Curtain calls on F1’s most unlikely season

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was no classic, but it marked the end of an unlikely 2020 season.

This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.

You could almost hear the Formula One paddock collectively sigh with relief when Max Verstappen took the chequered flag at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in a comfortable victory for Red Bull Racing.

After a gruelling 17 races crammed into just 24 weeks, for most of which teams, drivers and administrators were isolated from friends and family to ensure the integrity of the travelling COVID-19 bubble, the end of the season was pure relief.

“I enjoyed that I won,” Verstappen said. “I’m going to enjoy the podium and then I’m going to enjoy going home.”

But it was Lewis Hamilton, finishing a quiet third to complete his record-equalling seventh championship-winning season, who was the most visceral example of the challenges F1 faced getting to the finish.

For Hamilton it was a battle just to make it to the grid, having been diagnosed with COVID-19 at the start of the month. He tested negative in time to compete, but the Briton admitted he was still feeling the disease’s effects.

“I didn’t think anytime last week I would be here [in Abu Dhabi], so I am truly grateful for my health and to be alive,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so blown. My body is not feeling great.

“I’m just glad it’s over.”

After so much racing it’s easy to forget how badly this global sport was affected as the coronavirus shuttered the world in its first wave.

It was only nine months ago the Australian Grand Prix was called off without a wheel being turned after a McLaren mechanic tested positive to the virus.

The sport was rightly criticised for its lack of preparedness and its farcical mishandling of the first race’s cancellation in the face of the virus, and by the time Formula One limped back to its European base, its tail between its legs, most of the rest of the season had been suspended indefinitely.

Much soul-searching ensued. Abandonment was contemplated. But not racing not only would be existentially unacceptable but would risk the livelihoods of the tens of thousands of people directly and indirectly employed by the sport at an already economically precarious time.

So in the depths of the European lockdown Formula One regrouped and delicately constructed an ambitious calendar.

Logistical contingencies were built in. The season started with three triple-header weekends to ensure the minimum eight races to qualify for championship status. Only five grands prix would take place outside Europe to minimise travel. Several circuits hosted two races to reduce the logistical burden.

Health was prioritised. Regular full-paddock testing was conducted, and teams were thinned to the minimum numbers and divided into bubbles comprising handfuls of people to prevent virus spread.

The strategy worked. Just 93 positive tests, including three drivers, were recorded from 84,663 tests with no mass breakout. Even in the European second wave the sport proved it could cross international boundaries without transmitting — and largely without contracting — the virus.

Formula One is a logistical triumph in any ordinary season, but this was the most brutally taxing challenge in the sport’s history. Yet F1 got it done. And for a sport so often criticised for its fractious internal politics, the way it pulled together to ambitiously and determinedly deliver a season is commendable.

The 2021 season is far from assured despite the announcement of an optimistic pre-COVID-style calendar. More challenges sit beyond the horizon as the world grapples with this virus.

But having survived in unlikely circumstances in 2020, Formula One will be bullish it can thrive in the new season.