ormula One, the first international sport to return under the shadow of coronavirus, has thus far defied the pandemic. This weekend, however, it faces its greatest challenge in going into the heart of a second wave of Covid-19 in Spain.
F1 is proud of what it has achieved. Racing in Barcelona will represent a benchmark for all sport and for F1 to successfully conclude its target of at least 15 races this season.
Numbers are everything in F1, driving engineering and making the difference between drivers, and since the start of the pandemic, they have become hugely important in another way. As of Friday, 24,000 Covid tests have been administered to everyone involved in F1 racing at six meetings. There have been only three positives.
Using an expansive and rigorous testing regime, social bubbles, limiting numbers, social distancing and strict use of PPE, F1 has proved it can mobilise a force of several thousand people and ensure they remain safe – as do the countries they visit. The president of the FIA, Jean Todt, is proud of what the sport has achieved. “It is pleasing and rewarding,” he says. “It is in stormy seas that you see how solid are the people, not when you have success but it when it is tough. How the sport has dealt with the virus has been brilliant.”
Other sports may have slipped into complacency, with virus regulation transgressions threatened by authorities with the cessation of competition. F1 has remained highly vigilant and disciplined. Of the three positive cases, two were from outside the paddock and one was the driver Sergio Pérez.
Indeed, F1’s sporting director, Ross Brawn, put his family’s minds at rest with his confidence in how the sport has gone about its business. “My wife has asked me about how safe this is,” he says. “I said we should be the safest place to be at this time due to the testing and safety procedures in place.”
Only three drivers have been called into question for potentially disobeying F1’s protocols and only one actually breached a regulation. Charles Leclerc returned to Monaco between races and was seen with a friend outside his declared bubble. He immediately apologised and was tested for Covid. Valtteri Bottas similarly returned home and but remained with his girlfriend, inside his social bubble. Pérez returned to his native Mexico after the Hungarian GP, visiting his mother in hospital. He contracted the virus but had not broken the rules, although his judgment has been called into question. He has since come through the infection and returns to the car this weekend.
Brawn believes the sport has been exemplary in its reaction to the pandemic. “The current crisis has shown the best of F1,” he says. “Teams putting rivalries aside to work with us and the FIA to get a season under way in a safe and responsible way. Alongside that, the teams coming together to design and build breathing devices for health services have shown the brilliance of F1 to put its mind to good use and create solutions to problems.” Noticeably this has not happened in a vacuum, nor has it been simple. Personnel numbers have been more than halved, down to 1200 from between 3,000-5,000, with teams using a maximum of 80 from the 130 usually required.
There has also been a fundamental understanding in the sport that a bigger picture was at stake in making sure this works. Across the teams and their supply chains it is estimated that 4,500 companies employ 41,000 people in the UK alone, with a revenue of between £6bn-£8bn. Thirty thousand workers across those businesses were returned from furlough when racing began again.
For Todt, this far-reaching accomplishment represents F1 coming together at its best. Racing in Barcelona this weekend isa triumph against the odds. “It has been a huge effort,” he says. “From the national governing bodies, from the commercial rights holder, from the FIA, from the teams and race organisers. I am very proud of what has been done.”