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[F1 2020]One year on: the man who helped save F1 from Covid

Update time:2021-07-22 14:28Tag:

  Just over a year ago the Formula 1 world was preparing to take a step into the unknown by running the first Grand Prix of the COVID-19 era at the Red Bull Ring, ending a four-month lockdown for the sport.

  Nobody quite knew what to expect, and yet in the 52 weeks from that race on July 5 2020 to this year’s Austrian GP on July 4 we will have enjoyed 26 Grands Prix. It’s an extraordinary number given the restrictions in place around the world, and it’s been achieved safely, with just a few positive tests from the hundreds of thousands that have been conducted both on travelling personnel and locals working at each venue.

  “COVID hit the world harder and faster than anything certainly in living memory”

  One of the men who has to be thanked for making it happen is F1’s sporting director Steve Nielsen, the former Team Lotus, Tyrrell, Benetton/Renault, Caterham, Toro Rosso and Williams man who was hired for his detailed knowledge of how teams operate. As a former team manager he’s deeply involved in writing the sporting regulations, and in determining how teams move around the world and work at circuits.

  When COVID began to dominate the headlines early in 2020 Nielsen realised that it would have an impact, and not just because F1 was due to visit China in mid-April.

  Australia 2020

  After token COVID measures were taken in Melbourne, the situation soon escalated – F1 2020 was suspended

  Grand Prix Photo

  “Honestly, with the benefit of hindsight, and I don’t think we were negligent, it hit the world harder and faster than anything certainly in living memory,” he says. “Probably since the last pandemic, 100 years ago.

  “I became aware of this thing just after Christmas, I suppose. And like lots of other horrible things you hear circulating, like SARS, it’s kind of distant, and then it goes away. And then the news stops talking about it, and then the world carries on.

  “And I kind of approached COVID-19 thinking well, that’s not very good, but obviously, it won’t come to Europe. And then when we were doing pre-season testing, it was already in Europe, and we had a couple of scares at the Barcelona test that turned out to be negative. And then you start thinking, crikey, this could really get quite difficult.”

  Inevitably the Chinese GP was an early casualty, but it was business as usual as F1 headed to Melbourne for the season opener in March. However around that time COVID became an issue in Italy, the base of two F1 teams and its tyre supplier. It was getting a little close to home.

  “Italy was the first European country it hit, particularly around Milan,” says Nielsen. “Ferrari were already talking about some restrictions. And then I remember going to Melbourne and thinking this is really quite serious.

  “Again, I’m not suggesting anybody was negligent, because we just didn’t know what we didn’t know then, but we went to Melbourne really on a wing and a prayer. I think we had some token gesture of social distancing, and maybe even some mask wearing in the paddock, but nothing mandated. Each team and organisation was left to do its own thing.

  “And then while we were in Melbourne, we had the positive case at McLaren. I think we ultimately also had one at Pirelli. And the world seemed to change in a week, culminating in something I’ve never seen before, with the race being cancelled.”

  Chase Carey

  Liberty CEO was determined for the F1 Championship to be held in some form

  Grand Prix Photo

  After McLaren’s overnight withdrawal the Australian GP was called off on the Friday morning, with thousands of fans stuck in queues at the closed gates.

  “And that’s when you think, Oh my God, this is really serious. I remember getting on the plane to fly back. I think most people in the paddock are optimistic, that’s why we can do this. I was thinking we’ll probably have to park up for a couple of months, based on nothing at all other than that’s what I wanted to happen. And then we’ll get this going.

  “And then you get home, and you’re at home for two or three weeks, and more and more bad news comes in over the TV about how serious it is. And people are dying from it. And it’s spreading around the world.