in a state to use the rules to test as little as possible.
“It’s completely possible Stroll is unwell with similar symptoms but doesn’t have COVID. But he has been in the paddock and in areas with other people traveling across countries. The testing protocol is meant to be strict when it comes to this sort of thing.”
Clearly, he needed a test to rule out that he might have the virus, and to ensure everyone else was safe. So why wouldn’t the team test him?
The main reason is because it could cost it a car in the race.
Had Stroll returned a positive result before the race, all of the Racing Point team that had come into close contact with him would have been forced to self-isolate. Mercedes had done as much in Germany, withdrawing four team members who tested negative because they had been part of the bubble with a positive case. If Racing Point was forced to do the same, that could have risked the ability for the team to run Nico Hulkenberg’s car. Based on who Stroll had been in contact with over the few days before, it could even have jeopardized both cars, as the team does not have a replacement traveling team that could suddenly step in at short notice like Mercedes due to its size.
By not testing him until after the event, then it didn’t take that risk of losing a car. But then, why didn’t the FIA force the team to get him tested? The FIA Code of Conduct states: “An Attendee who begins to suffer from any COVID‐19 Symptoms while at the Venue… must report immediately to Quarantine and take a PCR Test administered by the Approved Test Provider.”
Apparently those symptoms are open to interpretation and the FIA says it is up to the teams to decide if anyone is showing symptoms that require testing. But it cannot legally force a test, and can only respond to information officially reported to the COVID Delegate by the team. With Stroll outside the venue in his motorhome, it would only have had the power to force a test if he wanted to re-enter the paddock and the team had told the FIA he had COVID-like symptoms.
Today, a statement from Otmar Szafnauer says Stroll “consulted with a doctor who did not believe his symptoms indicated COVID-19 and did not advise a test was necessary. Based on this clinical assessment, at the time there was no requirement to inform the FIA as to the nature of the illness.”
Buck completely passed, this time to an unnamed and unaccountable doctor. And I’ll reiterate that the only thing anyone had to “lose” from a test being carried out was Stroll’s travel plans being difficult, and the team having to follow protocols that would have taken a number of team members out of action. All designed to reduce the risk of transmission.
The FIA might have been adhering to its own guidelines, but giving teams the opportunity to avoid testing where possible also has the knock-on effect of reducing the amount of mandatory testing on site and therefore a lower number of positive cases at an event.
The number of tests carried out at events had dropped significantly by Germany, and although explanations were offered up — apparently set-up crews for support races, plus those paddocks, accounted for more than half the total tests at each race — it meant questions were being asked on how seriously the testing situation was being taken by some of those in the sport.
When I flew home from the Nurburgring, a large number of Renault personnel were on my flight, queuing and passing through the airports together. Racing Point used a private charter on this occasion — with the team saying it does so when possible =- but at times has team members flying commercial.
By not testing Stroll, those who came into close contact with him still interacted with other team members, who then left the track to travel home and can have had close contacts to further people. Their families, as well as random, unsuspecting members of the public traveling with an F1 team were at increased risk of infection, it would appear simply because the team didn’t want to lose out on the chance of running one of its cars in a race. In the end, all for four world championship points.
That’s why it’s irresponsible of the team, and irresponsible of the FIA too. Not only did it increase the risk of more paddock members getting it, it risked multiple people who have nothing to do with F1 as well. It’s exactly the sort of thing that the sport has been trying to convince governments and race organizers won’t happen amid a pandemic that is currently worsening in Europe.
This might well have been a case of one team completely mismanaging a situation — or one doctor being extremely poor at their job — but the FIA had a chance to address it by requesting a test, rather than leaving its protocols open for such an incident to occur. As I’ve previously written, these aren’t regulations to be exploited like technical rules. The FIA needed transparency and honesty in the official channels from Racing Point, but it also needs to give itself as much freedom as possible to do the right thing next time.
Not only did it have health implications, this sort of situation could threaten whether other events want to welcome F1 back if the COVID pandemic persists into 2021. Only this week it became clear the aim is to start next season in Australia, where borders are currently as good as closed, so that obviously needs government approval to happen. How likely is that if an outbreak somewhere can be traced back to a flight carrying an F1 team that had a positive case but avoided testing just because it could?
That’s obviously a worst-case scenario, but you don’t risk the worst-case if you can clearly prevent it. Unlike many far less fortunate people in the wider world, F1 and the FIA are in a position to prevent it, and have to do every reasonable thing they can in order for the sport to keep racing safely.
The FIA has now updated its testing rules as it continues to try and address its handling of the virus situation, so team members have to be tested after arriving in a country, and can only access the paddock with a negative result. But that doesn’t prevent a similar scenario unfolding, and it doesn’t address Racing Point’s recklessness.
Hulkenberg’s comebacks have been great — and he’s in Portugal with Racing Point again this weekend if needed — but the events surrounding the most recent one is less so. If the sport is serious about its conduct when it comes to COVID, then it needs to take action, and stop passing responsibility around so much that nobody takes it.