How has COVID-19 affected the Formula One world?

How has COVID-19 affected the Formula One world?

Exclusive interview with Alfa Romeo Racing Orlen Sporting Director Beat Zehnder for GlobeAir

Alfa Romeo Racing Orlen Sporting Director's Beat Zehnder discloses what the team has been up to during the pandemic and what’s in store for the motorsportscene in the next few months.

Alfa Romeo Racing Orlen’s Sporting Director Beat Zehnder has spoken to GlobeAir about the challenges that COVID-19 has presented to Formula One. We have learnt about the drivers’ routines during the lockdown, the team’s organisational priorities and their cost-saving policies. Alfa Romeo Racing Orlen has eight confirmed races starting in July 2020. Beat has touched on the organizational choices taken to minimize the risk of infection and has disclosed some of the actions to minimize costs.

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1 - How has COVID-19 impacted the race schedule and what happened after the Australian GP got cancelled back in March 2020?

B: After returning from the season-opening Australian GP in Melbourne – scheduled for March 13 and then cancelled due to the spread of COVID-19, the entire Formula One industry was put into a forced shutdown for 63 days. The direct dependency between Formula 1 companies meant it was impossible not to stop all activities: for nine weeks we didn’t do any work– It was an unprecedented time.

Things started to change in May and on the 25th, operations were restored. As we got back to work, engineers picked up where they’d left off, taking care of the car and focussing on making the necessary improvements. We had developments in mind after Melbourne but in July, at our first races, we won’t present a brand-new car. We are going to race with an improved car in order to achieve better performances.

2 - Were the employees put on short-time working?

B: Yes, the entire Alfa Romeo Racing Orlen was put on short-time working mode until the 25th of June, when the majority of us got back to work. The Swiss government has been very well organised and it was clear from the beginning that they were going to help companies out.

3 - How did the drivers cope with COVID-19?

B: Kimi was not involved in virtual races at all. He went back to Finland with the family and focussed on doing lots of sports – I can assure you that he looks very fit. Antonio and Tatiana, instead, alternated their sports days with e-races.

Learn about Kimi and Giovinazzi's routines during the lockdown

4 - Interviewer: How did the drivers cope with COVID-19?

B: There is surely the challenge of readjusting to the new normal – which is a race calendar partially disrupted and new regulations for drivers and teams. We had to spend time cancelling or rescheduling flights, hotels and venues which had been booked for the 2020 season. You can imagine how tedious this process can be. We have managed, nevertheless, to cancel flights and move the majority of the hotel down payments to next year. For pre-payments made for races which won’t happen next year, we got fully reimbursed.

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Alfa drivers

We could call it “the race behind the race” and it is the logistics effort to transport parts, catering and garage equipment seamlessly. Now add a lot of uncertainty to the standard challenge. We know about the eight upcoming races (starting in Austria and finishing in Monza with the Italian GP on September 6th), but we do not know what’s going to be next. The fact that we ignore if and where we are going to race next makes it hard to organise sea freights and the whole logistics around it.

The races we are going to will put a lot of stress on the drivers and on the whole team. Imagine that we have eight races scheduled over 10 weeks. Getting the team to properly rest is the priority. You are working on a high-energy level and still have to take care of the team and organise recreational events for them. This will be even more challenging now that strict regulations require us to keep distance and move in a so-called bubble.

The biggest challenge nowadays, is staying healthy. We are committed to stick to the “family cluster” as we call it and not meet anybody outside of it. The challenge would be for the team to spend time together for three weeks continuously. People may tend to sneak out because of boredom but it is very important to remind them that it is for their safety that they should stick to the rules, and with no exceptions.

To commit to 8 races in 10 weeks is something we have never done before. Nowadays we have no people working across teams and we are spending time either at the circuit or at the hotel. There, we have separate rooms; we have our meals in a dedicated space and we try to avoid any contact with the outside. We are not allowed to bring our hospitality and therefore have our catering organised by F1. The reason is that we are trying to keep the number of attendees as low as possible and if we had to bring our own catering the number of trucks would exceed 220.

In the paddock, every team is separated from each other, there are no VIPs, no guests, and 80 people per team are allowed. This set of rules will be in place until Monza, but things can change at any point in time, although we do not expect things to change before September.

5 - Are there any bright sides to this unprecedented situation?

We have to thank some of our colleagues in the industry who have talked to the authorities and managed to keep the same regulations for next year as well. We have managed strong resilience by going from zero to 100% again in a very short time. This has been possible also thanks to the communications within the company. During the entire lockdown period, in fact, we have kept regular communications amongst team members. We have even entertained ourselves with challenges to do sports and keep healthy while focussing on well being and positive thinking.

* Beat Zehnder has been with the Sauber family since 1988. He joined as a mechanic when the team used to partner with Mercedes Benz, moving from the second mechanic to the first within a year. Beat has been Alfa Romeo Racing Orlen’s Sporting Director since 1994 and now a familiar face in F1 circles.

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