Formula One is back. And for racing aficionados, it has been a long enough wait since the COVID-19 affected 2020 season ended last December.
A year has gone by since the scuttled Australian Grand Prix was supposed to start off last year’s races. And like all sporting events in 2020, even the high-tech, engineering-led world of Formula One was not spared from the lockdowns.
The 2021 F1 season, while better planned this time around, will still likely suffer from the social distancing, quarantine and health protocol requirements of the countries that will play host to the sporting spectacle. This year’s Formula One circus is still mindful of COVID-19 and its impact on the sport and the countries it visits.
Come to think of it, racing against the fast spreading virus was what really happened around the world last year. Governments and health institutions raced against time to understand, contain, treat and eventually adapt to the presence of the virus. The Philippines was not exempted from this competition and to this day, we seem to be dealing with the second lap of what looks like a long and arduous duel against a persistent nemesis.
“Lights out, and away we go!”
The starting line was in January last year. While all countries were sitting pretty on the starting grid, COVID-19 stormed from the back and jumped to the lead as soon as the five red lights went out. We were among those who were slow off the line. Our country’s race car sputtered off the grid and was not prepared for the speed at which COVID-19 would make it to the front.
By March, the virus had already shifted up gears and built up speed. We tried catching up on the long straight even as the virus already had a distance advantage. Then the first corner came. Enhanced Community Quarantine corner forced us and the virus to hit the brakes and slow down into the turn. Like many countries, we dropped the anchors on everything just to close that widening gap and prevent the virus from pulling away.
A series of curves and turns quickly followed in succession by April. Test corner attempted to know who were infected among our team. Trace bend saw us search for those who came into contact with those infected. Then there was Turn Treat where our hospitals focused on finding the right combination of medicines and procedures to prevent the rise of deaths even as COVID cases began to overwhelm our healthcare system.
“They’re neck and neck, but he loses the back end!”
But since our car was not prepared for the race, we sloppily negotiated through all the corners as we saw other countries with better set up cars ease their way past us and close in on COVID. Our car’s steering was off, it did not respond well to our inputs. The chassis was likewise not up to task. Our power units were slow to respond and lacked the power to catch up. We had scrappy tires that were worn and used, unable to sustain grip as we negotiated each bend. What’s worse, our car was not fuelled for the long haul and this will soon reveal our disadvantage in the race.
Our car was so badly prepared for this event that it overshot one crucial corner that led to a long straight – Isolation. While we crossed track limits in this corner in order not to be disqualified, it was still a lousy take on an otherwise simple yet essential turn of the track. And by messing Isolation, we paid the price and we were not able to close in on the race leader.
“He locks up and smokes the tires into the corner!”
The long three months we were trying to catch up with COVID only saw us stay well behind. And because we were low on fuel, we tried everything in the book to get our economy back up again.
GCQ corner came next and we made a dive, leaving the brakes until the last possible moment. But again, we come in too fast and overshoot the exit as we restarted opening the economy too soon.
COVID-19 switches back to the racing line and begins to pad its lead at the exit of the turn. We stumble, and try to accelerate but we got delayed because of our error. We open transportation too soon, allowing more people on buses and trains. We try to adjust our settings – use face shields, wash hands, social distance. But the gap did not diminish as our team of the best and brightest had hoped.
“I’ve got damage”
Our excursion outside of GCQ corner led to some damage to our car. Cases again started to spike in August as the better exit of COVID allowed it to widen its gap. We radio in for help and our team responds with instructions to reset our pace through another lockdown measure.
Albeit shorter, it was nonetheless welcomed by the rest of the team as well as we all gathered our wits coming back into the track. With the remaining corners coming up, catching up would be all the more challenging.
“Listen to that crowd!”
Christmas Holiday corner was a technical one. We had to navigate with increased number of people outdoors doing holiday shopping to ensure the economy would recover. But we also had to feather the throttle, as our poorly set up car will most likely spin out of control if we stomped on the accelerator too soon and too hard.
But the virus got the cleaner line through December. It was still on the lead and looked as if the gap did not close at all. This time though, more and more people were now outside the protection of their homes. They have gone weary of the lockdown and health restrictions. And many have become complacent as they attempted to return to their normal lives. These cheers from the crowd encouraged COVID to race harder. Much to our dismay.
The last corner, February bend, was next. A sweeping double apex curve which was tricky to maneuver. It was so technical that it required our car to be properly set up and us to be headstrong and focused to take it flat out.
The first apex was the opening of leisure businesses. The second apex was the removal of travel restrictions, travel passes and testing requirements. Both could be taken flat out with the right car set up. But because of the lack of preparation early on, we were skittish through the curves. This led to a massive twitch as we attempted to prevent the car from spinning out completely.
Meanwhile, COVID went smoothly through without hesitation. It began growing a bigger lead now. 5000 new cases. 8000. 9000. It finally broke the 10,000 mark last week, a record gap ever since the race started. It is now too big to be overhauled on the straight so we decide, and rightfully so, to pit in.
“Box! Box! Box!”
As COVID crosses the start-finish line to begin lap 2, we are stopped at the pits to change tires to have more grip of the situation and give us confidence and resolve from every health measure we undertake. We adjust our car’s aero to make it go faster into the corners and ensure that we come out smoother, hopefully cutting the gap to COVID in the process. And, to take liberty from old school F1, we refuel to ensure that our car and our people will have the sustenance to withstand the gruelling pace of the race.
At the pitwall, our team of IATF engineers and strategists are forced to work hard and crunch the numbers in order to provide us with sound tactics and plans to catch up with COVID. As we exit the pits and accelerate into turn 1, we return to ECQ corner even further behind COVID than when the race started.
“Push! Push! Push!”
The race against COVID is now in its second lap. Many see this race as a long one which we may never totally win. But we remain hopeful that with the availability of the DRS vaccine, we can finally catch up with COVID and overtake him.
But first, we need to close the gap down to 1 second. We have to be just behind COVID for DRS to work. And that means we have to get our heads down and focus on banging successive laps with clean racing lines. We have to be at a qualifying pace with our car at its best to be able to catch up and attempt an overtaking move.
The pitwall continues to give us instructions – “Wear masks, stay 1 meter apart, wash your hands.” Maybe this is the time to listen and take in the team’s suggestions. With such a novel race and an unpredictable driver in COVID to contend with, we apparently don’t know what we are doing.
Motoring and motorsports are two of Mikko’s greatest passions. Combining more than twenty years of professional automotive photography and videography experience with years of touring car racing competition, and a deep understanding of the car industry, from both the manufacturers’ and consumers’ points of view, have given him a unique and insightful perspective in the motoring beat.