Lewis Hamilton at the 2017 Singapore Grand Prix@CHUTTERSNAP | UNSPLASH

In March, Formula 1 fans around the world eagerly awaited the start of the 2020 season, with the first race due to commence in Melbourne. But difficulty quickly ensued: news broke that one of British racing team McLaren’s members had tested positive for COVID-19, and in response, they withdrew from the race. Hours before the start of the first practice session, it was announced that the Australian Grand Prix had been fully cancelled. Soon after, races in China, Bahrain and Vietnam were promptly and indefinitely postponed.

The 2020 Championship fell into disarray and was now expected to begin in May, months away from what F1 fans had originally anticipated. Inevitably, F1 found itself in an unprecedented position, faced with unforgiving setbacks that severely hampered the sport. Yet, amidst the chaos, F1 achieved something remarkable – within a week of the Australia GP’s cancellation, it managed to muster its first Esports Virtual Grand Prix series. Hosted on the official F1 2019 video game by Codemasters, it was the perfect placeholder to tide fans over while the 2020 Championship was put on hold.

Esports racing is quite unlike its sibling genres: in place of keyboards, mice or hand-held controllers, competitors typically set up simulator-rigs – complete with racing seats, steering wheels and gas/brake pedals – in order to participate. This added a layer of immersion that, when coupled with in-game simulation parameters, placed F1 in a unique position to offer a balance of entertainment and competition that was second-to-none. Better yet, exciting racing could be broadcasted to viewers remotely, which proved essential in a new socially distanced world.

The Virtual GP also presented fans with interesting driver line-ups. Apart from familiar F1 faces, from the likes of Lando Norris to Nicholas Latifi, F1 welcomed a surprising slate of celebrities to the grid, such as popstars Liam Payne and Luis Fonsi and even Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The results speak for themselves: by the end of the Virtual GP, F1 had managed to garner a whopping 30 million views across all TV and digital platforms, engaging with fans online on a scale like never before.

Fame follows the pinnacle of motorsport, and F1 drivers have seldom been those to shy away from the limelight. Without the furore of live races, the Virtual GP gave F1 drivers a boost in publicity through online livestreams instead, and perhaps the biggest winner of all was Williams Racing driver George Russell.

On the real track, Russell consistently finished at the back of the pack in his significantly slower Williams race car, but the Virtual GP saw Russell demonstrate how truly determined he was as a competitor. Fans witnessed his grit, discipline, and work ethic: starting without any experience in sim-racing before pouring in countless hours of practice with his newly constructed sim-rig, before finally clinching the championship title. If anything, the Virtual GP cemented Russell as one of the most formidable drivers in the sport.

"Without the furore of live races, the Virtual GP gave F1 drivers a boost in publicity through online livestreams instead"

As the Esports chapter came to a close, F1 announced its official plan to revitalise the 2020 season. After much discussion with the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (F1’s governing body), race teams, drivers, promoters, partners, and local governments, eight opening races were confirmed for Europe, and fans breathed a collective sigh of relief. The Championship was now slated to begin with the Austrian Grand Prix on July 5 at the Red Bull Ring, following which, the Styrian Grand Prix would be held. The kicker: both race weekends would be held on the same track, ostensibly to make up for cancelled overseas events. So, for the first time in F1 history, the Championship would employ the same circuit twice in one season.

Racing would also begin to look a lot more different in terms of foot-traffic. Following other major sports in stride, early F1 races would become closed events, with live broadcasting completely replacing traditionally packed grandstands. Meanwhile, the F1 Paddock would be watered down completely from its usual 3000 guests. Staff numbers would also be significantly reduced – in total, there would only be 1200 essential personnel compared to the typical range of 3000 to 5000. Furthermore, each F1 team would only be allowed 80 personnel instead of the usual 130.

With social distancing measures in place, podium platforms were now to be further apart from one another. Race directors would then be able to advise, at each venue, how prize presentation ceremonies would take place. Perhaps one of the most bizarre spectacles played out at the Styrian GP: “robots” were remotely operated to deliver the trophies to each driver, with winner Lewis Hamilton lamenting that “it was weird,” and that he would “have preferred them just to throw it to me”.

Sadly, even more races got knocked off the 2020 race calendar: The Americas, Azerbaijan, Singapore, Japan and even the prestigious Monaco. Fan disappointment was somewhat assuaged with the reveal of iconic tracks, some new and others returning, introduced to the roster in place of suspended race locations. F1 would – for the first time – be held at the Ferrari-owned Mugello circuit and would also make bold returns to the likes of Imola (an F1 staple from 1980 to 2006) and the renowned Nurburgring.

Ultimately, the ramifications of COVID-19 have not been easy for the sporting world, and motorsport is no exception. While the fanfare and jubilant atmosphere that typically accompanies race weekends are no longer in sight, F1 has nevertheless overcome its obstacles with commendable efficiency and done its best to keep the spirit of the sport alive. It is clear that for many, racing is in their blood. And not even a pandemic can keep them from crossing the finishing line.

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