SREELATA S. YELLAMRAZU | 15 DECEMBER, 2020
F1: Dramatic End to a Fighting Season
A season jampacked into a dramatic six months
The season-ender in Abu Dhabi didn’t excite much, coming as it did on the back of two dramatic races in Bahrain, but that takes nothing away from a scintillating season that almost wasn’t.
Apart from the shadow of coronavirus trailing them from first race to last, it was a fairly eventful season. Hard to believe that Hamilton still didn’t have his Mercedes contract inked by the end of the last race - a small matter of renegotiation, of course, for 2020 will go down in history as the year Lewis Hamilton, driving for Mercedes, picked up his seventh World Drivers’ Championship title to equal Michael Schumacher.
In the final race however, it was Max Verstappen who finished top of the podium a relieved man, having led the race impressively from start to finish. While Red Bull remained fairly competitive, it wasn’t easy for most of the other cars, drivers or teams with Hamilton dominating all year, picking up 11 race wins to crown himself undisputed champion of the season and this era.
Formula 1 racing, like most other sports, had to pull back then return, adjusting to the pandemic, and ensuring with extreme precaution what was in the end a near full season.
En route, there were itinerary adjustments, back to back race weekends, as some circuits were used more than once and others made a comeback, or became unexpected new venues as the pandemic season wore on.
In a season jampacked into a dramatic six months, what could have been more heartstopping than Romain Grosjean of Haas seen climbing desperately over the barrier, escaping the fireball that was his car not twenty seconds before? Quick reflexes and safety precautions undoubtedly saved the Frenchman’s life in Bahrain, leaving him with broken ribs and burns on his legs and hands.
Less dramatic but no less dangerous was the moment Lance Stroll found himself hanging by his seatbelt from his overturned car, trying to crawl out the gap.
The Bahrain Grand Prix was a harsh reminder of the perils of high speed adventure sport. As Hamilton reiterated at the end of the controversial race, with drivers divided in their response to the televised images: “The risk we take is no joke, for those of you out there that forget that we put our life on the line for this sport and what we love to do.”
Indeed dramatic visuals of the car splitting in two upon collision with a makeshift barrier, and catching fire virtually immediately, of Grosjean being helped by the medical team as he wrung his hands in pain, will become images of the downside of the sport.
Even as Hamilton, 36, picked up his 95th race win in Bahrain, the season also saw the rise of some rookies and some not-so-green horns.
Valtteri Bottas, 31, finished second but behind Hamilton his Mercedes teammate by over 100 points. Bottas claimed after the Sakhir Grand Prix that he was made to “look like a fool … It’s hard to explain the feeling when you come to a pit stop and you leave with the same old tyres that you came in with — and then lose positions.”
He had every reason to feel out of sorts, in a season full of disgruntlements, shunts and even that pit garage mishmash.
The Sakhir Grand Prix had a telling effect, revealing unexpected winners on the podium but nearly sealing the deal for another British driver. George Russell, borrowed by Mercedes after Hamilton contracted the coronavirus, lit the stage there the following week.
Bottas made his statement as Russell nearly scored his first ever podium finish… nearly.
A rare mix up in the Mercedes pit garage saw Russell’s car tires being replaced by an amalgam of substitutes, and Bottas, who was scheduled right on the heels of Russell’s pit stop, having to return back to track on the same set of old tires.
In the end both cars suffered, and both drivers missed the podium. Bottas told the press, “Obviously, a big mistake from the team that will be analysed and learned from - it was a nightmare being on the old tyres that had lost temperature. I was like a sitting duck.”
He cannot be blamed for feeling the way he did, particularly after Russell showed his true potential in a superior car, and returned to his old ways in the very next race, feeling the misery of having nearly pulled off a flourishing win in his very first race for Mercedes.
That however opened the door for Sergio Perez to make an unexpected stop by the podium, with the Mexican flag unfurling for the man who lost his place next year to Sebastian Vettel. Vettel too was made to sweat, after Ferrari announced hours before the first race in Austria that they were letting go of the four-time champion and replacing him with Carlos Sainz to partner Charles LeClerc.
Vettel’s signing with Racing Point/Aston Martin for next year came as a bittersweet moment in Formula 1 history. Perez, recovering from the virus, returned without the certainty of a place, and by the time he was standing atop the podium in Sakhir the emotions were palpable for fans as well, who were rooting for the champion all over social media, shocked that Perez was leaving the season unsure of his return.
The same could be said of some other drivers and circuits that received unexpected applause. Portimao, Mugello became new names around circuit this year, and F1 will be pressed to make major changes if it wants to cash in on the evident love for race tracks new and old, such as the ones at Imola and Nurburgring.
Abu Dhabi closed out the last of the triple back-to-back racing weekends to which drivers and teams were subjected after the pandemic put brakes on the season starter at Melbourne at the eleventh hour.
In the end Formula 1 will congratulate itself for its nightmarish quick preparations facilitating a restart in July, with seventeen successful races in the end and only two drivers, Perez and Hamilton, turning out covid positive results.
The decision to start cautiously, with just a half dozen races announced, and slowly expand the venues one continent at a time, in the end yielded spectacular results. It will give F1 fans another year to recall in what is expected to be a short turnaround between drivers’ break, winter testing, and the start to 2021 on scheduled lines.
Asked after winning his seventh title if he was ready for greater things or willing to hang up his boots, Hamilton stated, “I am only just getting started.” For a man who added social-political agendas to his purpose driven races, highlighting the plight of impoverished people, particularly drivers from minority families who had to dig deep for their dreams, Hamilton spoke ultimately of the toll of what has been the overall headline-topping story of 2020.
By the end of the race in Abu Dhabi, to which he returned after missing the Sakhir Grand Prix, the usually fit Briton spoke of the toll of contracting the virus: “I don’t think I have ever been so blown. My body is not feeling so great. But look on the bright side. I made it through, and I didn’t think any time last week that I’d be here so I’m just really truly grateful for my health and to be alive.”
Formula 1 too will be grateful for being healthy and alive, at the end of what has indeed been a trying year of many hastily put agendas.
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