We are long past the point of needing reminders that SARS-CoV-2 is no respecter of status.
Over a quarter of a million new cases of Covid-19 are being officially diagnosed each day. Today’s figure includes one of the greatest figures in motorsport, seven-times Moto GP champion Valentino Rossi, who has been ruled out of their upcoming race as a result.
Motorsport is a team endeavour, but the driver (or rider) is a uniquely important part of the equation. And in the case of championship contenders, they are irreplaceable. While Rossi may have already slipped out of realistic championship contention, his status is such that across the motorsport world anyone who is eyeing their shot at silverware will have taken note of his plight and reflected it is one they must avoid.
Of course no consequence of the virus is worse than the potential danger of contracting it. Well over a million people worldwide have died as a result of Covid-19.
But the vast majority of those are considerably older than the typical racing driver. The threat it poses to this athletic and healthy group is far less likely to be a matter of serious illness, more a question of disruption to their season, though there remains the little-understood implications of ‘long Covid’.
Despite a Covid-19 testing regime which has so far allowed Formula 1 to hold 11 consecutive races in eight different countries without disruption, there has already been one positive case on the grid. Sergio Perez was forced out of both Silverstone races as a result, and without that he could be eyeing a career-best fourth in the championship.
(While Perez was widely assumed to have contracted the virus during his trip to Mexico, according to the CEO of his Racing Point team, Otmar Szafnauer, he in fact caught it through a private chef who had been hired to prepare meals for him after he returned so he wouldn’t be exposed to the risk of eating in restaurants – a deeply unfortunate irony.)
Missing two races is a scenario no driver wants and any championship contender can ill afford. In the case of F1 championship leader Lewis Hamilton, the prospect of missing out on a couple of races because of a positive Covid-19 test is arguably the most realistic threat to him sealing a seventh world championship this year.
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With six races remaining he has a 69-point lead over team mate Valtteri Bottas. There may be 156 points still available, but the competitiveness of Hamilton’s Mercedes is such he can realistically expect a minimum finish of third in the remaining races, giving no more than 11 away to Bottas each time out.
Unreliability? The power unit failure which struck Bottas last weekend was only the second race-ending failure for a Mercedes in the last 24 months.
In a normal championship year, we would say Hamilton is at the point where he can cruise and collect the title. Avoid all risks, bring the car home, bag the points, buy a new trophy cabinet with room for seven drivers’ cups.
Covid-19 changes that. Hamilton would be forgiven for starting to get a bit obsessive about the distancing, hand-washing, mask-wearing and isolating. Particularly as the virus has struck too close for comfort at least twice already.
Following the cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix it emerged several celebrities Hamilton had met at an event on March 4th, including Idris Elba and Sophie Trudeau, had tested positive for Covid-19. Hamilton issued a statement 17 days later saying he had no symptoms of the virus but had not been tested for it.
More recently two members of Hamilton’s Mercedes team tested positive for Covid-19, and others had to be isolated as a result.
Formula 1 has largely confined itself to Europe as a consequence of the pandemic. But recent weeks have seen a rise in the case rate which has prompted regional lockdowns in several countries. F1 has also seen a slight uptick in cases. Since then, as revealed by RaceFans, two Renault team members who were in Spain for Fernando Alonso’s filming day, also contracted Covid-19. The latest test data is expected to be published tomorrow.
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By no means is this concern limited solely to F1 and its drivers. Formula 2, IndyCar and many other series are due to crown their champions in the coming weeks and face the same threats.
While there’s no reason Hamilton should be more susceptible to Covid-19 than any of his peers, a positive case would be a bigger blow in simple championship terms. The ultra-professional Mercedes team has therefore reduced the risks to both drivers to an absolute minimum.
“Obviously the drivers are the most restricted of the whole team,” said Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff following news of their positive cases last weekend. “It’s certainly not a great situation for them because you almost need to live like a hermit and that’s what they are doing.
“They are at home. They are not going out for dinners. They are not meeting any other people. Within the team we do the debriefs via Zoom or Microsoft Teams. They are not sitting with the engineers in the room. They are sitting in their own rooms and we are avoiding as much as possible any personal contact with them.
“We try do it as literally stepping into the car and keeping their distance as we belt them in and then drive. Because that is really critical for the championship, if you miss a race or two. So, unfortunately for them, they need to live a life that is a bit secluded, but we think the decisions we have taken are good and protect them.”
But in this respect F1 drivers and teams are grappling with the same question about Covid-19 many of us face every day: How careful is careful enough?