Landing in Melbourne feels a little bit like returning to the scene of a crime. Just over two years ago, the world was changing rapidly and Formula 1 – alongside the race organizers – was trying to pretend it wasn’t.
What followed was an incredible 72 hours between most people associated with F1 arriving in Australia and taking off again amid the uncertainty of when the season would actually start. Bumping into George Russell on the flight home, the then-Williams driver was optimistic it would just be a temporary pause for the first few long-haul races and start no later than Spain in early May – a view shared by many at the time.
Even though there would be much more disruption than that, I’m not sure anybody would have confidently claimed it would be more than two years before F1 returned to Albert Park.
The world has changed, undoubtedly. For starters, I’ve just had to wear a face mask for the entirety of a 24-hour journey from Las Vegas to Melbourne (via Los Angeles and Sydney). But it’s a little bit ironic that given the attitude towards the race in 2020, there are plenty of testing requirements – while mandatory isolation remains – in the country I’m traveling to, when some in the country I flew out of were surprised I was even asking for a place to get a test.
And let’s not forget, in the United States the entire NBA season had already been postponed before F1 tried to get going in Australia. It’s funny how things can look with the benefit of hindsight.
It still remains crazy to me that there was any desire to go ahead with the grand prix even after McLaren had withdrawn due to positive COVID cases, even more so to welcome more than 300,000 fans into a packed area with the lack of understanding of the virus at the time. But Melbourne doesn’t need to have that negative connotation anymore.
It has always been an incredible event, where the city fully embraces the race and the atmosphere around Albert Park is (for want of a better word) infectious. But it also completes a bit of a circle this weekend, when F1 and the FIA can actually pat themselves on the back for a lot of what they did in response to COVID-19.
As the first major international sport to restart in July of 2020, F1 had to be extremely strict with its protocols. The racing that was delivered on television was as exciting and impressive as it had been before, but behind the scenes to make that happen was a much tougher environment. Teams were split into bubbles and isolated from other sub-groups even within that team, whether it be an organization like Mercedes or the FIA or the media.
Movements were restricted to hotel and track, and risks simply couldn’t be taken in terms of mixing because of the potential impact a positive case would have on a team or driver’s ability to compete. Chartered flights, incessant testing and almost total isolation from the outside world remained the norm even as societies emerged from lockdowns.
As tough as it was, it worked. There was never a threat of a canceled race at the last-minute, never a time a team couldn’t run both cars during a race weekend, and almost never a lack of F1 on peoples’ screens.
Seventeen races were crammed into 2020, followed by a record 22 rounds last year. With two short off-seasons in between, there will have been 756 days between when F1 cars should have rolled out for FP1 at Albert Park in 2020 and when they finally do this weekend.
Being the third round of this season, that makes for 41 grands prix, across 24 different locations, all amid a global pandemic that was ever-evolving and still affects day-to-day life. While it was Liberty Media’s job to agree the deals to host races, it was the FIA’s to ensure those events had protocols that would satisfy local governments and allow each one to go ahead safely.
And now we’re here, back in Australia with a brand new set of regulations that appear to be providing a much better racing product, and with a sport that is in an incredibly healthy position. The pandemic almost shocked many stakeholders into action, but it’s very impressive action that they took.
Aside from the immediate focus on keeping the teams going during lockdown, the next big move came with budget cap confirmation, lowering costs significantly, and restrictions on aerodynamic testing to make development more efficient but also provide further opportunities for underperforming teams to improve. Then there was the new Concorde Agreement, with all ten teams signing up and simultaneously seeing their values rise.
It’s hard to get F1 teams to agree on anything, but COVID seemed to focus minds that little bit more, so that those with the biggest budgets accepted the need to make the finances more sustainable, even though it hurt their own competitive advantages.
What it led to was a perfect storm when allied to the new regulations. Sure, the biggest teams still have the three fastest cars (albeit in a different order to last year) but far from being able to find a massive gain courtesy of their enormous budgets, the gaps remain almost exactly as they were last year, when teams had converged at the end of a set of regulations.
And the new rules have delivered exactly what they intended in terms of cars being able to follow more closely and fight for a number of laps, with battles not finally decided by one overtaking move. It didn’t take identical cars to deliver that, either, with a wide variety of design solutions across the grid.
It’s an attractive grid in more ways than one, too, as major sponsorship deals have been struck that reflect the growing popularity of F1 around the world, but particularly in the United States. Three races now in that market is further proof that the sport is booming in the areas it targeted.
F1 has found itself in a positive cycle, with a good on-track product entertaining new audiences that leads to extra sponsorship interest and improved financial outlooks, allowing the focus to be on the on-track product, and so on.
From the mess it got itself in two years ago in Melbourne, to be in such a position of strength now is an incredibly impressive achievement.