The 2020 FIA Formula 1 World Championship should have started with the Australian Grand Prix on 15 March. By now the first ten races of the season should have been done and dusted. The contours of the pecking order in the drivers’ and constructors’ championship would have emerged.
But the world-wide outbreak of the Covid19 pandemic has thoroughly disrupted the 2020 season. Many races of the original twenty-two race calendar have been cancelled. A new eight race calendar has been announced, with uncertainty of which venues will host races after that.
The races will be held without spectators and the teams will have to work under strict rules to keep the members of the paddock safe from the scourge of the corona virus infection. The Australian Grand Prix was cancelled on the day the race weekend was scheduled to start when members of the McLaren F1 team tested positive.
The FIA has now declared that they will continue with the races even if one of the twenty drivers tests positive. But it remains to be seen if the championship can continue if a driver or team cannot participate in a race if they are struck down by the virus.
The pre-season testing in February 2020 seems like a distant memory now. The teams start the season with a great deal of uncertainty about the performance and the pecking order. After such a long hiatus, the reliability of the cars especially given the curtailed season will be important.
The teams and drivers that hit the ground running from the first race will have a distinct advantage. Important pointers to the likely performance of the teams can be drawn from the results in recent seasons at the circuits of the first eight Grands Prix of this season.
Austrian Grand Prix (3-5 July) and Styrian Grand Prix (10-12 July)
The first 2 races of the season will be held back to back at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, Austria. Max Verstappen has ruled the roost at the home race of Red Bull Racing in the last two seasons. The Dutchman won the race last season with a late charge that saw him bang wheels in a controversial overtake of Charles Leclerc with two laps to go. Valtteri Bottas joined the two young drivers on the podium.
In 2018, Verstappen again stood on the top step of the podium along with the two Ferrari drivers. Mercedes suffered their first double retirement due to mechanical failures in the hybrid era in this race.
Mercedes has been on the back foot at the Austrian Grand Prix in recent seasons with the higher altitude and heat compromising the performance of their Power Unit and car. This is also not a favourite hunting ground for Lewis Hamilton. Ferrari has consistently been on the podium at this race, but there is a question mark over their performance after pre-season testing.
Favourite: Max Verstappen for the first two races of the season
Hungarian Grand Prix (17-19 July)
The third race in three weeks will take place at the dusty and seldom used Hungaroring in Budapest, Hungary. Lewis Hamilton is the “King of the Hungaroring” as he sits on top of the leaderboard with seven wins. The win last season was a rather fortuitous one when Verstappen was sitting comfortably in the lead.
An unlikely second pit stop that caught the Red Bull Racing team by surprise saw the six-time world champion hunt down Verstappen and overtake him with three laps to go. In 2018, Hamilton won comfortably and the Ferrari drivers joined him on the podium.
The Ferrari SF90 challenger of 2019 was very fast in a straight line, but did not fare well on twisty circuits like the Hungaroring with a lot of slow speed corners. Unless the characteristics of the new SF1000 are very different and the car has a lot more downforce, the Ferrari drivers will find it hard to challenge the Red Bull and Mercedes drivers.
Favourite: Lewis Hamilton with a small advantage over Max Verstappen
British Grand Prix (31 July – 2 August ) and 70th Anniversary Grand Prix (7-9 August)
The fourth and fifth race of the season will be in consecutive weeks after a one week break. Hamilton’s home race and another favourite venue for the reigning world champion with six wins at Silverstone.
Since 2014, the Briton has won five of the six races held here in the hybrid-era. Only Sebastian Vettel managed a win here in 2018 to break Hamilton’s record run.
The British Grand Prix has not been a happy hunting ground for the Red Bull Racing team. The Milton Keynes-based team will start the season with an upgraded Honda engine instead of the engine they had for the cancelled race in Australia.
The performance of the Ferrari engine is an unknown for this season with the settlement reached between the FIA and the Italian team after an investigation of their 2019 Power Unit. This could help the Red Bull team become the main challenger to Mercedes at this venue.
Favourite: Lewis Hamilton for the fourth and fifth race
Spanish Grand Prix (14-16 August)
The sixth race of the season will be the third race in three weeks again. Lewis Hamilton has won the Spanish Grand Prix the last three seasons. In the hybrid-era, the only non-Mercedes driver who has won at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is Verstappen. In 2016, the two Mercedes drivers (Hamilton and Rosberg) crashed into each other at the start and Verstappen won his very first Grand Prix for Red Bull Racing.
Hamilton and Mercedes will be the favourites in Spain based on recent form with Verstappen their closest challenger. If the first five races pan out according to form in recent seasons, this could be the race that swings the pendulum in Hamilton’s favour in the drivers’ championship.
Favourite: Lewis Hamilton
Belgian Grand Prix (28-30 August)
Charles Leclerc was in a rich vein of form starting with the 2019 Belgian Grand Prix that saw him clinch four straight pole positions and back to back wins. This was the first Grand Prix win for the Monégasque driver as he kept his cool even as Hamilton exerted maximum pressure in the closing laps.
Vettel won the 2018 Belgian Grand Prix and Ferrari is the form team at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit. Again the performance of the new Ferrari Power Unit for the 2020 season will be crucial at this power track. If the Italian team has taken a step back in the performance of their Power Unit, Hamilton and Mercedes will be the favourites again.
Favourite: Lewis Hamilton
Italian Grand Prix (4-6 September)
An emotional and historic win for young Leclerc in front of the passionate “tifosi” was one of the higlights of the 2019 season. This was the first win for a Ferrari driver at their home race since Fernando Alonso won in 2010.
Again, Leclerc withstood the pressure exerted by Hamilton who was less than one second behind him for many laps and then from Bottas in the closing laps. If Ferrari again has a car that has low downforce but with a great speed advantage in a straight line, Leclerc will be the favourite.
If Ferrari does not recapture the form of last season, Hamilton will be the favourite at this venue. If the Honda Power Unit has stepped up in performance, Verstappen will also be in the mix.
Favourite: Lewis Hamilton
The Form Guide for 2020
The final races of the 2019 season and pre-season testing suggested that Red Bull Racing would be the nearest challenger to Mercedes. Ferrari’s pre-season testing form puts them behind these two teams. But they have a slew of updates coming to their car by the third race in Hungary.
Hamilton’s closest challenger will be Verstappen. Verstappen will hold the early advantage with Hamilton likely to claw back as the season progresses. Bottas, Alexander Albon, Vettel and Leclerc could spring a surprise and upset the applecart of the two main contenders for the drivers’ championship.
In the midfield, the Racing Point F1 team will be the favourites to lead the pack with their 2020 challenger being a clone of the 2019 Mercedes W10. McLaren was the ‘best of the rest’ in 2019 and should again be in fighting form with their driver pairing of Lando Norris and the soon departing Carlos Sainz.
The 2020 season will unfold under the dark shadow of the Covid19 pandemic. It remains to be seen if the FIA and the teams can keep the paddock free of the virus and these eight races can take place without any incident.
Will the FIA be able to add more races to this eight race calendar to make the season meaningful? These first eight races will end with the race at Monza on September 6th 2020. This would have been the fifteenth race of the season according to the original schedule.
In the remaining seven races in the original calendar, Singapore and the Japanese Grand Prix have been cancelled. The remaining races in Russia, United States, Mexico and Brazil have a large question mark hanging over them as these countries are badly affected by the pandemic.
The FIA might have to go to new venues in Europe like Imola and Mugello to expand on the eight-race calendar it has announced. To keep the Formula 1 paddock safe with the large number of personnel associated with the ten teams moving from country to country in the current scenario is a huge challenge.
The 2020 season that finally gets underway at the Austrian Grand Prix this weekend is likely to be one of the most unusual and challenging seasons of all-time. The initial races will not have any spectators in the stands. Whoever emerges as the drivers’ and constructors’ champion at the end of the season, the sport itself will be a winner if it navigates safely through the entire season.