Why F1 was split over Bahrain’s vaccination offer

When Bahrain announced it would offer COVID-19 vaccinations to Formula 1 personnel across pre-season testing and the opening race, it unintentionally created a dilemma that left the paddock split over the plans.

Why F1 was split over Bahrain’s vaccination offer
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An offer of COVID-19 vaccinations from the Bahrain government left Formula 1 teams and others in the championship with a difficult question – should they take it up or not?

In the end views were split, essentially on national lines that reflect the efficient vaccine rollout in the UK. The British-based organisations left the choice up to individuals, while those from elsewhere were generally more pro-active.

The arrival of COVID vaccines was always going to be a tricky subject for F1 to deal with. On the one hand, given the travel involved, it’s logical for personnel to be vaccinated as soon as possible – both for obvious personal health reasons and in order to deal with ongoing travel restrictions around the world.

On the other hand, there was a very obvious PR problem should F1 folk be seen to have special status and thus be jumping the queue. A negative tabloid headline, and subsequent social media fallout, would have been very damaging.

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In early February new F1 boss Stefano Domenicali made his position clear regarding the organisation’s own travelling staff.

“This is a very important point,” he said. “You can take that from both sides. For sure, what I can tell you, the most vulnerable are the priority. On our side, we don’t want to jump on the line of vaccination.

“Vaccination is very, very important, and I would say that I’m looking forward to being vaccinated, and everyone should be in this moment.

“We are thinking about what could be the discussion related to that, so if that could be possible, we would discuss internally about it and share with the teams, but we need to be prudent and see and respect of course what is the situation with all the vulnerable people.

“We don’t want to be seen as the ones who have taken away that. So a lot of respect for all of what the governments are saying, and what people do, but in that respect, we need to be prudent, and the only thing I can say is that I really hope to be vaccinated soon.”

Team bosses offered similar opinions – we will wait our turn.

Since then the rollout of vaccinations has proceeding at speed in the UK. Having started with vulnerable groups and the elderly, the invitation to participate has already reached the over-50s, and will be extended to younger people in the coming weeks.

In EU countries progress has been much slower, and it could be many months before the general working age population is reached.

The picture changed for F1 when on February 28th the Bahraini government formally communicated an offer to vaccinate any overseas visitors.

The statement noted: “As part of the Kingdom of Bahrain’s extensive vaccination campaign, which has achieved one of the highest vaccination rates globally and is now offering five different vaccines to the Kingdom’s population, Bahrain is extending the programme to major events in the Kingdom – on a voluntary basis – where timescales allow and provide additional benefit to both participants and the national population.”

A strict and crucial requirement was a 21-day gap between two doses – a number that F1 folk could reach by arriving early before the testing, and leaving late after the race, even if they took a trip back to Europe in between.

Guests and dignitaries on the grid with Stefano Domenicali, Chief Executive FOM

Guests and dignitaries on the grid with Stefano Domenicali, Chief Executive FOM

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was specified, which also meant that a visitor couldn’t have a first dose in Bahrain, and another different product on return home.

This offer gave everyone in F1 food for thought. Once it became public, the F1 organisation was quick to confirm that – in line with Domenicali’s earlier statement – it would not be officially taking up the offer on behalf of its travelling staff.

A spokesperson noted that F1 had “no plans to be vaccinated as a travelling group ahead of the already established rollout of vaccines through the health system in the UK,” while discussions continued both within teams and between teams and F1 and the FIA. Concerns about sending the wrong message remained part of the story, even after Qatar made a similar offer to MotoGP that prompted a logical explanation of why it would be widely accepted.

Promoter Dorna Sports called it an "incredible opportunity" and noted: “The vaccination programme is aimed at increasing the personal safety of all those on-site.

“It will offer increased protection for those in the MotoGP paddock and all those that come into contact with it as the sport travels the world this season."

Aside from the obvious PR issues, there were various complex issues facing F1, including those of personal choice and medical privacy.

In essence teams could not mandate the Bahrain vaccinations for staff members, but nor could they formally prevent them from taking up the offer. If someone wanted to protect themselves and their family by being vaccinated sooner rather than later, they had the freedom to make that choice.

A key consideration was that the British teams knew that the NHS vaccine would be available for all its people, even if it meant waiting weeks or months to reach the 20-somethings on the travelling crew.

Another factor was the potential adoption of vaccine passports in the UK, to make travel and so on easier. It is still not clear what the British government’s position will be on giving such a document to those who have taken vaccinations overseas, outside the NHS system.

In addition the 21-day requirement made it impractical for key people whose schedules involved arriving late for the test and leaving soon after the race, and more useful for mechanics and hospitality/garage set-up staff who were likely to be in Bahrain for the full period.

When asked in Bahrain one UK team boss after the other said the same thing – we do not have a policy, and we have left it to individual choice.

“We looked at it, it was a very kind offer,” said Williams team principal Simon Roberts. “But obviously the situation in the UK is quite different to other parts of Europe, and as a team, we decided that we were not going to have any enforcement policy or set anything up.

“But if members of the team want to do something different, then that’s entirely up to them. But as a team, we’re going to continue with the UK vaccination policy.”

“We haven’t set any policies,” Alpine’s Marcin Budkowski confirmed. “We as a team have just left it to the individuals to decide what they wanted to do.”

“We decided to leave it up to the individuals,” said Aston Martin boss Otmar Szafnauer. “It was a very kind offer by the Bahrainis.

“So we left it, it was an individual choice, and because of it, I haven’t asked which individuals opted in or out. I can happily say that I’m so old, I was vaccinated in the UK!”

The picture was different for the non-UK operations. Given the slow rollout across the EU, AlphaTauri made taking the vaccine an official policy, organising its travel arrangements around the 21-day schedule.

Franz Tost, Team Principal, AlphaTauri

Franz Tost, Team Principal, AlphaTauri

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

“All the team members from Scuderia AlphaTauri have been vaccinated on Tuesday,” team boss Franz Tost said when asked by Motorsport.com.

“We will stay one or two days longer after the race for the second vaccination, because health as you know is the most important factor.

“Me as a team principal, I’m responsible for the health of the people, and therefore we did this vaccination, and I say many, many thanks to Bahrain that they offered us this possibility.

“In Europe, I don’t know how long we wait to be vaccinated, especially in Austria and Italy and so on. Therefore, we are more than happy.”

Ferrari’s Mattia Binotto, who confirmed the team had first clarified its position with the Italian authorities, suggested that the situation was not as clear cut – it was still an individual choice, but one that team members were happy to make.

“I think [it was] a very kind offer, a great opportunity for us,” he said. “It has been an individual choice, but most of the team got it and accepted it. I have to say that the organisation as well, it was fantastic, the way they organised it, very clean and smooth.

“I’m pretty happy myself, I did it. Yes, we checked with the Italian authorities, to make sure there were no bad or wrong indications.

“But I think everybody was happy to take the opportunity and as I said, individually, it was a choice but almost the entire team accepted it.”

Pirelli tyres on the Ferrari SF21

Pirelli tyres on the Ferrari SF21

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Ferrari’s decision was aided by the fact that like Alpine the team it is staying on after the Bahrain race for a Pirelli 18-inch mule car test, making it easier to meet the 21-day requirement.

Pirelli, an international company that has strict corporate duty of care guidelines for its 31,000 employees worldwide, welcomed the chance to protect its F1 people. They will return from Bahrain to Italy on a charter – with Ferrari and AlphaTauri – on the Thursday after the race.

“All the staff who travelled for the testing and the race have been vaccinated,” a spokesperson for the tyre company confirmed.

“Nobody was averse to this. Pirelli is very, very careful on COVID things. Even at home we are very much followed by the company, who make sure that everybody is regularly checked.”

Alfa Romeo has made no official statement – ironically boss Fred Vasseur was stuck at home after a positive test. However the team from Switzerland, where as in the EU there is a longer wait for vaccines than in the UK, also followed the individual choice policy.

Drivers were also free to make their own choices.

“I took the decision to take it,” said Sergio Perez. “Because for me, back in Mexico, I don't know when I will be able to get it, so I think it was very nice from Bahrain to offer that to us.”

“Yes, same as Checo,” said Carlos Sainz Jr. “I did take it. And I think it was a great opportunity, and obviously I’m thankful for the Bahrain government for offering it to so many people that travel around the world.”

It remains an emotive subject, and there are arguments in both directions. If a travelling UK citizen happens to be able to get a vaccination abroad, why would anyone at home object? Not only are they safer for all their contacts when they return, it’s one less person in the NHS queue further down the line.

Having said that it’s worth pointing out that much of the population in Bahrain has yet to be vaccinated, and it could be argued that every visitor who receives their two jab obliges a local to wait a little longer. Is that right?

One thing is clear – because it is a matter of personal choice the FIA and F1 have no plans to ultimately make vaccinations compulsory for entry to the paddock.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing and Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing and Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

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