Pierre Gasly became the sixth Formula 1 driver to test positive for COVID-19 while in a training camp in Dubai. However, this news hardly came as a surprise to the F1 community.
Gasly communicated the news to his fans through Instagram and confirmed that he was self-isolating and feeling fine, before urging his followers to take care.
The Frenchman marks the third positive case among drivers in the past month and sixth overall. That is almost one-third of the entire field. That is a damning number and much higher than any other sport.
One factor to take into account is the international nature of the sport. Unlike domestic sports such as football, cricket and rugby, F1 takes place around the globe and there is constant movement of teams. This makes it all the more tougher to stay safe. The biggest example can be with airports, where the entire team uses the same space as regular travellers.
While the governing body has done its best to put protocols that will reduce the chances of contracting the virus, this could only be enforced during the season. It is indeed impressive that there were barely any positive tests in the 2020 season and it is a commendable effort on the part of FIA and the teams.
Tough on the drivers
However, the off-season is different. What has compounded matters is the nature of the virus, which has new strains that are far more contagious in nature.
Esteban Ocon had spoken about how it would be tough for drivers to drop precautions even without regular testing, owing to the winter training regimes.
“There is going to be a high period of training. I need to catch up on the weight that I’ve lost during the season and get my fitness level up again,” Ocon had said.
“But it’s a bit tricky to travel at the moment in Europe. It’s a bit tricky to just drop the precautions really, because we can’t really do that.
“We’re not going to be tested as much, but we don’t want to get sick and lose 15 days and feel unwell.”
While it has been argued by some that elite athletes are able to fight the virus relatively unscathed, it is worth noting that Lance Stroll was forced to miss the Eifel Grand Prix as a result of it last season. Even when he returned, he battled hard to regain his touch behind the wheel.
He told Autosport about how challenging it was to return from the illness.
“It wasn’t an easy recovery for the first couple of races,” Stroll said.
“I still had that kind of COVID hangover for a couple of races in Portugal and [Imola]. And that was actually really tough. I was out of the car for like a month from the race, from Russia until Portugal, like four weeks out of the car with COVID, no exercising. I lost a lot of muscle, there was no training. So it was a tough comeback.”
Drivers were always aware of this risk, but it has done little to stop them from travelling. An argument can be put out that many others have travelled for things that are far less important. Remember the Instagram model that needed to make a trip to Dubai to lift the mood of her followers? Yeah, neither do I. But it happened.
However, if you were to do this as an F1 driver, there would be a real outlash.
In fact, Lando Norris and Charles LeClerc felt the wrath of the media following their travel to Dubai.
McLaren clarified that Norris had gone for a short holiday before a training camp was set to begin there. Gasly, meanwhile, owns a house in Dubai and usually spends much of his winter there. Recently, however, he was pictured interacting with fans without a mask and with little heed paid to social distancing.
The Dubai curse
The fact that Dubai boasted a relatively low number of positive COVID-19 cases had made it a popular tourist attraction. Another major factor was that Dubai didn’t require people to quarantine for 2 weeks. Apart from wearing masks, there are literally no restrictions in the UAE. It had also been reported that a vaccination drive would take place that would target 50% of the population by March. Naturally, tourists starved of excitement would know where they’d like to go.
Given the easing regulations, it perhaps comes as little surprise that the number of cases has begun to surge. Such has been the increase in numbers that the UK government has placed UAE on the ‘red list’, banning travel.
It is worth noting that a number of other sportspersons who travelled to Dubai for training also returned positive tests. Recently, 13 members of Celtic’s first team were ruled out of a match after testing positive at a Dubai training camp.
Given the hotchpotch nature of last season, where 17 races took place over a period of five months, it was imperative that everyone took some time off.
“You feel like you’re a bit in a cage, where you don’t have the freedom to really do and see the people you want,” Gasly had told Autosport last season.
“I’m clearly going to take the opportunity over the off-season to do it. Next year we may be in a similar situation.”
However, it is not just the international nature of the sport that is to blame. MotoGP, for example, has a similar calendar. However, there are barely any cases to report there. Most riders have spent their off season in Europe.
Better now than later
One defence of Norris, Leclerc and Gasly is that it was the best time to contract the virus, if at all they had to. Better now than during the season, some would say. It’s an idea that Dr Helmut Marko had suggested for his drivers last year, terming it a ‘corona camp’.
It remains to be seen what effect this will have on the drivers. Both Norris and LeClerc are back to fitness and have returned home. It will be interesting to hear exactly how much this impacted their pre-season preparations.