A year of unprecedented upheaval is behind us. The massive disruption Covid-19 caused to the 2020 F1 season is just one measure of how the pandemic affected all our lives.Lewis Hamilton claimed a record-equalling seventh championship victory.
Amid all of that drama, some of the season’s more unusual stories were easily overlooked. Here are a few of the most curious, easily forgotten details of the past 12 months in Formula 1.
Bushfires threaten Australian Grand Prix
As early as January there were concerns over whether the Australian Grand Prix would go ahead. Not because of Covid-19, but wildfires raging across the east coast of the country. Although they are a common occurrence, exceptionally dry conditions meant an early start to the ‘bushfire season’. They rapidly grew out of control, devastating wildlife, landscapes and threatening cities.
Nonetheless F1 went ahead with preparations for its season-opening race in Melbourne. By the time it arrived the threat of the fires and their effect on air quality had receded and been replaced by a more pressing concern – the spread of the Covid-19 virus. It was this which eventually led to the race’s cancellation, followed by most of F1’s planned races outside Europe and a few more besides.
Unfortunately, 12 months on the situation looks likely to be repeated, as this year’s race is also in doubt due to Covid-19.
“Cash is king”
Amid the uncertainty over whether it was wise to hold the season-opening race as the pandemic took hold, one driver spoke out more loudly than most. Hamilton wasn’t the only driver to question whether F1 should race in Australia, but he challenged the decision more loudly than others. “Cash is king”, he reflected when asked why the race was going ahead, a view F1 chairman and CEO Chase Carey later took issue with.
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Three teams ran substantially different liveries in testing compared to those seen when the season began – though only one of these changes was intentional from the outset. That was Renault, who ran their RS30 in an all-black colour scheme before switching to the usual black-yellow colouring. The black look later reappeared on their older cars as they gave returning driver Fernando Alonso a chance to familiarise himself with the team.
There Mercedes and Williams also had new liveries in time for the season-opener, though for very different reasons. Williams parted ways with title sponsor Rokit before the championship began and Mercedes changed to a black livery by Austrian Grand Prix, as a reflection of their commitment to diversity and racial equality.
Ferrari’s FIA deal
Following an investigation into Ferrari’s power unit during the 2019 season, the FIA made the unusual decision to keep the outcome between the Scuderia and themselves.
The decision caused uproar when it was announced a few minutes before pre-season testing ended. All seven teams who did not use the Scuderia’s power units signed a letter to the FIA demanding more clarity over what had happened.
The sport’s governing body stuck to its guns, but for many Ferrari’s sudden collapse in form spoke volumes about the effect the decision had on their power units. The 2020 season proved their worst for 40 years.
Hamilton’s first brush with Covid-19
Hamilton was very strict about his isolation procedure during the season, spending time almost exclusively with his trainer, Angela Cullen and dog, Roscoe. However, after testing positive for the virus in Bahrain, he was later forced to miss the Sakhir Grand Prix.
This wasn’t his first brush with Covid-19. In March it emerged several attendees at an event Hamilton participated in had tested positive for the virus. Hamilton confirmed he had no symptoms following the event but said he was not tested at the time due to the shortage of available kits.
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Ecclestone and Mosley call for season cancellation
Formula 1 owners Liberty Media and the sport’s governing body, headed by Jean Todt, won praise for salvaging the F1 season in the face of a pandemic. How would their predecessors, former F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone and ex-FIA president Max Mosley, have handled the situation?
As race after race was called off in March and April, the pair separately advanced the view the 2020 season should have been cancelled entirely. That this outcome never came to pass is something we can all be grateful for.
F1 divorces from Ecclestone after racism comments
Formula 1’s support for diversity and inclusion was signalled in a dedicated anti-racism observance which took place at every race in 2020. It was another signal of changing attitudes within the sport.
The sport was quick to respond when former CEO Ecclestone made a series of outrageous and unsubstantiated claims on the subject of race in an interview. F1 stated his views have “no place in F1 or society” and that the former chairman emeritus was no longer involved in the sport in any capacity.
Norris’s simracing escapades
Lando Norris’s streaming became a regular source of comfort and entertainment for racing fans during the long shutdown, with other drivers eventually joining him on Twitch and in online racing.
It became a running joke of Formula 1’s ‘Virtual Grand Prix’ series that connection problems invariably conspired to thwart the Norris’s participation. His impromptu phone calls with Max Verstappen, following crashes of the computer kind, proved highly amusing.
Nor was Verstappen immune to problems: A glitch took his team out while they were leading the World Endurance Championship’s official Virtual Le Mans, ending their chances in the early hours of the night.
Norris impressed by turning his hand to IndyCar’s online series, winning an iRacing-based round at the Circuit of the Americas. But IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud reacted badly to Norris’s return at Indianapolis, where the McLaren driver was on course to win again before his Penske rival intervened.
Pagenaud, eliminated from contention for victory after a collision involving Norris and Graham Rahal, declared “we take Lando out” and proceeded to do just that, intentionally blundering into the leading McLaren’s path and causing a crash. “The fact he just went out of his way to do what he did was a disappointing thing,” said Norris, who discovered Pagenaud’s incriminating radio message on RaceFans’ Twitter feed.
Into the unknown
One remarkable detail of this year’s championship was that when it started, no decision had been taken when it would finish. By the time F1 reached July’s season-opening Austrian Grand Prix, the calendar had still not been finalised, an unprecedented situation which persisted for months.
Formula 1 deserves high praise for successfully running a 17-round championship in a dozen different countries amid a pandemic, while keeping infections down to a remarkably low level. If they erred very much on the side of caution at times to achieve this, it was certainly understandable.
However the initially strict line taken against potential cross-contamination at the podium ceremony produced a curious sight. ‘Podium robots’ – which looked like the Daleks’ unthreatening, flat-topped cousins – delivered the silverware to a trio of bemused drivers at the season-opener.
A minor but highly unusual detail of the belated season-opening race was that an error was made in the official, ‘final’ classification. The timing data erroneously reported Daniil Kvyat had completed 69 rather than 67 laps of the Red Bull Ring. After the mistake was spotted a new classification was issued, four days after the chequered flag fell.
Hamilton and Albon clash again
Hamilton began his championship-winning campaign with a sub-par outing in Austria, collecting penalties in qualifying and the race. The latter came after he tangled with Alexander Albon, costing the Red Bull driver second place or even better.
Surprisingly, this was the second time in three races Hamilton had tangled with Albon, and in very similar circumstances. The Mercedes driver was again judged responsible and penalised, dropping him off the podium, though once more it was no consolation to Albon.
Racing (minus one) Point
Racing Point had a strange season for headlines – both drivers achieved podiums but both also contracted Covid-19 and were forced to miss races.
But the story that dominated the opening months of the season, from testing until its eventual resolution with an accepted penalty for the team, was whether they had copied Mercedes’ car more closely than the rules permitted.
Following a protest from Renault at the Styrian Grand Prix, it took almost a month for the stewards to rule on the complex case. Racing Point were found in breach, fined €400,000 and lost 7.5 points per car at the first race where they were protested.
The latter penalty was unprecedented: Teams have previously had all points scored in a race or races confiscated, but never an arbitrary figure. As Racing Point originally scored 14 points at the Styrian Grand Prix, they are officially considered to have scored minus one point in that round.
Hamilton’s Black Power salute
Over lockdown and during the break in racing Hamilton increasingly used his social media platforms for activism, to promote human rights and the Black Lives Matter movement, protesting police brutality in the US. When he won the Styrian Grand Prix, Hamilton used the top step of the podium for a Black Power salute, referencing an anti-racism gesture made by Tommie Smith and John Carlos on a podium during the 1968 Olympic Games.
Hamilton took his protest a step further following his Tuscan Grand Prix victory at Mugello, where he wore a T-shirt demanding “Arrest the cops that killed Breonna Taylor”, a black medical worker. In reaction the FIA later stipulate new rules regarding driver attire on the podium, limiting them to team gear and race suits ‘done up to the neck.’
Perez didn’t get Covid in Mexico
The risks of Covid-19 were a concern for all. Sergio Perez was the first of what turned out to be multiple drivers who contracted the virus, despite their best efforts to avoid it.
While Perez’s trip to Mexico following the opening three races was widely assumed by many to be the source of his infection, team principal Otmar Szafnauer later revealed his driver in fact contracted the virus from a private chef. “My wife and children were also infected”, Perez confirmed after the season ended.
Following Nico Hulkenberg’s return to F1 during the two Silverstone races, standing in for Perez, teams started checking their reserve drivers’ eligibility to run.
It might have come as a surprise that well-prepared title leaders Mercedes failed to realise Esteban Gutierrez did not have and was not eligible for a super licence. They still had Stoffel Vandoorne on standby, but when they eventually came to appoint a replacement when Hamilton was struck by Covid after the Bahrain Grand Prix, they called up junior driver George Russell from Williams instead.
During the Spanish Grand Prix, following a power unit failure that left him stranded on-track facing the wrong way, Charles Leclerc partially disconnected his seat belts. He was then able to restart his car, drove off without realising his error and completed two laps before pulling in.
The Ferrari driver escaped any formal investigation or sanction. He wasn’t alone: Daniil Kvyat reported his seat belts were “undone again” in the closing stages of the Portuguese Grand Prix. FIA race director Michael Masi later confirmed Kvyat’s belts had been “not undone” but “a little bit loose” at the time.
Norris’s helmet woes
Intending to represent his maternal family’s Flemish heritage at the Belgian Grand Prix, Norris incorporated a lion insignia in his helmet design for the race. He turned up to first practice with the special lid, but once it was pointed out the lion motif was associated with a far-right political party, the McLaren driver quickly shelved the helmet.
It wasn’t the last time Norris was unable to wear a specially-designed helmet he planned to use for a race. His Turkish-themed helmet for November’s round at Istanbul got stuck at customs in Belgium. It eventually appeared in time for him to wear it in Bahrain.
Last week Norris caused confusion on social media by telling his followers drivers have been banned from changing their helmet designs during the 2021 F1 season. They haven’t, but it might make life a bit easier for him if they did…
Raikkonen on Giovinazzi’s shunt
Antonio Giovinazzi’s huge crash in the Belgian Grand Prix occured as team mate Kimi Raikkonen was breathing down his neck. When the lead Alfa Romeo disappeared into the barriers at Fagnes, Raikkonen was characteristically nonplussed.
“He’s off,” Raikkonen observed as his team mate bounced off the barrier. “Should have fucking let me past…”
As revealed by RaceFans in August, the FIA introduced new rules to present teams using “quali mode” engine settings at mid-season. Mercedes had taken pole position for all of the seven previous races, and their rivals hoped the new restrictions would help them trim the champions’ advantage.
It didn’t turn out that way. Hamilton continued a run of what turned out to be 16 consecutive pole positions for Mercedes-powered cars. Only at the final race in Abu Dhabi was their run stopped, by which time no one was under any illusions that Mercedes’ performance advantage in qualifying was all down to them ‘turning up’ their power units.
Hamilton’s mid-race stewards visit
Hamilton’s hopes of winning the race at Monza were derailed when he was hit with a 10-second stop-and-go penalty for entering the pit lane when it was closed. The race was subsequently red-flagged following a high-speed crash for Leclerc, which gave Hamilton the unusual opportunity to plead his case before the stewards mid-race in person.
It didn’t make any difference to the decision, and returned to his car with the penalty still to take.
Perez overheard Stroll confirming he was being fired
Despite having signed a three-year deal with his team in 2019, doubt hung over Sergio Perez’s future at Racing Point for months as it became clear they were weighing up the opportunity to sign Sebastian Vettel, who lost his seat at Ferrari.
The news of Perez’s departure was eventually confirmed by the man himself. But as RaceFans revealed, the circumstances of how he first learned of his firing were extraordinary. During the Italian Grand Prix weekend he overheard team owner Lawrence Stroll in an adjacent room talking about it loudly enough for his words to be understood next door, a story subsequently confirmed by Perez.
Grosjean gets blunt about Haas struggles
Romain Grosjean was vocally critical of his Haas car at several points this season on team radio. However, it wasn’t until the team confirmed it was parting ways with both him and Kevin Magnussen that Grosjean bluntly described the full extent of the issues to press.
Grosjean revealed Haas were suffering from a problem their suspension to persistently overheat, which the team was unable to find a fix for throughout the season.
More flag trouble
Last-lap drama in the Turkish Grand Prix caught out the podium ceremony organisers at Istanbul Park. Perez and Vettel took second and third places after a thrilling dice with Leclerc.
A mix-up with labelling the podium steps meant third-placed Vettel was given the second stop on the podium, and Perez positioned on the third spot. This led to further confusion as the Mexican flag was briefly displayed on-screen above Vettel and the German flag above Perez.
Hamilton has been a stranger to the midfield for much of the past seven years, which might explain his failure to recognise the name of AlphaTauri team principal Franz Tost during a press conference at the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Asked what he thought of Tost’s claim drivers’ salaries should be capped at $10 million should be enough to keep any driver happy, Hamilton replied: “Who’s that?”
Did he genuinely not recognise the name of the team principal who’s been running Red Bull’s second outfit since before the Hamilton came into the sport? Or was this a not-too-subtle reminder from the seven-times champion that some names are more valuable than others?
Safety Car error could have cost Perez win
Perez’s victory in the Sakhir Grand Prix was one of the feel-good stories of the year. Coming just a week before the final race of the season, with still no word at the time on whether he would have a drive for the upcoming season, it was a timely reminder of his potential. Particularly as he won it against considerable odds, having been blamelessly knocked into a spin on the first lap of the race, falling to 18th and last.
But his comeback drive to win nearly didn’t have its fairytale ending. A slip-up behind the Safety Car early in the race went unnoticed by the stewards, but not by rival Kimi Raikkonen, who pointed out on the radio “the Racing Point just overook me” before the race restarted. Perez immediately slowed to let Raikkonen past again and luckily for him the stewards either didn’t notice or decided to let it go unpenalised.
Deletraz fumes at Haas
Haas’s decision to appoint Pietro Fittipaldi in place of the injured Grosjean for the final two races of the season drew the ire of their other reserve driver, Louis Deletraz. Writing on social media, he drew a pointed comparison with Williams’s decision to promote their reserve driver Jack Aitken as a substitute for George Russell.
“A choice based on pure performance,” said Deletraz. “It’s nice to see a team with respect to its drivers.”
Haas team principal Guenther Steiner wasn’t having any of it. “I saw that he’s very unhappy but there is for sure a lot of other unhappy people which wanted that seat,” he said. “So he’s just one of them, join the queue.”
“I can decide these things and I’m not going out for a vote or to debate it with anybody,” Steiner added. “This was our plan, this is what we did. I don’t have to ask anybody who to put in the car, not even Deletraz.”
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