Whether it was denial or just plain arrogance, Formula One along with other sports, was determined to carry on regardless in the face of the oncoming corona virus. Take the Cheltenham Festival, Liverpool v Atletico Madrid and the shambles of the Australian Grand Prix. At the same time the organisers of the Vietnamese Grand Prix, my first planned trip of the year, were still confirming their race would proceed as scheduled even as government restrictions, flight cancellations and hotel closures were making it all but impossible.
Although lockdown is now being relaxed in the UK the global risk is still considered too high to permit international mass gatherings. Apart from the practicalities organisers must consider their legal and ethical responsibilities.
Stadium sports such as football, rugby and athletics feed off the energy and passion of the crowd. Televised football is now accompanied by soundtracks to artificially reproduce this. But the one sport that could be tailor-made to run spectator-free is Grand Prix racing. It comes with its own soundtrack and has been progressively developed over the years primarily for the benefit of its television audience. The paddocks have become large open-air TV studios, everything choreographed for the cameras.
We are now two thirds of the way through the calendar year with the start of next season only as far away as the onset of Covid-19 is behind us. But the risk to health seems as great now as it was then, although better understood maybe. So who’s to say sport will be any safer for spectators next March, or indeed by the March following? Tickets are already on sale but I am not so sure.
Some circuits need the revenue from gate receipts to survive, whilst others can get by without. Probably most, given the option and if it were economically viable, would quite happily run their Grand Prix without the inconvenience of having to accommodate tens of thousands of spectators and all the associated problems that brings.
There is no reason why the upcoming series of behind-closed-doors Grands Prix will not be a great success both as a sporting and a television spectacle. So once tried and tested, Formula One’s owners may decide that the best post-covid business model for the future of F1 would be for all races to be held as TV and press events only. Naturally, there will be VIPs, sponsors, and other ‘freebies’ and a limited mumber of tickets for the ‘Paddock Club’ and other highly priced ‘viewing experiences’ for those prepared to pay.
And for the rest of us ordinary race-goers that would be bad news.
I hope Charles Leclerc standing on the top step of the Spa podium trying to celebrate his first Grand Prix win whilst mourning the loss of his friend Anthoine Hubert, will not be my final and lasting image of Grand Prix racing.
Note: Many of these images are taken from original prints, negatives and slides that are nearly 40 years old and are therefore not reproduced to the same standard as current day digital images. All reasonable attempts have been made to ensure these images are reproduced to the best possible standard, however, in some instances colour casts and blemishes may be present.