Mercedes still the favourite – If there is such a thing?
This year, the coronavirus-affected Formula 1 World Championship – if it gets underway at all – has already set a record. It will be the season that resumes after the longest winter break in the sport's history (notwithstanding the quick trip to Australia in mid-March, when not a single lap was run before the race was cancelled). This means that all the races are now set to be concentrated in an extremely short space of time: just a few months. But Mercedes is still favourite.
RACING ON ITS KNEES
The whole of the racing community is on its knees as a result of the pandemic that started off in China and then rapidly spread all over the world. But it's not just motorsport that's been affected: even the Olympic Games have been postponed for the first time since the second world war.
As fate would have it, all this is happening during the year in which Formula 1 celebrates its 70th birthday. The show first got on the road on May 13, 1950, at Silverstone. On that day this year, the celebrations will probably be muted: it's going to be some time yet before the engines fire into life once more. All the teams are currently locked down in their respective headquarters, with everything on hold as they await the announcement of a new 2020 F1 calendar.
AN IMPOSSIBLE DISTANCE
Formula 1 is not the only form of motorsport at a standstill: everything from endurance racing to rallying to hillclimbing is on ice. And this affects thousands of people all over the world, because by definition, racing is a team sport. Around the driver is a squad of engineers, mechanics and technicians: all spending hours crunching data, as well as fixing and preparing cars in record time.
These people work very closely together throughout the grand prix weekend, living in each other's pockets as part of a tight-knit community. In other words, the exact opposite of the measures recommended to fight coronavirus. They all have only one goal: victory, which in the end will go to only one driver, car and team. Just not quite yet.
GETTING UNDERWAY IN RECORD TIME
Although there's no racing at the moment, the focus is firmly on getting underway again just as soon as it's possible. Pre-season testing in Spain at the end of February and beginning of March this year – the only time that the 2020 cars have been seen on track so far – confirmed that this season's lap times will be even faster than those seen in 2019.
And that's despite the rules being frozen for this year. From 2021 a fresh package of technical regulations would have revolutionised Formula 1, including new 18-inch tyres replacing the traditional 13-inch size. However, the problems caused by Covid-19, along with the associated reduced sponsor revenue and lack of development time, has meant that these plans are now postponed for a year until 2022.
MERCEDES: THE ONES TO BEAT
So what sort of world championship will we see, if and when coronavirus loosens it grip on the world? Undoubtedly one where Mercedes will still be the team to beat. Following six consecutive seasons during which it claimed both the driver and manufacturer championships, the Anglo-German squad was quickest again in pre-season testing.
Ferrari was struggling a bit more back then in Barcelona, with a car that was seemingly less advanced. But due to this unexpectedly long off-season, the Italian team will now have had the chance to re-think every single aspect. The Red Bulls were also quick in Spain, thanks to a car that was very different to its 2019 equivalent and featured some interesting aerodynamic developments. It proved to be a fast and consistent machine, perfectly in tune with the latest regulations and an improved Honda powerplant.
THE TYRES ARE IN THEIR BLANKETS…
The current season's P Zero tyre range is unchanged compared to a year ago, and this means that the teams should have a good handle on their rubber. But car performance is expected to increase still further compared to 2019 – which in turn was faster than 2018. Such is the inexorable progress of Formula 1. The tyres, of course, are the same for everyone and cannot be modified during the season.
The main focus in 2020 will be on avoiding the surface overheating that can in certain conditions (very high ambient temperatures along with big energy loads through corners) punish those who don't manage to get the best out of them.
For 2021, when the cars will inevitably take another step forward in terms of performance, some clever solutions have to be found. Testing is expected to become nearly impossible, during a championship set to occupy practically every weekend between July and December, with events scattered all over the world.