Should F1 drivers with COVID be allowed to race?
The idea of Formula 1 drivers who have tested positive for COVID-19 being allowed to race has emerged in recent weeks, following recent layoffs for Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel.
Ricciardo was forced to sit out the Bahrain pre-season test after his diagnosis, prior to Vettel's positive test which meant that the Aston Martin driver had to skip the race.
Under the tight protocols in place over the past two years, there would have been no argument; a positive test for anyone in the F1 paddock meant they were out of action and forced to isolate. Sergio Perez, Lance Stroll, Lewis Hamilton, Kimi Raikkonen and Nikita Mazepin were all obliged to miss races at some point.
But since last season, as COVID variants evolve into producing milder symptoms, the world has moved on to a general philosophy of living with it. Indeed, the UK government has suggested that even those with positive results can return to work.
The FIA meanwhile has relaxed the COVID protocols contained in its Code of Conduct, and done away with compulsory testing, leaving it up to the teams. And yet for the time being if a driver is tested and proves positive, they are still automatically out of the cockpit – and missing a race or two could have a significant impact on their season.
Given the current climate, should a COVID-hit driver be allowed to race? There are two things to consider within that question. The first is the obvious risk of spreading it to other team personnel, who could in turn pass it on to vulnerable family members.
The second is the impact on the individual, and how much COVID takes it out of them. It hits some people a lot harder than others, and for those who suffer most driving a F1 car is probably not a wise option.
“There was no way I could have raced when I had it,” says Hamilton of the diagnosis that forced him to miss the 2020 Sakhir GP.
“I was very, very sick. And even when I came back, just on the tail end of it, I barely made it through the race. I just actually messaged Seb because it is sad not to see him here. I hope that he is OK. I know Daniel was heavily affected by it.”
“I was definitely in a pretty tough place so I would have struggled,” says Ricciardo. “I was pretty knocked out from it.
“So I think it’s really obviously case-by-case, and if you feel like you can do it then yeah, maybe show some kind of little fitness test and prove it. But I would have struggled a week ago.”
Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Other drivers who have tested positive have had no ill-effects.
“I think physically clearly there was no problem,” says Pierre Gasly, whose COVID spell in January 2021 did not impact his season.
“I got tested after having done like an 18kms run, and I never felt as good as it did at the time. And I was kind of in shock when I got the news and after that I was still feeling fine. I haven’t had any symptoms at all, and obviously physically it would not have been any problem.”
Assuming a driver believes that they can still compete and gets medical clearance, and the local authorities do not oblige him to isolate, would it be right to do so? Drivers have mixed views, with some taking a more cautious approach than others.
“Naturally as a driver you always want to race,” says Max Verstappen. “And you would say ‘Yes, we should be allowed to race.
“But I think you should also ask a medical expert about it, what is allowed and what isn’t, and then work together with the FIA to see what’s possible and what is allowed in the future. But at the moment it’s a bit difficult to tell.”
“It’s a tricky question,” says Charles Leclerc. “As things are at the moment obviously it’s impossible to do that, because in some places we cannot race having COVID.
“Then, for sure, if there are some places where we will be able to race with COVID, then things might change. But the way things are at the moment I definitely wouldn’t do that.”
The consensus is that the driver themselves should be able to make the call on whether or not they are fit enough.
“COVID has evolved so much that I think the best judge would be ourselves to know,” says Perez, who became the first driver to miss a race at the 2020 British GP.
“Like Daniel says, probably he wouldn’t be able to race, but maybe there are other people or other drivers who get COVID and feel okay. It feels like the world is fully open, but F1 is very restrictive with the COVID things, so I think we should leave it up to the driver to decide.
“I think we have all raced once or less feeling really bad health-wise, and we are the judge as to say okay, we can race the way we are at the moment, or we can simply not. So if the driver feels comfortable to race like that, I wouldn’t think it’s a problem. The world seems to have moved on from it.”
“I also feel like it should be a call for the driver,” says Valtteri Bottas. “I would vote for yes, should be allowed but only in a way that it can be made sure that there’s no risk of spreading it further.
“So I think that maybe then for someone who has COVID there should definitely be extra protocols to make sure that other team members don’t get affected, because obviously with every person the symptoms can be different, for some less risky, for some more risky. So I think that’s the question mark.”
Valtteri Bottas, Alfa Romeo F1 Team
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
As Bottas suggested, drivers aren’t entirely selfish. They understand that they have to take the people they work with, and their wider families, into account.
“It is still around us,” says Hamilton. “And I think we will still need to take precautions, continue to wear masks and continue to stay safe and keep others safe. If we all stop wearing our masks and everyone in the garage gets it, everyone is going to be sick, and it will affect people differently.
“Some people don’t even know they have it, and some people get really ill. So, it’s better just not to take the risk for now. And also I think just as a sport and how we appear in terms of the message we are sending people out there I think it’s important that we continue to keep our masks.”
“We are seeing the world move forward,” says Lance Stroll, who missed the 2020 Eifel GP. “We’re adapting to the world we live in now, and I still think it’s important to be responsible when you around elderly people, grandparents, all these things I think are separate, that’s everyone’s responsibility to be around elderly people.
“But as F1, as a sport, as a world we have to move on, and live our lives. We’re starting to see that all over the world now.
“I think there are ways of being very cautious and responsible, whilst having COVID and still competing. I think there are ways of isolating yourself, putting your helmet on in your room, and minimising completely contact with everyone. There are ways to do that. I do think I could compete with it.”
So if drivers were allowed to race, how would be work? As Stroll suggests simply keeping a helmet on and staying clear of others solves a lot of the issues, and others share that view.
“If there is a sport that I think that you can compete without spreading the virus too much or at least zero I think it is F1,” says Carlos Sainz.
“I think you could do all the meetings back in your hotel room, arrive 15 minutes before the session with your suit and your helmet on, jump in the car and go.
“Personally, I feel like if I get COVID and you’re in the middle of a championship fight or a very important thing I would struggle to accept missing a race and if I’m feeling well and I’m feeling perfectly fit, if I am feeling bad I would be the first one to raise my hand and say I cannot race and the third driver needs to jump in.
Guenther Steiner, Team Principal, Haas F1, in the team principals Press Conference
Photo by: Motorsport Images
“But I think it’s an interesting case that we should investigate because I think that our sport gives us that opportunity to maybe be a bit more protected and less spread, and I think it should be up to the driver to decide.”
Unsurprisingly team bosses are keen to seen the protocols changed. Gunther Steiner, whose Haas team ran only one car in last year’s Abu Dhabi GP as Mazepin was tested positive after qualifying, agrees it should be up to the driver.
“It should be treated as a flu pretty soon,” he says. “And if you have a flu, you decide yourself what you’re going to do. Nobody else is deciding for you, so if the doctor says OK, the person which has got it is OK, why not?”
It’s an issue that F1 and the FIA are keeping an eye on, but the bottom line everything depends on local rules.
“We always have to respect the country that we are in,” said Ross Brawn when asked about the relaxing of regulations by Motorsport.com.
“If the country we are in considers that to be okay, then we can consider it. We always have to respect where we are and we have to be vigilant.
“We will be on top of it. We will watch what is happening, monitor what is happening, and we will work with the local authorities.
“Our COVID teams are still together looking at everything that is happening. It will be something that will have ups and downs, but I’m much more optimistic than I was a year ago.”
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