INSIGHT: What a year...

INSIGHT: What a year...

This time last year, Charles Leclerc found himself in the middle of a storm. It was the week between the two races in Austria that belatedly opened the 2020 season, and he’dgone back to Monaco to celebrate a friend’s birthday.

Leclerc was pictured posing with four other people, arm-in-arm, smiling. How dare he?

The thing was, it was a moment that genuinely triggered a lot of people in the Formula 1 paddock, because they had a different understanding of what they were and weren’t allowed to do. This was F1 in a new, unfamiliar and uncomfortable era, with regular COVID testing, isolated bubbles and no fans.

Many drivers and team members had believed they weren’t allowed to move around at all and had to stay in Austria between events, but Leclerc and Valtteri Bottas – among others – had returned home to Monaco. Leclerc received a warning because the photo showed him to be breaking the COVID Code of Conduct implemented by the FIA to allow racing to resume, while Bottas didn’t appear to break any specific rule during his trip home.

What it did highlight, though, was the strange world F1 was trying to go racing in again, as the sport lived in fear of an outbreak that would result in countries refusing to allow grands prix to be held, and the sport potentially collapsing.

Media was locked out of the paddock, fans were locked out of the circuits altogether, and teams were locked into hotels or private travel when not at the track working.

Many restrictions still remain in place, but access has improved for those on-site, and fans were back in in their thousands in Austria. In Silverstone next weekend, it will be a full house that goes well into six figures.

But amid those scenes, it’s easy to forget the sacrifices that so many people in the sport have made to ensure the show goes on.

“It was challenging for all of us because of this COVID story and because of the restrictions we face every race weekend,” AlphaTauri team principal Franz Tost admits. “Challenging, yes, but we don’t have it under control in England, for example, or in other countries, and you don’t know if there is a new version of this COVID virus coming, a new mutation, the Delta and so on. And then you plan something, but you read then or hear there’s a change either from the organization side or from the logistic side or anywhere else. This makes it difficult.

“The race itself, the teams are used to going there and also the number (of races), this is not a problem. But to keep everything together and to calm down with the people if there’s another change and to motivate them… I think this is the biggest challenge all the team principals face.”

According to AlphaTauri’s Tost, maintaining team cohesion and morale in the face of constant changes is the biggest ongoing COVID-related challenge for team principals. Andy Hone/Motorsport Images

These are ongoing issues as evidenced by the cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix this week, or the slightly tougher restrictions that teams face due to the rising cases in the UK, even as that country prepares to open up fully. Tost’s fellow team principal Andreas Seidl feels F1 is doing the right thing by remaining strict with its own protocols even when racing in locations that are returning to normal and allowing huge numbers of fans.

“I think the safe approach F1 has taken with us is definitely the right one,” Seidl says. “I think it was good to open up some things, like having better access for you (media) guys in the paddock again when it was safe to do so, but I think it’s the right thing to keep running the protocols that were put in place last year. Because in the end, the health and safety of our people and of the people we come in contact with must always have priority.

“This pandemic is still full-on, there’s still a lot of dynamics behind it, and therefore to also make sure we don’t put the progress of the season or the calendar at any risk… I think it simply makes sense to keep going in the direction we’re heading at the moment in terms of sticking to the protocols.

“If you look at what Formula 1 – together with the teams and with you guys – managed last year and this year while this pandemic is full-on, I think it is an outstanding achievement. The number of races we could do last year, the number of races we could do already this year and the number of races that are also planned to go ahead in the next six months is great to see. And it’s great to see that fans are actually back.”

Seidl’s stance is echoed by Otmar Szafnauer, who believes the work that has been done by the sport behind-the-scenes might go unnoticed.

“One thing I want to say is that I think the FIA and FOM – and all the teams – have done an amazing job,” Szafnauer says. “They put the protocol together, we followed it, and you guys, we have all done a great job in a pandemic that we are facing.

“To be able to go to the countries that we went to… Somebody recently told me that we did 26 races in 52 weeks, and I think that’s amazing. I don’t know who else has done what we’ve done. And we did it in relative safety, we haven’t had many cases, and I think it’s great.”

Lewis Hamilton was among the drivers who contracted COVID-19, but says that the pandemic has also afforded him opportunities for personal growth. Andy Hone/Motorsport Images

Those team bosses have to worry about how the 80 people working under them at each track are dealing with the situation, but the most high-profile of those is the driver. A quarter have contracted COVID at some stage – Lewis Hamilton, Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll all missing races as a result – but despite the impact it’s had on their profession, it’s on a personal front that all have really felt it.

“Naturally it’s given us all more time to think about things since we’ve been isolated,” Hamilton says. “I think all businesses have seen that they can work remotely, technology has advanced, people are more focused on the environment, which I think has been positive in many respects in terms of people’s education.

“We’ve had the social and racial discussion that’s also had time for people to focus on, so I think there have been lots of positives to take away from this period of time. I just hope that humanity has learnt from this experience. There has got to be learnings from it, otherwise we just go back to where we were before. I don’t know if that’s necessarily going to be positive for the world.

“I definitely think there are lots of positives ,and for me personally, it’s how I manage time, it’s about being present, it’s about making sure you’re maximizing in the day rather than thinking too far ahead.”

When Leclerc got himself in trouble, it was due to him trying to continue to do ‘normal’ things outside of racing. And it’s those things that he really misses, rather than how life at the track has changed.

“I’m still the same person,” he says. “Obviously there are different precautions we need to take now. What I have learned is, health is the most important thing you can have in life, and things we were taking granted before – seeing friends, going to the bar, going to clubs – is not much for granted now, but on the other hand I am the same person, we are just being very cautious in this time to do all the races on the calendar.”

For Daniel Ricciardo, there’s been a change of teams over the past year and relative struggles at McLaren. But to the Australian, that’s nothing compared to getting homesick and being unable to see family and friends, be it due to the F1 restrictions or the wider impact on travel.

“You appreciate the little things more,” Ricciardo says. “As Charles touched on, like taking things for granted, whether it is going out for a meal with friends or family. It sounds simple, but those things you certainly miss. It has also made me appreciate nature a bit more. With big cities being closed or locked down, you are looking for other things to occupy yourself and getting out. So nature has been really good.

For Daniel Ricciardo, the inability to see family in his native Australia is where the pandemic continues to sting most. Mark Sutton/Sutton Images

“We do it because of our job, but also staying active and staying healthy has been really important to keep yourself occupied as well, for good reasons.

“The freedom of travel and stuff, especially when it comes to not seeing family for over a year… You would umm and ahh, like, ‘should we come to this race or that, oh that is a bit difficult’. But if airports are open right now and travel was free, then I would send 20 people on a plane here tomorrow. When it all comes back, we will make the most of these things that we have.”

Ultimately, everyone in the world has been and continues to make sacrifices due to COVID. For the drivers, it’s just being done under a magnifying glass, and has been since those two races in Austria last July. One slip-up, and they find themselves missing races and potentially jeopardizing their future.

But the mask-wearing, bubble-living, PCR-testing, restricted world they live in is becoming that bit more tolerable, as last year’s empty grandstands at the Red Bull Ring were replaced by fans and flares that created a raucous atmosphere and provided a reminder of why they’re doing it.

“It is difficult to be living in the world right now,” Esteban Ocon admits. “Of course we’re being careful with everything. We have our responsibility working with so many people inside the paddock but each individual has a responsibility in this world now.

“Seeing people come back to tracks, seeing the atmosphere and people are a boost for us before the race, that’s awesome because it’s like coming back to normality.”