The F1 season is finally set to start in Austria. A lot's changed in lockdown — many teams feared for their finances, while some drivers discovered either their inner online gamers, or perhaps their political conscience.
The race calendar
Sunday, July 5 was always meant to be the day of the Austrian Grand Prix. But it should have been Round 11 of 22 in 2020, not the start of a Formula One season with an undetermined number of races, largely or perhaps even completely devoid of spectators.
Skeleton crews of masked mechanics, all being tested for coronavirus every second day, will try to observe more social distancing than usual in pit lanes, while the cars race in front of empty grandstands at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg. Each team is limited to a total of 60 personnel on site, with staff encouraged not to mingle with other teams to keep people in smaller bubbles.
"I think the fact that we were prepared to accept closed races in the early part of the season gave us more opportunity," F1 managing director Ross Brawn said recently at a Thinking Forward event run by Autosport magazine.
"It's not the ideal. it's not the ideal for any sport because the fans are such a crucial part of it. But we felt that going racing, and broadcasting racing and engaging the fans in racing in what ways we could was still much more desirable than doing nothing."
When asked about the prospect of bringing fans into races at some point this season, Brawn said: "We won't rush that."
"To have the race in a safe and secure environment is critical. We're going around the world. We can't have a problem in one country that stops us going to others. So, we'll progress slowly on that front."
But with four months of lost time to make up since the disastrous aborted start to the season in Melbourne, the racing will now advance rapidly. F1 is cramming in eight European races in the space of just 10 Sundays — Austria twice and then Hungary, Britain twice, then Spain, Belgium and Italy. What follows is not yet certain, a series of as many races as possible outside Europe, aiming to culminate as originally scheduled in Abu Dhabi in November.
McLaren had to sell parts of its historic car collection to overcome the financial impact of the cornoavirus pandemic.
Bump in road lays narrow margins bare
This hectic schedule will push teams and the series itself to their logistical limits. Yet they're as desperate as each other to hit the track and start generating broadcasting bucks.
As Günther Steiner, the team principle at the American Haas F1 team, put it this month, the lockdown was a timely reminder of how F1 teams are "too much on the edge as businesses," pouring all they have into car development and assuming regular income from racing.
Only the very wealthiest teams managed to avoid furloughing staff in recent months. Even F1 the company did the same. McLaren, the second oldest team on the grid, was forced to liquidize assets, including some of its historic car collection. It has since secured an emergency loan from a bank in Bahrain, whose royal family holds a majority share in the McLaren Group. Team principal Andreas Seidl told the media this week that, contrary to speculation, "there was never a doubt" whether McLaren could keep racing into 2021.
Newfound unity in The Piranha Club?
The financial peril has led to uncommon levels of harmony between teams more typically locked in a bitter struggle over strategic interests. They were able to unanimously agree on pushing the ambitious package of rule changes back to 2022, effectively meaning that this year's cars will run for two seasons — albeit surely with copious updates and alterations from those with resources to burn.
Not only is a budget cap, for so long anathema to the heavy hitters like Mercedes and Ferrari, on its way for 2021, but it has also been reduced from $175 million (roughly €155 million) per season to $145 million. It's probably worth noting that a lot of significant spending, most notably engine development for the three manufacturers in the series, is not covered by the cap. Yet still, it's more than the minnows dared dream for in a paddock lovingly nicknamed The Piranha Club.
"Reacting quickly, we are pretty good at — but collectively, we are normally not! Because everyone has their own agenda," said Haas' Steiner, representing one of the teams pushing to constrain costs. "But the whole world was in the same problem, we had a pandemic going on and we need to get out of it at the end. So I think it put us together, and we banged our heads together and came out a little bit more united for the time being. I don't know how long it will last, let's see that!"
'Silly season' came early
Perhaps most unusually of all, several drivers go into the first race of the season already knowing that their teams won't be employing them next year.
Sebastian Vettel learned before a wheel had turned that Ferrari would go in another direction in 2021. Carlos Sainz will replace Vettel at Ferrari. Daniel Ricciardo will leave his faltering Renault experiment to try his hand in Sainz's seat at McLaren.
Sim racing fills the vacuum
Some of the youngsters in F1 already did far more than dabble in sim racing, or online simulator racing games. Max Verstappen pursued it with similar determination to that displayed in his Red Bull, while McLaren's fun-loving Lando Norris is a confessed gamer prone to the occasional sleepless marathon in his rig at home.
During lockdown, though, the sight of F1 racers giving it their all from their living rooms was streamed around the world, often in special competitions set up for charity or other good causes. So immersed was Ferrari's Charles Leclerc in one such livestream, his girlfriend had to jump onto the comments forum to ask him to let her in their apartment as she had forgotten her keys.
Meanwhile, determined Williams youngster George Russell impressed eSports practitioners by progressing from near-novice status to one of the quickest in any field in a matter of months.
US protests awaken drivers and teams
The Black Lives Matter protests of recent weeks has also spurred defending champion Lewis Hamilton into action on his various online platforms, including a column in the Times, a national British newspaper.
He is setting up a new foundation, the Hamilton Commission, designed to find ways to use motorsport to engage more young people from Black or minority backgrounds with science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects. It should also examine hurdles in motorsports explaining the mostly white and male makeups of many teams.
"Winning championships is great, but I want to be remembered for my work creating a more equal society through education. That's what drives me," the 35-year-old, who has been exhibiting a slightly more political bent in recent years, wrote in the Times. "The time for platitudes and token gestures is over."
While Hamilton led the charge, so to speak, he has received much support and encouragement from within the sport. George Russell's Twitter homepage subtly offers users a link to a site to a Black Lives Matter website entitled "Ways You Can Help." All cars will have rainbows painted on the crash protection "HALO" structures around their cockpits this season, in pride of place for the onboard camera shots. In an interview, Lando Norris intimated that drivers might well "take the knee" on the grid in Austria before the race.
Hamilton's team Mercedes, meanwhile, has repainted the Silver Arrows in black for 2020 at short notice. According to team principal Toto Wolff, that stems back to a phone call with his star driver around a month ago.
"Lewis wanted to hear from me what example we could send as a team. Something that would go beyond a couple of Instagram posts," Wolff told Austrian paper Der Standard. "The Daimler board and the sponsors supported us immediately. The right convictions aren't enough, if we stay silent. Therefore we want to use our voice and our platform to stand up for respect and equality."
On the track, Hamilton will seek a seventh world championship in 2020, to equal Michael Schumacher. Schumacher's record of 91 career wins might also be in reach for Hamilton, on 84. The Brit already has more pole positions than anyone.