A driver could have to miss part of a race weekend if one of his mechanics tested positive for coronavirus when the season resumes, Ross Brawn says.
Formula 1’s managing director said the chances of a positive test were “very low” because of the health and safety protocols that have been set up.
“If somebody comes down with the symptoms, you’d have to deal with it straight away,” Brawn said.
“We would have to isolate that group until they could all be tested.”
In a wide-ranging interview with BBC Sport, Brawn discussed:
- the medical protocols that have been set up by F1 so it can start its season in Austria on 5 July, the first of eight European grands prix that were announced this week
- the problems F1 has in trying to build a calendar of races further afield than Europe
- the possibility of further grands prix in Europe if long-haul races cannot be held
- his frustration with Mercedes at their decision to veto qualifying ‘sprint’ races
- his concerns for the future of Williams
- his confidence in F1’s ability to ride out the coronavirus crisis
The impact of a positive test
F1 has plans to create what Brawn has dubbed a “biosphere” environment to minimise the risk of spreading the coronavirus by re-starting its season, including extensive testing for everyone involved, medical support with every team, and an on-site test facility for rapid response.
Part of this plan is to create what Brawn calls “families and sub-families within teams” to limit contact between people as much as possible.
“If we do get a positive case then we can isolate that case and people who have been in contact with that person very quickly,” Brawn said.
He added: “A group of mechanics working on a car, while they will be wearing PPE (personal protective equipment), it will be very difficult to socially distance.
“But there is no reason why that group of mechanics will necessarily be part of another family of mechanics working on the other car.
“So if we have somebody test positive in one of the groups, then we would have to isolate that group until they could all be tested. We would have to isolate that group until we could be sure the virus hadn’t spread but the rest of the team could still function.”
The testing procedures in place will take up to two hours to return a result, and anyone with a test group would have to isolate until the results come through.
And would this mean a driver could not take part while that was happening?
“Yes it would,” Brawn said.
This could mean a driver sitting out part of or even a whole practice session, but it is very unlikely a race would have to be missed in these circumstances.
That’s because no work can be done on cars after qualifying unless they are damaged, and teams could switch around mechanics to fulfil any essential tasks.
Brawn believes the eight European races announced this week are “pretty firm”, although he admits “if something erupted in one of the countries we’re going to, we’d have to adjust our plans again”
But F1 faces a difficult conundrum in trying to build a calendar outside Europe, because as Brawn puts it “different countries are at different stages of their situation with the virus”.
He adds: “There is still quite a lot of volatility in the situation in different countries, so until that stabilises and we can see where the situation is, it’s difficult to commit.
“Brazil is in the middle of a very difficult period. Mexico is in the middle of a very difficult period. But we’re optimistic that those situations will improve and therefore we will be able to build a programme around that.”
There are two concerns – whether the virus situation in a particular country allows F1 to feel confident it is safe enough to go there; and whether countries such as Japan and Vietnam that have the virus under control want to risk letting F1 in.
The US, Brazil, Mexico and Russia are in the first category and Brawn admits: “If we judge the health and safety risk is too high, even if we can meet the obligations of the country, then we may not go there.
“We can’t operate at a level that is worse than the country needs. Our standards will always exceed the standards of the country we are going to.”
There is the added complication of street races such as Baku and Singapore, where months are needed to set up the track.
Brawn admits “it is coming to the point where decisions will have to be made” on these events.
And he says having further races in Europe “is an option if we can’t have the overseas or flyaway races we’d like to have”.
In recent weeks, F1 has revived an idea of trying out sprint races with reverse grids in place of qualifying at a couple of events this year.
Brawn said this came up again because there will be two races at at least two venues this year – Austria and Silverstone – and F1 wanted to introduce some variability.
But the idea needed unanimous agreement and it has been killed by Mercedes, who were opposed.
Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff cited a survey that showed the vast majority of fans were opposed to the idea. Brawn said F1 “can’t find” that survey, although the idea was strongly opposed in two separate polls in 2015 and 2017.
Wolff said on Wednesday that he was against the proposal because F1 is a meritocracy and doesn’t need gimmicks; the races are open to being ‘gamed’ by teams wanting to ensure their driver starts the main grand prix at the front; and it penalises the quickest team because they will generally start behind the second and third fastest.
Brawn says it is “a shame” the idea can’t be tried out, but Wolff’s objections clearly still rankle.
Brawn said: “In the first instance, Toto was very frank and said: ‘I think I’m in a very strong competitive position and I don’t want anything that is going to upset the chances of me winning races.’ And that’s fine. That’s his prerogative.
“Since then, all sorts of things have come out as to why we shouldn’t do it. I still prefer to stick to his first reasons, which I respect, and I might even be the same in his position.”
The future of Williams
Williams have put their team up for sale after a £13m loss last year forced them to look for external investment.
Brawn says F1 are “concerned” about the situation and “have been supporting them in many ways”, although he won’t explain how.
“They are a team with a great heritage,” Brawn says. “I spent a lot of my career at Williams, certainly my formative years were at Williams, so they are close to my heart, and it’s saddened me to see the level of performance they had the last few years.
“Their situation reflects their poor performance. You can’t get around it. There is a price to pay when you’re performing that badly.
“With fresh investment and involvement I’m optimistic they can get into a more competitive position.”
Brawn emphasises that the new rules being introduced in 2022 with the aim of closing up the field “will be very helpful to a team in Williams’ position in terms of the increased prize money there will be next year, the reduction in cost, the increased competitiveness of a smaller team”.
The future of F1
The European races announced so far will all be held without spectators and F1 will not be receiving fees for many of them, although that situation will change when it moves on to government-backed events later in the year in places such as Russia, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi.
The entire sport is facing a financial shortfall but Brawn says: “It can certainly sustain it for this year.
“A large part of our income comes from broadcast rights. A large part of our income comes from sponsorship. Those are things we can fulfil whether the fans are there or not.
“We want races with fans as soon as we can but we can’t do it unless we can do it safely. We will be making a call on all the races with or without fans but for me it is sustainable for the rest of the year if we had to have the majority of races without fans.”