Seven months on from the finale of the 2019 season, Formula One cars will finally return to racing next weekend at the Red Bull Ring in Austria. The race will be held behind closed doors, with no fans or VIPs in attendance, and access to the circuit will be limited to those with essential jobs in the sport.
The return comes 16 weeks on from F1's decision to abort the original season-opener in Australia due to a confirmed case of coronavirus within the paddock, and the sport, alongside its governing body the FIA, is going to great lengths to provide as safe an environment as possible when it returns. As a result, F1's "new normal" will be anything but normal for those familiar with the workings of the paddock.
Provisions for coronavirus testing, personal protective equipment (PPE) and social distancing have been planned in depth, with each team creating its own social bubble to minimize the risk of an outbreak spreading. Track-and-trace mechanisms will also be in place so that suspected cases can be easily quarantined and tested.
In a 74-page document entitled "Return to Motorsport: In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic", the FIA has detailed its recommendations, while some sections of the sporting regulations have also been tweaked to help make procedures as safe as possible. The following is a brief summary of those documents, highlighting the points that will be most obvious for fans watching on TV.
Testing and PPE
Before traveling to the circuit, all F1 personnel must be able to prove they have had a negative COVID-19 test. Once on site, they will be tested every five days and will be tested immediately if they report symptoms.
Use of a track-and-trace app will also be mandatory for all team members at the event, so that those who have been in close contact with a positive case can be easily identified, quarantined and tested.
On top of that, there will be temperature checks when entering the paddock, social distancing measures -- such as one-way pathways in and out of garages -- and mandatory use of face coverings for the vast majority of the time at the circuit. The type of covering -- mask or shield -- will depend on the job being done and the proximity to other team members, but anyone whose job involves working across different teams with need to wear full PPE.
A number of teams have already tested old cars or completed filming days to get used to the new measures, and of all the restrictions being put in place, the physical wearing of PPE could be among the most challenging over a race weekend.
"I think in a very basic way the biggest challenge, especially for the guys in the garage, will be to wear the mask at all time," Ferrari sporting director Laurent Mekies said in an interview with select media this week. "We have started to get used to it, as it's becoming part of our normal life.
"Even though I'm not wearing it here for the purposes of this interview, it's compulsory here [at Maranello], so we wear it in the factory and the office, but it's one thing to wear it in an office environment, it's something else to wear it when it's 40C or very hot at the race track. We think this will be the biggest challenge.
"We will do training to get used to it. We're trying to put in place some measures, in terms of breathing exercises, and having some breaks to have time to do these exercises and keep in the best possible shape."
Key to the FIA's plan is the division of the teams, and other key members of staff such as marshals, into social bubbles so that an outbreak of the virus does not spread across the event. By limiting the amount of people at the venue to essential staff and minimizing their interactions with others, the hope is that any outbreak will be more easily contained.
As a result, teams will be limited to 80 staff members compared to the 130 that could sometimes be expected at busy races in previous years. The core team of engineers, mechanics and technicians that have a direct impact on the performance of the car over a weekend -- known as operational staff -- will remain capped at 60 as it was in the past, meaning that it is mainly marketing, PR and catering staff that have been cut.
Most teams are then expected to create sub-bubbles within their team bubble, so that if a positive test comes back it can be easily traced and will only impact a small number of team members rather than the entire garage. However, the teams are allowed to decide how they mix those sub-bubbles if a job on a car, such as an engine change, require mechanics from one side of the garage to help on the other.
"You are forced into operating your team as a bubble [by the FIA], but the fact that we are going to design sub-bubbles inside it is our responsibility," Mekies said. "We do it, as we say, to be as resilient as possible in case of a positive case.
"So depending on how we design the bubble limits the interactions and contact between the people, and we are trying to design it in a way that does not affect our operations. In the case of changing an engine, if we need to do something like that and break the sub-bubble to go after an operational need like the one you mentioned, we can perfectly do it, but what it means is that as a team we will be a bit less resilient in case one of these people would be unfortunately testing positive."
The team hospitality units will not travel to races, with catering facilities being laid on at the circuit and back at block-booked hotels where team members will be expected to stay during downtime.
What if there's a positive test?
Isolated cases will not result in the event being called off, but those who have been in contact with a positive case will also be quarantined and tested before being allowed to return to work.
"There is a risk that if one single person in the team [tests positive] the whole team is immediately out for the time of the test, which can take 24 hours," Renault team principal Cyril Abiteboul said. "We can see that if that positive case is happening on a Saturday morning, you are not going to qualify and participate in the race. So I see that we still need to have some discussion on how to balance the risk and share some common sense."
Drivers are included in the tests and would also have to enter quarantine if they return a positive result. Reserve drivers will be called upon to replace race drivers if necessary, with, for example, Mercedes Formula E driver Stoffel Vandoorne on standby to replace Lewis Hamilton or Valtteri Bottas if needed.
And just as reserve drivers will be on call in the event of a positive test, the teams will also have mechanics and engineers in reserve and ready to fly out to the circuit on short notice.
"We have treated this race a bit like the races we used to go to that needed a visa that took a long time to be issued, well we have done the same here in that spare people will be anyway performing the COVID test here at the factory in such a way that they are able to jump in if we need to replace some of our people at the race track," Mekies said. "Of course, there is a limit to what we can do, because it's not like we have a second race team ready to go, but yes, we are ensuring that a number of additional people that are not planned to go to Austria are preparing themselves to meet the regulations should they need to go."
During the race
The FIA has modified the regulations surrounding the buildup to the race in order to minimize the amount of people on the grid and ease their movements. The moments leading up to a race are often hectic, with late adjustments to the cars and a sudden rush of mechanics back to the pit lane in the minutes before the lights go out for the formation lap.
The sporting regulations have been tweaked to limit each team to 40 personnel on the grid, and without the usual prerace ceremonies, the pit lane will now open 30 minutes before the formation lap rather than 40 minutes. The pit lane will close 20 minutes before the start of the race, at which point all cars should be on the grid, while tires must be fitted to the car with five minutes remaining rather than the usual three (in-race penalties will be applied to any team who fails to do so in time).
With three minutes remaining, no more than 16 team members will be allowed to remain on the grid, with engines firing up with one minute to go and all equipment off the grid by the 15-second signal.
By creating more time to allow the movement off the grid but limiting the time spent overall waiting for the start of the race, the FIA hopes to minimise potential contact between team members from different bubbles.
Trackside marshals are essential to the safe running of races and are the first on the scene at an on-track accident. In previous years at the Red Bull Ring, their number has exceeded 350, but the FIA has suggested reducing numbers at each post around the circuit.
However, the Return to Motorsport document makes clear that "a fundamental requirement to maintain safe conditions for running a competition through observation, signaling, intervention and the provision of appropriate emergency services must still be respected at all times".
The FIA goes on to detail how the amount of marshals at each post, which sometimes exceeds 12 under normal conditions, could be reduced by combining roles such as the "observer" and "communicator" and limiting the amount of flag marshals from four to two. At low-risk posts the FIA also recommends reducing the numbers even further, but the emphasis is on making such judgements on a case-by-case basis when it is safe to do so.
In-race tire changes are among the most visible examples of teamwork during a race weekend and, unfortunately, impossible to apply social distancing to. Although a successful pit stop will see the car stationary for little more than two seconds, as many as 20 mechanics work in close proximity to do so and there is an obvious risk as a result.
The crews will continue to be made up of a mix of the two sides of the garage, although any opportunities to reduce the number of mechanics taking part may be taken. Fortunately, a race pit stop requires helmet and face coverings by regulation, so a level of protection is already in place, but when watching on TV, it's unlikely you'll notice a difference.
"They are a little bit affected because, for global responsibility, we have tried to take as little people as possible to the race track to be at the limit," Mekies said of Ferrari's plans. "But overall you will not see a big change in the number of people working on a pit stop or on operations."
When the race is over, the top three cars will return to parc ferme, but due to social distancing measures, a traditional podium ceremony will not be possible. Instead F1 is considering a presentation with distanced individual podiums for the top three drivers and trophies in place before the ceremony rather than being handed over by dignitaries.
With no fans, and the mechanics unable to stand shoulder to shoulder around parc ferme, it is likely to make for an unusual atmosphere -- but a race win is still a race win, regardless of social distancing.