The time has finally come where we can say that Formula 1 is back. On Friday, the drivers will be leaving their garages at Austria to roll out onto the Red Bull Ring track and, for the first time since pre-season testing, share a circuit with their competitors.
The scheduling for the weekend is to be the familiar structure of two practice sessions on Friday, one practice on Saturday morning, with qualifying and the race on Saturday and Sunday afternoons (local time). However, session times may be one of the few elements that remain normal this season. Formula 1 managing director Ross Brawn and race director Michael Masi have given indications of how the races will differ in 2020.
Seeing as there will be precisely zero fans attending the races, at least in the early part of this season, the show that F1 puts on will be entirely for a TV audience. The changes reflect this before a race even starts.
The national anthem in its usual format is 20 drivers standing side by side on the start/finish line with a ‘Future Star’ child mascot in front of them. Ross Brawn has explained that the Future Stars have had their F1 outfits mailed to them and are going to have virtual involvement instead. I’m not exactly sure who enjoys watching these awkwardly smiling kids looking like captives held for ransom in front of millionaires, but if you do, feel relieved they’ll have whatever digital presence they do.
Over a typical weekend, F1 treats fans who are at the circuit to an array of driver engagement activities, one being a track parade. If you haven’t attended a race, watching a car whizz by at 180mph isn’t the most intimate way to see your favorite driver. Instead, a few hours before the race, a presenter interviews the stars of the show as they trundle by at 10mph on the back of a flatbed waving at spectators. This pre-race exercise is redundant and scrapped for 2020.
We won’t see celebrities adorning the grid or hiding at the back of team garages either. It’s essential personnel only, and although they may feel differently, Hollywood and music artists aren’t that essential. We won’t be seeing the camera cutaway to or have Arnold Schwarzenegger presenting trophies anytime soon. Neither will the coverage cut to the grandstands mid-overtake also for the crowd reactions neither-all in all, a net win for the TV audience.
Not that the teams previously spent much time interacting with one another, but this year we should see no occasions when personnel wearing different team colors are in close proximity. The F1 travelling circus is getting treated as a bubble, or as they call it, a biosphere. It seems that there are to be bubbles within bubbles with silo-ing subgroups of staff. Isolating Vettel’s engineers from Leclerc’s where possible, for example.
The paddock itself may look different from usual too. The detail level by F1 and the FIA includes the arrival times for teams, to minimize any crossover of staff. Reducing build time for temporary structures such as the motorhomes is understood to have been under review. The idea being that the less time the team members spend putting together any unnecessary constructions, the lower the chance they’ll have of spreading the virus.
The standard grid procedure has the green light to go ahead, though. There were some suggestions that the cars would begin their formation lap from the garages. However, Ross Brawn confirmed the grid procedure would continue as usual, but with fewer team personnel involved. We may not be seeing Christian Horner and Toto Wolff ominously watching over their staff pre-race this season.
Last but not least, there are changes the drivers will have to get used to as well. For the front runners, the omission of podium celebrations may feel like a comedown after a hard-fought race. Glugging champagne and spraying coronavirus into their nearest rivals’ faces may seem like a tactic some would consider, but it won’t be happening. Instead, F1 is considering having the top three drivers line up on the grid in front of their cars.
To further enhance the alien territory of a podium-less end to a race, trophies are also under review. I can’t see a situation where the winners don’t receive anything for their victory. But they aren’t to be handed the trophy with a handshake from some obscure government official this year. Which actually sounds like a bonus now I think about it.
The drivers themselves are subject to change. Being appointed a reserve driver is usually an unexciting assignment with the low frequency of races where any regular driver is unwell. Coronavirus may change that this year. F1 has ruled out cancelling a race if a driver contracts the virus. The reserve drivers could get called in to substitute instead. Interestingly, Mercedes are allowing their future customer, McLaren, and current customer, Racing Point, access to Esteban Gutierrez and Stoffel Vandoorne if required.
There will undoubtedly be further changes all over the race weekend. Perhaps perversely, that adds to my excitement for the race. Even if the racing lets us down for the season opener, which honestly is a possibility, there’ll be so much uniqueness to take in that the race on July 5th, 2020 will go down in history no matter what.
Originally published at https://www.fortloc.com.