Saturday , 28 November 2020
Florent Gooden/Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN

Would it be right for motorsport to resume behind closed doors?

The motorsport community is desperate to see some track action. It’s like a drug. For drivers, teams, spectators and everybody involved, this red flag-like situation has been difficult to digest for many. The question has been “when will we go racing again?” ever since the middle of March. That feels like an eternity ago for some.

Our replacement for racing – a combination of watching ‘classic’ races, Esports, sim racing and George Russell and Charles Leclerc play Euro Truck Simulator 2, just isn’t quite the same. The feel of being at a track, in a paddock, with the smells, the sights and the sounds of motorsport just cannot be truly replicated at home.

With the global nature of top-level motorsport, it’s clear that it’s going to be some time before we get back ‘to normal’ (a loose term, as the state of the world as before the global shutdown will not be the same when we eventually leave it).

A proposed way to get back on track has been to host races behind closed doors.

Motorsport is not the only sport to propose such a measure – wrestling has resumed action in Florida as it is deemed an ‘essential’ service. But it has done so behind closed doors. Football could resume in the UK in a similar way. It could well temporarily become ‘the norm’ for all fans to watch from the television (or appropriate device screen) for the time being. The sights of empty grandstands at some racetracks could become what is expected at the likes of Silverstone – which (for Formula 1 at least) is always packed.

What must be avoided is another farcical situation as faced in Australia – where remarkably F1 seemed set to have track action right up until the final moments. Fans were queued up in swarms outside of the gates – something that in the new era of social distancing would retrospectively make everybody feel very uncomfortable.

Some venues have flat-out refused this proposal. Zandvoort has been one to be vocal about it, while Silverstone has offered to host multiple closed-doors races. Before it was cancelled, the Bahrain Grand Prix was set to be F1’s first closed-door event.

It’s simply too dangerous to go racing with fans around right now. It might be the case for quite some time. But motorsport is an expensive hobby for some and an even more expensive business for others, so it may be critical for the survival of some to go racing as soon as possible – fans trackside or not. Teams are at risk of going under, drivers are at risk of losing sponsorship, and many lucrative deals held by even the biggest series will be challenged the longer we go without.

Any claims that there won’t be any more racing in 2020 at this stage are simply nothing more than that. There is no evidence to support or contradict that at this time. But when it does come, it will be fast-paced – perhaps even series running multiple events in a single week.

The likely scenario is that national-level series will be the first to spring back into life before the big, global series – the ‘travelling circuses’ if you will. Series that are more European-centric in terms of the majority of teams and drivers being based there could likely resume/start their seasons with a more continental feel, or head to some of the more remote middle eastern venues.

The issues come when how many people it requires to run motorsport events is considered. Even removing the spectators, F1 paddocks get busy. Media scrums are hardly social distancing-friendly, neither are driver briefings, but those are not the people motorsport needs to think of most when considering this topic. Not every paddock is like that, but some venues have much smaller paddocks and with many more vehicles.

Sure, drivers, engineers and mechanics can be tested on-site. The number of media personnel could be limited too, with some being able to work remotely. It does seem feasible on paper.

It is those who will be placing themselves at most risk – marshals and medical workers – who arguably feel most at unnecessary danger. We can go racing without spectators, but we cannot go racing without the brilliant orange army and the fantastic medical staff. Social distancing (a minimum of two metres in the UK – the width of an F1 car) measures seem impossible to put in place safely. An accident in a sporting event would simply add totally unnecessary pressure to health service staff who are already stretched to levels not seen in many of our lifetimes.

The importance of trackside fans needs to be explored too. Some venues simply are not the same without the thrilling atmosphere that goes with it. Sponsors pay for carefully placed trackside and car branding for a reason, and that reason goes beyond merely TV. Fans (both trackside and watching from the comfort of their own home) are an incredibly important ingredient of motorsport, and it would simply not be the same without the trackside ones.

It doesn’t matter if it’s freezing cold, muddy and raining and clothing has been totally soaked through. There is a special charm to watching the British Touring Car Championship or Formula Fords at Brands Hatch trackside that isn’t replicated on TV.

Whether it is right to resume motorsport or not must look beyond the selfishness of our own desire to have our racing cravings satisfied. It needs to consider the survival of businesses, of jobs, of livelihoods, but, most importantly, lives.

That’s why it is important that motorsport gets this right. The last thing it needs is another high-profile blunder like F1 faced in Australia.

About Craig Woollard

Motorsport historian and journalist Craig Woollard has had an unusual path to a career in motorsport. After graduating from the University of Essex with a degree in mathematics in 2013, he changed his career path immediately after discovering a talent for writing. After occasional freelance work in 2015 and 2016, he joined the Autosport Academy for 2017. In the same year, he became an archive digitiser at Motorsport Images - which is his full-time job to this date.

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