Taking you inside Formula 1's 'new normal' as the sport returned under extensive COVID-secure conditions in Austria
Tuesday 7 July 2020 11:36, UK
Friday March 13 seemed a long time ago as I drove to our Sky headquarters in west London for my first COVID-19 test ahead of F1's return at the Austrian GP.
We had managed to make some programmes during the lockdown/shutdown over the internet, but I hadn't seen anyone since landing back from Australia.
We had all been at dinner on the Thursday night in Melbourne when we got the message that someone from McLaren had tested positive for coronavirus. Phones started going off and our exec. producer and production manager left the table to make calls.
It had been a strange atmosphere in the paddock that day, almost as if we were all waiting for this, the inevitable. We all desperately wanted to go racing but we were also well aware of the developing crisis worldwide and no country was going to escape it.
It was into the early hours of Friday morning before we knew for sure we weren't going to be going back into the paddock. As it turned out, we ended up doing a show outside our hotel on Friday morning explaining what was happening and by that time the whole weekend had been called off.
We spent the rest of the day waiting to hear how and when we were getting home as our production co-ordinator Georgia worked miracles. At lunchtime we headed down to one of our favourite restaurants on the beach and almost poetically, a storm gathered above the sea as we sat and ate pizzas and discussed what was happening.
Once the storm had passed, Ant, Johnny and I headed back to the hotel and discovered that there were no more flights out of Melbourne back to London but that if we could be ready in half an hour we could get a flight to Sydney and then get to London from there. I have never packed so fast.
Three months on and Georgia was waiting to greet me at Sky as I went through our now standard temperature check on arrival at Sky. Unfortunately, I had watched the video of Ian Poulter having his test the night before and so was more than a little nervous for what came next.
There's no getting away from it, it's not pleasant. We had two tests before we flew and thankfully all of them came back negative. So, on Wednesday morning of race week I arrived at Luton airport's private terminal for our charter flight.
I had worn a face mask for the car journey and wouldn't be able to remove it before arriving at the hotel. It was my first time spending a substantial amount of time in a mask. On arrival at Luton we had to wait outside and someone came out to us with our luggage tags and took away our bags. We were then shown into a waiting room and I saw my colleagues in the flesh for the first time since Australia.
We arrived at Graz airport and were the only passengers going through our part of the terminal and once out the other side, went straight to our coach for transfer. It was one of the easiest and swiftest journeys I have ever had but there is no escaping the fact it was very strange too.
Our hotel in Austria is the same one we have stayed in for the last few years but this time we are its only occupants and there is a reduced number of dedicated staff who are going through similar checks to us and are wearing face masks at all times. That is despite Austria having a very low infection rate and the town we are staying in having zero cases, but every precaution has been taken to enable us to get back to racing and it feels a safer environment than being at home right now.
On Wednesday evening, we ate dinner at the hotel as we will do every night of our stay. It was the first time I had been in a room with that many people since that dinner in Australia on the Thursday night. We all sat at a distance and become accustomed to our new normal.
At the track on Thursday morning there are temperature checks on the way in and we are asked to sanitise our hands again. Masks are mandatory from the moment we get on our coach and for the entire day unless three people or less are in our office and can safely distance.
The only other point where we don't need to wear one is the 50m or so from the paddock turnstile to the TV compound turnstile and so we recorded a couple of links there across the weekend.
Many people have commented that if we are social distancing why are masks necessary? It has taken huge organisation to get Formula 1 back on the road and the desire to keep it that way is driving us all to follow every guideline. In the first round of over 4000 tests, none came back positive and we all want to keep it that way.
At the moment the regulations may seem severe but I envisage them relaxing a bit as time goes on and as long as we keep testing negative. Other countries are watching what happens with Formula 1 in Austria before deciding if and how to allow the sport into their countries so if we want to keep racing, we need to do everything possible to stay safe.
During the day we all head to the on-site Covid private testing unit and get checked again, something we have to do every five days now.
Previously we would have had at least two sound technicians with us that would turn up to every shoot and every interview and hand us our kit for that recording. Now we are all responsible for our own kit.
That includes our IEM packs, the small packs you sometimes see which our earpieces are connected to, through which we hear our own programming and our gallery who are back in London. We are also given spare batteries and we have to keep our kit with us throughout the weekend. We are also given microphones sponges. Each of us has to keep our own and only use that one.
The microphones themselves are sanitised between each use and we simply put our own sponge on top when we need them. For guests you may have seen microphones are on stands so they don't need to handle them.
At midday I had an interview with Max Verstappen. I was handed a plastic bag which had inside it my personal microphone. Once used it goes back in the bag and is sanitised before being used again. Max arrived and sat on a stool two meters away from me in front of a static microphone and already I felt the impact of our new normal.
I could see his eyes but no other real expression and any connection you have with people is now blocked by a physical and very visible barrier. It also means you have to talk louder for your guest to hear and more often than not you cannot hear any of their answer.
This is made even more obvious in the interview pen. With both interviewer and interviewee wearing masks it is very difficult to do anything other than ask some pre-ordained questions and hope you don't miss some important statements in the answer.
Post F1-session interviews though are proving challenging. We are adhering to all the FIA and F1 guidelines as you can see from the below photo of Ted, but it does mean that it's nearly impossible to hear the drivers' answers and so we can't react to them.
For example, when I spoke to Alex Albon after the race I thought he said the incident with Lewis Hamilton was 50/50 but he was referring to the incident in Brazil last year. Luckily, we managed to correct that before the end of the interview.
Everything about our 'new normal' feels odd. There is no getting around it.
During lockdown I have been in a few WhatsApp groups with various friends in the paddock and to now see them in person and still not be able to give them a big hug and have a proper catch up is sad. We have leaned on each other for the last three months and now back here 2m away and with masks covering two-thirds of our faces, you feel as far away as ever.
This season I am covering F2 and F3. The support series are part of our programming and so now on race weekends I will be introducing all the sessions except for the one that starts while I am still in the interview pen post-F1 qualifying.
I have always kept an eye on those series because it's invariably where our future F1 drivers come from so it's good to see the talent that is emerging. It was a weekend of exciting races in both series and I was lucky enough to do the post-F2 Sprint race interviews too which I hope continues.
We are also sharing the F1 interviews in the TV pen with our colleagues from Sky Italy and Sky Germany, so you may hear some new voices this season. For example, Sky Germany always need to ask two questions to Sebastian Vettel in German so their reporter Peter will ask him those and then one in English for us. For Italian speaking drivers their reporter Mara will ask questions in Italian first and then ask one in English for us.
Hopefully over time once more people are allowed into the paddock this will change but right now everyone is working with such reduced numbers that compromises are made all round. We have only two camera operators on site for all three territories, all trying to cover the race weekend so it's challenging for all.
Hopefully that's given an insight into the way the paddock is working now and how we were able to bring you what turned out to be a fantastic return to racing on Sky F1.
We are staying in our hotel now until the next race in our own lockdown. We continue to be tested regularly for COVID but perhaps our biggest test is being locked up together for 12 days - I'll let you know how that pans out next week!
But for now F1 is back and you can't take the smiles off our faces…
The new Formula 1 season is underway in dramatic style on Sky Sports F1 and continues this week with the second race at the Red Bull Ring - the Styrian GP. Find out more & subscribe.