Caption photo 1: Max Verstappen fans will have to stay home from Red Bull Ring should F1 resume there
Caption photo 2: No crowd surfing should Lewis Hamilton win at Silverstone
Since the cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix two hours before practice was due to begin on March 13, F1 fans and some drivers have had to settle for virtual F1 races.
So far, we have a virtual Australian GP, just to add salt into the wounds of the F1 fans who turned up at Albert Park in Melbourne for the real grand prix, only to discover the event had been cancelled at the 11th hour.
Those fans, incidentally, are still waiting for a refund of their tickets, which is an indictment of somebody, whether it be the F1 owners, Liberty Media, the FIA, who govern the running of F1 races, or the race promoters, the Australian Grand Prix Corporation.
But back to the off-course substitute, literally, as in virtual F1.
Ferrari “driver” Charles Leclerc won that first Virtual GP from the comfort of his armchair in his home in Monaco. His main opposition came from Red Bull “driver” Alex Albon.
Leclerc also won the Chinese Virtual GP, the real grand prix being the first event officially cancelled on an original F1 calendar of 21 races.
The irony of holding a grand prix on the virtual Shanghai circuit, given the coronavirus pandemic that to date has infected over four million people and killed about 300,000, worldwide, shouldn’t escape anybody.
The third Virtual GP, the Spanish GP, has been won by Williams driver George Russell, his first F1 win. Yeah, right.
As entertaining as it may be, it is difficult to take Virtual F1 seriously. A few ex-F1 drivers like Johnny Herbert and Jenson Button have taken part, purely for fun. But when you consider that professional golfer Ian Poulter and footballers Arthur and Sergo Aguero (no idea who they are), have also taken part, you get the picture as to how insignificant the whole exercise is.
Why publications like Autosport give it any credibility by headlining the results in its publication, is anyone’s guess. Presumably, it keeps some journalists employed, which isn’t a bad thing. But it is just a computer game and plays literally into the hands of drivers brought up with a remote in their hand.
Leclerc though has tried to give his championship lead some credibility by insisting it is hard work.
“It was unbelievably hard, and yes we are sitting on a chair so there’s not the G-force in a real car but I’m sweating like crazy,” he said after winning in China.
“The muscles are not hurting as much but I’ve been concentrating just as hard and sweating like mad.”
In the virtual world a driver can make a mistake like hitting a wall but keep on going. The real world would see his car damaged and race likely finished.
In the real pandemic world, the first 10 grand prix on the F1 calendar have either been cancelled or postponed, but Liberty media CEO Chase Carey is still confident of holding 15 real races this season, starting in Austria on July 5.
“Our goal is to launch our season on the weekend of July fourth and fifth in Austria and it is likely that we race the weekend of July 11th and 12th in Austria as well,” Carey said.
To maximise the European swing, F1 is envisaging holding races at tracks not currently on the calendar, such as Hockenheim in Germany or Imola in Italy.
The British GP is currently scheduled to take place on its allotted date of July 19, but like the Austrian races, will be a fan-less race, which will limit the number of personnel attending, including the media, apart from television which will beam the races around the world.
F1 managing director Ross Brawn has outlined what the F1 paddock will look like.
“Everybody will be tested and will have a clearance before they can go into the paddock,” Brawn stated.
“Then every two days they will be tested whilst in the paddock. That will be using the same facility to conduct that testing. We can ensure that everybody has been tested who is in that environment is tested regularly.”
Brawn added that social distancing won’t be possible, but they will restrict how people move around within the paddock.
“We cannot socially distance within a team, so we have to create an environment within itself, effectively a small bubble of isolation. The teams will stay within their own groups, they won’t mingle with other teams and they’ll stay in their own hotels. There are no motorhomes going to be there.”
World champion Lewis Hamilton, who has distanced himself from partaking in Virtual F1 races, can’t wait for the season to start, in which he hopes to emulate Michael Schumacher by becoming a seven-time world champion. But he is concerned that races held without any fans will lack atmosphere and be “even worse than a test day”.
“Around the world, all the races we go to, the more fans there, the more atmosphere you have,” Hamilton says.
“That’s why you have places like Silverstone and Monza, so it’s going to be very empty.
“But what’s great is I’m getting messages from people around the world who are struggling during this period because they are not getting to watch sports and it just shows how significant sport is in people’s lives.
“Sport brings people together and is exciting and captivating. I don’t know how exciting it is going to be for people watching on TV but its going to be better than nothing, but for us its going to be like a test day, and probably even worse than a test day in a sense.”
He noted that with testing in Barcelona there were some fans there but in racing “you’re going to see empty seats as you’re driving down”.
The Austrian government has given the race at the Red Bull Ring the green light on the proviso there are no fans and the venue is safe for the authorised personnel attending.
The circuit is owned and operated by Red Bull magnate Dietrich Mateshitz. His chief adviser is Helmut Marko who is personally delighted that he will be able to host the first two races.
Marko is an outspoken and ruthless businessman who showed no respect for the hundreds of thousands who have died from coronavirus around the world, by his outrageous statement that he wanted to set up a coronavirus camp for the Red Bull drivers.
“We have four Formula 1 drivers, and eight or 10 juniors,” Marko told Austrian broadcaster ORF.
“The idea was to organise a camp where we could bridge this mentally and physically somewhat dead time. And that would be the ideal time for the infection to come.”
Marko’s absurd idea was for his drivers to build up some sort of immunity to coronavirus, a strategy that the UK initially considered, but abandoned, and which Sweden has adopted and failed miserably to contain the number of deaths.
Red Bull boss Christian Horner has defended Marko, suggesting he didn’t think he meant it. Which of course is what Marko now says.
“That came out wrong in the interview,” he claims.
“Of course, you have to be careful and try to get the pandemic under control as quickly as possible. One thing is certain: I won’t send my children to war willingly.”
Irrespective of Marko’s irreverent thoughts, Alex Wurz, the Drivers’ representative, is adamant the season will start in Austria with racing behind closed doors, having participated in a teleconference with key F1 figures, including Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel and FIA President, Jean Todt.
“They are really trying their best and doing it in a typical F1 safety way, which is immaculate” Wurz says “The drivers have been reassured today, I can only underline that”.
But the British GP is still uncertain as Prime Minister Boris Johnson is considering imposing a 14-day period of quarantine for anyone entering the UK. With the second race in Austria just a week earlier, that would mean the drivers and team personnel couldn’t attend the British GP.
Formula 1 is hoping to reach an agreement with the UK government by providing a testing and isolating plan that will convince it to allow the race to go ahead and waive any mandatory 14-day quarantine period.
The teams are reportedly losing $2 million with every race cancelled, so are desperate to return to racing. Virtual F1 is no match for the real thing, but unfortunately for F1 fans the “stay home, save lives” message adopted by most countries, may yet mean the 2020 F1 season doesn’t become a reality.