With little over two weeks until Formula 1 finally returns to our screens from Austria, Online Sport Editor Harry Scott-Munro looks at how the season ahead may look in the current Covid-19 climate.
It was the news everybody feared. Way back in mid-March, Formula 1 was gearing up for the start of its 70th season at Albert Park in Australia. After much political back-and-forth between the teams and the governing body, the race was thrown into turmoil as a McLaren team member tested positive for Covid-19 and the team withdraw, subsequently leading to only three teams, Red Bull, Alpha Tauri and Racing Point expressing their willingness to go ahead and race. The event was cancelled, and the season was thrown into doubt with uncertainty over all aspects of the sport.
Now though, almost four months later, F1 is finally set to return to our screens. So far, eight events have been confirmed, starting with two races in Austria, before moving to the Hungaroring in Hungary. After a week’s break, the rearranged season will continue at breakneck speed, two back-to-back races at Silverstone before moving on to Catalunya and Spa-Francorchamps at the end of August. The last scheduled event so far is the following race in Monza over the weekend of 4-6 September, although it is likely a second race in Italy, albeit at a different circuit will then follow. Liberty Media and Ross Brawn have said they aim to have a ‘full-season,’ somewhere in the region of 15-18 races, with these additional races to be confirmed in the coming weeks.
It seems likely that the majority of these races will still be centralised around Europe due to travel restrictions imposed by countries in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Looking ahead to what other circuits could make it into the new 2020 calendar, one of Mugello or Imola would seem to be the likely options for a second Italian Grand Prix. Either of these tracks would hold significance as the event would likely be Ferrari’s 1000th entry into a Formula 1 race. Holding the event at Mugello, a Ferrari owned track would please and enthral the Tifosi who will, like all other fans, be unable to support their team and their drivers from the stands. Alternatively, Imola is renowned as one of the most challenging circuits in the world, the place where Ayrton Senna tragically lost his life in 1994. It would allow current F1 an opportunity to connect with its past, as well as testing the drivers to their limits. Hockenheim in Germany is also seen as a viable option for Formula 1 and has history of hosting previous Grand Prix. Away from Europe, Bahrain also appears a viable option for the sport, again to hold multiple races due to the ability to have multiple track configurations at the circuit. There are still hopes to conclude the season in Abu Dhabi come December.
As for the drivers and the World Championship itself, Lewis Hamilton will be searching for a record-equalling seventh World Drivers Title, with the opportunity to surpass the great Michael Schumacher’s 91 race wins should he win eight or more events this season.
During lockdown, the F1 ‘silly-season,’ has already been in full swing, news reverberating around the paddock of Sebastian Vettel’s imminent departure from Ferrari at the end of the season. In his place, Spain’s Carlos Sainz has agreed to switch to the Prancing Horse, with Daniel Ricciardo leaving Renault to take Sainz’s seat at McLaren. All of this currently means Vettel is without a drive for 2021. At Mercedes, both Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas are still to be confirmed for the 2021 season. Whilst Hamilton signing on the dotted line appears to be a formality, the situation is drastically different for Bottas. A reliable back-up and solid team player, Bottas has been a loyal servant to Mercedes. However, with former GP3 and GP2 Champion George Russell currently chomping at the bit to prove his pedigree after a season at backmarkers Williams, the necessity to promote him to a top seat and secure a succession plan for the Silver Arrows for when Hamilton hangs up his gloves may be too difficult to ignore.
As for the 2020 season itself, the back-to-back races in Austria should give Red Bull and Max Verstappen serious hope. With the team finally seeming more settled and a history of strong results at their ‘home’ Grand Prix, it surely provides Christian Horner’s team with the best opportunity possible to give Verstappen a first serious tilt at the World Championship. At Ferrari, Sebastian Vettel will want to leave Ferrari on a high, whilst reminding the young pretender in Charles Leclerc that his experience still trumps youthful exuberance. In the battle to be ‘best of the rest,’ McLaren will want to continue their upward trajectory and regrowth under the stewardship of Zak Brown and Andreas Seidl. They will be under threat though from a tightly congested midfield, with Renault and Haas seeking to prove last season’s failings were a one off and the Lawrence Stroll backed Racing Point aiming to make the leap forward with added investment in a car already dubbed the ‘Pink Mercedes’ thanks to its similarity to the 2019 Mercedes W10.
Once the season gets going, we will all be entering into the unknown. It will be a sprint rather than a marathon and whilst unusual with social distancing and no fans at circuits, Formula 1 will be back. A further sign that things are starting to return to normality.