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F1: the longest winter

Bryan Edwards

When we all wrapped up at the end of the 2019 Formula One season, there was the usual end of season feeling: a bit excited, a lot deflated (the Abu Dhabi race does that to me every time - it just doesn't cut it coming after Brazil) and a feeling that the next few months would be punctuated with bits of news from factories, some driver chat and the testing in Barcelona so we northern Europeans get reminded of what sun looks like. And then, it's off to Australia - in reality or virtually - for the season opener that really tells us nothing much about how the season will go and - fun as it is, it's really a shakedown test with points for those that don't shake apart. A huge cock up saw the teams arrive, unpack, set up cars - and then put them all back in the box and go home without a single car doing a lap. Covid-19 had struck and chaos reigned. Until yesterday.

True enough, drivers have kept themselves and us entertained as e-racing became a thing - and as the systems underwent massive and very rapid development. It is honestly, now, a viable spectator sport - if anything where you sit in a chair in your living room can properly be called a sport. Watching drivers from an extraordinary range of backgrounds challenging established racing stars demonstrated that there are hugely different skill-sets. But, as time went on, no matter what series they appeared in, the cream of the crop were 2019's F1 débutantes, Lando Norris and George Russell. Russell won four races in a row with margins that increased to near embarrassing levels. Norris won or was close to the top in every series except F1.

But it was the off-track and off-screen action that kept at least sporadic interest alive. Williams, the last fully independent team on the grid, said that it was planning to sell shares in itself.

Lance Stroll headed a consortium that bought out the collapsing (again - it's a fairly frequent event) Aston Martin then announced that starting in 2021, Racing Point ( actually BWT Racing Point F1Team) will become the latest in the long list of names abandoned by the team originally formed by Eddie Jordan in 1991. Between Jordan and Arrows, it's hard to think of any sport where names change so often.

We've had wobbly wheels in F1 for years, sometimes before they fall off and sometimes after a crash but the Barcelona tests were the first time a team had actually designed wheels to wobble. Mercedes has designed a system that allows the driver to adjust the toe-in of the front wheels. They have made all kinds of comments about the primary use but here's the thing: more toe-in helps in cornering, less toe-in helps on the straights. Other teams didn't like it but you can't have a protest until a race weekend formally starts. That didn't happen in Australia. The question was going to be, then, if a protest would be lodged in Austria, who would do it - and would other teams develop something similar?

The answer to that is yes, Red Bull and yes, Red Bull. So, they have one back in the factory, they did lodge a protest, Mercedes - which had always said that the system had been cleared at every stage of development with the FIA's technical regulations group - was successful in defeating it.

Also at the Spanish tests, there was consternation at the sudden and rapid improvement of Force India - and that the car, many said, was a clone of last year's Mercedes. Well, yes, and no. It's not a direct copy but it does replicate a lot of features but most of all is that the team has done what Mercedes do: build the engine, find a way to mount it where they want it on a chassis that meets all the regulations - and then to almost shrink-wrap the body work around it. Given that the regulations don't allow a lot of leeway on chassis dimensions and that the engine is that Mercedes unit, the design system was bound to result in something similar from the waist back. But the front wings and other aero isn't wildly different - having said that, if half the car is already more or less settled, then computerised modelling and wind-tunnel work is going to produce similar airflows and therefore broadly similar solutions.

Whatever - when the cars came out in Austria they were immediately quick, creating a class of one between the leading three teams and what had, until then, been the expected midfield leaving McLaren, the obvious mid-field front runner at the end of last season scratching their heads in Austria.

Talking of McLaren, they are in another story: Carlos Sainz, whose appointment to McLaren I questioned as I'd seen nothing to suggest he was worthy of promotion ahead of several drivers who were leaving F1, did a stonking job in 2019. Both he and Norris took a car that was given next to no chance at the start of the season and - along with technical improvements - pushed it up the pack so that by the end of the season, it was nibbling at the heels of the top three teams. But Sainz is leaving. Ferrari, in a moment of clarity, dumped Vettel. He was expecting a contract, instead he got a phone call saying he wasn't going to be part of the team for 2020. A few days later, Sainz was named as the second driver alongside LeClerc. Vettel is understandably miffed. Ferrari have said, this weekend that the team had indeed started the season expecting to keep Vettel. But as the season wore on and there were no races to go to, there was a change of attitude at the team. It may be that memories of Vettel's behaviour at the end of 2019 had time to fester. Whatever, as Vettel has walked about the paddock telling everyone that will listen that he's in it for the love of racing, that it's not about the money or the glory, his boss said that the team had decided to delay a decision on Vettel until half-way through the season to see if he could recover his mojo. Once it became clear that there would be no racing in the part of the year that should be the first half, the decision was made, almost by default.

the season has not started, so there has been no opportunity even for Seb to be back on track to prove how much he was really motivated to drive for Ferrari, which has been somehow unfortunate for him.

-- Mario Binnotto - Team Principal - Ferrari

But more than that - Ferrari have said that they had been designing this year's car - primarily the aero - in completely the wrong direction. In a normal season, by now, they would have - almost entirely - replaced the aero. But because of lockdowns - which were particularly severe in and around Marinello - and F1's decision to move factory closures to before the season started rather than in the middle, they've not been able to capitalise on what they learned in Barcelona. So all the changes will come at once, in Hungary, for one of the two races there.

And so, to practice. For the first 45 minutes, barely anyone set a time. They went out, did a lap and came back in. There was rain and people put on intermediates but it didn't rain enough so they just drove round and round burning the tyres and seeing if anything fell off the cars. Then it was like someone turned the lights on.

But the most striking feature of practice was watching how the teams are managing with their social distancing. Garages are full of perspex screens, everyone wears masks the whole time, everyone stays, or tries to stay, a metre away from everyone else. There are very few people in the garage which is fine for the data people but mechanics need to be hands-on. You can't unscrew a bolt in Austria from a desk in Brackley. Maybe one day that will be possible, like remote surgery, but you still need someone there to identify symptoms. There are even one-way systems within the garages so people don't come face to face with each other. Pit stops are a special challenge - operations that have become ultra-slick because people work literally shoulder to shoulder will not take far longer and the additional distances will create opportunities for error. Having said that, F1 crews make all other pit crews look like the Keystone Cops. They will have drilled endlessly over recent weeks to minimise the risk of problems in the heat of a race weekend. But it's almost certain some errors will creep in.

Something has happened to the engine sound: at least from the on-board it sounds like a proper engine, not a gnat in a thunderstorm.

And so, with P1 and P2 out of the way, with surprises done, disputes settled or at least pushed to one side, it's time to get back to the serious stuff - before empty stadia. That's something the drivers will need to react to later. How do you celebrate without the crowd? If other sports - some indoor sports like American wrestling and Japan's Sumo did run in empty venues. When it came to handing over trophies, everyone looked slightly embarrassed and like they felt really silly. They weren't of course - the success is as real as if there's an audience but it did demonstrate something: no matter what Vettel might be saying now, while the competition is undoubtedly the thing, if there's no glory, the success will feel somehow incomplete.

As for me - like all but a handful of commentators - I'll be watching from a chair at home. And I'd rather be doing that than sitting in an aeroplane. F1 is working in its own little bubble now: it's not clear if people will be allowed into and out of the bubble between races. What is clear is that if anyone tests positive, chaos will ensue. That's why the masks are everywhere, people can be seen tossing gloves into bins and even face shields are in evidence and why everyone gets their temperature taken several times each day.

Aside from that, it's good to be back!

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