With the start of the 2021 season fast approaching Formula 1, the FIA and the teams are bracing for another year of COVID-19 impact.
All concerned did a brilliant job of producing a 17-race season in 2020. However over the winter government travel restrictions have tightened in many countries, and thus logistical issues could be even more challenging than previously.
Matters are further complicated by fact that the UK, the home of seven of the F1 teams, is now widely regarded as a COVID hot spot.
The news that the Portuguese GP is set for 2 May is a positive sign. Nevertheless, it seems inevitable that the currently planned 23-race schedule will change more than once over the coming months.
In fact, travel restrictions have had an impact on teams and power unit suppliers even before the start of the season, as everyone works to prepare their new cars.
It’s a two-way issue. The quarantine exemptions that were granted to F1 staff travelling to and from races in 2020 do not apply to UK arrivals in the winter, as those trips are not directly related to events.
At the same time most travellers to the UK face tight quarantine restrictions when they return to their home countries.
Elite sportsmen remain eligible to travel to the UK, under certain restrictions, which is why we’ve seen pictures of Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo and Sergio Perez visiting the factories of their new employers.
However, even a team boss like Toto Wolff is not currently exempt from the UK quarantine, and thus the Austrian has remained in his home country since the Christmas break.
Some teams are relatively self-sufficient, in that their chassis and power unit operations are in the same country – that obviously goes for Ferrari and Mercedes as well as the latter’s customer teams, Aston Martin and Williams.
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However, others split their operations across two countries. Renault’s engine department is in France, which means there’s usually a lot of commuting to and from Alpine’s base in Enstone, while McLaren uses the Toyota windtunnel in Cologne, and its aero guys usually travel back and forth.
Both teams have had to plan around the extra logistical challenges that COVID-19 restrictions have brought.
However, the team with the biggest headache is probably Haas. Its race facility is in the UK, while the design department, most of the production and PU and gearbox supplier Ferrari are all in Italy.
And then there’s team principal Gunther Steiner, who spends his winter break at his home in the USA, and this year has opted to stay there rather than return to the Banbury factory.
“Normally I’m back between January and February, between the two months, but this year, I didn’t go,” he says.
“I mean, anywhere I go, I need to quarantine, and that’s just not on. I’ll go straight to Bahrain for the test, to avoid any difficulties or anything.”
Haas’s split operation means that usually at this time of year there would be a lot of movement between Italy and the UK, but that is simply not happening in 2021.
That’s led to some changes, notably the fact that the cars are being built in Banbury, rather than Italy, as is usually the case. Thus the British-based mechanics have not had to travel.
That decision was also driven by the development freeze, which means that much is being carried over between seasons – in other words the UK factory has a good stock of 2020-spec parts that are going straight into the build for this year’s cars.
“It’s not easy, because if people come to the UK, they have to go in quarantine,” says Steiner.
“And that is not something productive. So it’s impacting. You need to adjust to find ways around it. And the guys found ways around it.
“We’re building the car in the UK this year. There are a lot of carry over parts from last year, so it’s the best way to get it all together. There are less new parts on the car, but there are still new parts.
“I wouldn’t say everything is made in Italy. The big thing is, it is designed there. So you want your technical people around [when you build the car], your designers, because if there are issues, at least they are close to the people. That is what we do normally.
“We didn’t just decide to do the car build in the UK because of the pandemic, we decided anyway, because it’s carry over parts, and we know them. There are more parts at the moment in the UK than Italy! So we would have had to take everything to Italy to build it. That didn’t make sense.”
The biggest changes on every 2021 car are in aero, so new bodywork parts will now have to be shipped to Banbury.
“The parts which have changed, they are in production now,” says Steiner. “Partly built in Italy, partly built in the UK, they’re built all over the place. And they all go this year to the UK, instead of going to Italy, like in the years before.”
In common with other F1 teams Haas has changed its way of working, with people staying at home if they can.
“The design team is in Italy, and they work partly from home,” says Steiner. “They’ve got a shift system going, and they come in sometimes to the office for a few days.
“In UK it’s the same. The race engineers and all the performance engineers mainly work from home, they come in when they need to come in.
“And the mechanics work in shifts. It’s basically two bubbles, so if one bubble gets affected, you still can continue to work.
“If you’ve got everybody in there, and somebody gets COVID, then you have to quarantine everybody, and then you cannot build the car.
“So we’ve got an early shift and a late shift. You just split up the people, which is also not ideal, and not the most efficient way to do things. But at the moment, this is what you have to do.
“And we always tested people continuously as well, to make sure that nobody’s got it, and has no symptoms. And touch wood, we didn’t have any case.”
Another big issue for Haas is that Ferrari’s engineers cannot travel to the UK without facing quarantine, and that means they won’t be on site to fire up the engine when the new car is ready. And it can’t be started without them.
The first fire-up of any new car is more than a PR stunt – it’s a crucial systems check that teams are used to undertaking. It’s less critical with a car that hasn’t changed much between seasons, but it’s still worth doing.
“The fire up will be in Bahrain,” says Steiner. “With all the flyaway races anyway the engines go back to Maranello, and then they come back to the race track, and go straight into the car. So it’s not anything new.
“But it’s not ideal, because even if it is a carry over car, there’s still, as I said, some new parts. You want to do as much at home as you can.
“If you cannot, then you need to find ways, but I think we will be all right. As long as it sounds good when we fire it up the first time, it’s not a problem!”
Honda’s Italian job
Tight restrictions on entry to Japan made life difficult for Honda personnel all last year, but the company maintains a fulltime core group at its F1 base in Milton Keynes – including some British employees – and they can take care of the requirements of Red Bull Racing.
However, life has been a little more complicated for the Honda folk who are assigned to AlphaTauri.
A dozen staff members have been obliged to forego the joys of Milton Keynes and instead stay in Italy for several weeks to oversee Yuki Tsunoda’s 2018 car testing programme, along with the fire up and shakedown of the team’s 2021 model.
“The poor guys came out here around 11 January,” says AlphaTauri sporting director Graham Watson. “And they’ve been out ever since, and they’re staying out here until after a test on 23-25 February at Imola. So for them, that’s had a huge impact.
“I know that Tanabe-san at Honda was a little bit nervous about asking his people, ‘By the way, you need to go out and support AlphaTauri and you’re going to be gone for six weeks!’
“For the Japanese guys, I don’t think it’s a huge problem, because most of them are living on their own in Milton Keynes. But for the UK guys who have families, it’s a little bit more of an ask.
“And then on top of that, some of them are going to go directly from here to Bahrain, although most are going back to the UK.
“Then once you start traveling to Bahrain for the test, you slide into the government exemption, because you’re part of the support staff for professional sports.”
AlphaTauri has another headache because, like McLaren, the windtunnel it uses is in another country.
Many of the aerodynamicists associated with the operation of the team’s Bicester tunnel are British residents, but some Italian employees usually commute from Faenza.
The team would also typically send engineers to Milton Keynes when its drivers are in the Red Bull simulator, so for example Bahrain sim running has been scheduled later than usual.
“Our people are affected more than we’d expected,” says Watson. “There has been in previous years a lot of crossover between Faenza and Bicester, to get people back and forth.
“And this year so far, we’ve not got anybody going anywhere, because of the UK quarantine. So you lose the person that way.
“When they come back to Italy, it’s a 14-day mandatory quarantine. So you can actually tie someone up for three weeks, or more, providing they’re negative.
“So that had a knock-on effect, and definitely stopped us from moving people around.
“Just in the last few days there has been a little bit more freedom announced in Italy, coming towards elite sports people and their support staff. I think as the season is getting a bit nearer, maybe they just wanted to loosen up a bit.”
It’s not just the movement of personnel that teams have had to keep on top of.
Engines and gearboxes are regularly moving across borders from suppliers to teams, while AlphaTauri sends windtunnel test items to Bicester, usually by road, and receives full size parts from Red Bull Technology.
COVID has slowed down transport through UK ports, while Brexit has also had an impact, and teams now have a lot more paperwork to complete, and costs to pay.
“We make parts here that go to the tunnel,” says Watson. “They predominantly go by road, as they are pretty big shipments.
“Brexit has had quite a big effect on that, more so than COVID I would say. And we’ve had to build a bit of contingency into the planning.
“The ports have become a bit of a problem as well. You can lose between one or two days at the port, depending on what’s going on at the time.
“But on the COVID side, the UK is quite easy about the haulage drivers coming through in both directions, back into France as well, provided you show the swab test. It hasn’t been too bad on that side.”
The start of the season, and the transition to event-related travel exemptions in parallel with the FIA’s strict protocols on COVID testing, will make life easier.
Until then, teams want to obey the relevant regulations, knowing that they are in place for a reason.
“It is just not happening this year, because it’s just too difficult,” says Steiner of his team’s usual UK/Italy commuting.
“And I think we need to be respectful as well of all the rules and what is happening.
“I mean, if you cannot do it, you don’t do it. You just need to find ways around it, like other industries do.”