It’s all feeling a little bit 2020 over here in the United Kingdom as we enter another lockdown period, but it doesn’t stop the wheels turning in terms of Formula 1’s preparations for the 2021 season.
The situation does highlight just how incredible it was that we got a 17-race season in last year during this COVID-19 pandemic, especially given the need to travel further afield in the latter stages as cases were rising sharply once again. Add in the fact that Lando Norris just tested positive for the virus while on holiday in Dubai and it’s clear that we’re a long way away from being able to not worry about its impact on racing.
But the COVID picture is not the only unanswered question heading into 2021, and there’s another really big one right now: The future of Lewis Hamilton.
I guess it’s less of an unanswered question, and more of a yet-to-be-concluded topic. In terms of vacant F1 seats, Hamilton has no other options, although I’m sure every team would rip up the contract of one of its drivers to get him if the chance arose.
But that won’t happen. Mercedes and Hamilton have both openly stated they’re not in discussions with anyone else, nor remotely interested in an end to their partnership. The pair are synonymous after such a huge run of success, so what’s the hold-up?
Not that either side wants to call it a hold-up, but it’s pretty much a combination of all of the above. Hamilton knows how important he is to Mercedes, so he is not going to be concerned about rushing any contract negotiations during the off-season when there are few distractions. He can take his time. Technically he has been a free agent for five days based on the fact his previous deal expired on December 31, but an F1 driver is hardly going to be financially crippled by such a gap.
And the same can be said of Mercedes. The team is fully aware it has the only seat available on the grid, and the best car and environment for Hamilton, so all of the ingredients are there for a deal to be done. But they can also add up to a bit of a stalemate in terms of the final agreement, knowing that both sides really want it to happen and have no viable alternatives that they want to turn to yet. Sure, George Russell did a great job in Bahrain, but are you really going to drop Hamilton for him?
Mercedes is never going to release information about ongoing negotiations, so there are multiple rumors swirling around claiming that there are sticking points that Hamilton has rejected, but then back and forth is exactly what a negotiation is about, so that wouldn’t exactly be a surprise…
Given that negotiations hadn’t even started when the season ended on December 13 – and Hamilton himself confirmed they hadn’t yet found time to start them by the FIA Prize Giving Gala five days later – there haven’t been many working days to get terms agreed. Drivers and team bosses are allowed a break over Christmas and New Year’s too, after all.
Oh yes, and then there’s COVID. Traveling has become much harder in Europe in recent weeks, so if Hamilton and Toto Wolff wanted to sit face-to-face, that process has become trickier.
And COVID is exactly what is tripping up a lot of other things when it comes to the F1 world.
Normally at this time of year we’d be reporting launch plans for various teams, but seven of the 10 are now in a lockdown situation similar to the one they faced back in March and April. Alpine, Aston Martin, Haas, McLaren, Mercedes, Red Bull and Williams are all reacting to the latest restrictions in the UK and understanding how they disrupt their car development plans at this point. The actual launch isn’t a pressing issue.
And whenever they have their cars ready, when they will be able to launch is also up in the air for another reason. Pre-season testing was scheduled to take place in early March before the season opener in Melbourne, but a trip to Australia is looking increasingly unlikely. Postponing that race would result in Bahrain becoming the first round, and strengthen its case for hosting the one and only three-day test.
Teams were split between the more consistent and trustworthy weather conditions offered by the Middle East, and the (usual) logistical convenience of driving down to Barcelona, where new parts can arrive more easily. Spain won initially, but if Bahrain becomes the opening race and the COVID restrictions remain tight over the next two months, then that could all change.
Switching to Bahrain would work best with a later pre-season testing date, which would also then buy the teams a little bit more breathing space for their car builds. That could prove to be a sensible move in the current climate.
But that would also mean we don’t know when we’re going to see a number of drivers in new machinery for the first time. Two of the names I listed earlier are new, as Racing Point has now officially become Aston Martin and Renault is evolving into Alpine, but Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso might be made to wait a little longer to drive their respective new cars.
It’s the same situation for Daniel Ricciardo heading to McLaren, while Carlos Sainz – the man Ricciardo replaced – was poised to test a two-year-old Ferrari in January, but those plans could also need revising.
And that’s all before we look beyond Bahrain and see a race in China followed by a to-be-determined round that is no longer F1’s calendar priority. Sorting out what’s happening in Australia and when that race might somehow fit into the condensed second half of the season is just the tip of the iceberg, with a schedule that looks even more ridiculously optimistic with each passing day.
Stefano Domenicali officially started work as F1’s new CEO this week, and he’s going to be earning his money from day one.
Who said the off-season was going to be quiet?