One year on: the man who helped save F1 from Covid


COVID-19 threatened to cancel F1 2020 completely – but Steve Nielsen, in partnership with the forward-thinking organisers of the Austrian GP, was instrumental in saving last year's remarkable grand prix season

Steve Nielsen - Sporting Director, Formula 1, portrait at the press conference during 2019 Formula 1 FIA world championship, Spain Grand Prix, at Barcelona Catalunya from May 10 to 12 - Photo Xavi Bonilla / DPPI

F1's sporting director Steve Nielsen was instrumental in getting the 2020 F1 back on track after it was hit by COVID

Xavi Bonilla / DPPI

Just over a year ago the Formula 1 world was preparing to take a step into the unknown by running the first Grand Prix of the COVID-19 era at the Red Bull Ring, ending a four-month lockdown for the sport.

Nobody quite knew what to expect, and yet in the 52 weeks from that race on July 5 2020 to this year’s Austrian GP on July 4 we will have enjoyed 26 Grands Prix. It’s an extraordinary number given the restrictions in place around the world, and it’s been achieved safely, with just a few positive tests from the hundreds of thousands that have been conducted both on travelling personnel and locals working at each venue.

“COVID hit the world harder and faster than anything certainly in living memory”

One of the men who has to be thanked for making it happen is F1’s sporting director Steve Nielsen, the former Team Lotus, Tyrrell, Benetton/Renault, Caterham, Toro Rosso and Williams man who was hired for his detailed knowledge of how teams operate. As a former team manager he’s deeply involved in writing the sporting regulations, and in determining how teams move around the world and work at circuits.

When COVID began to dominate the headlines early in 2020 Nielsen realised that it would have an impact, and not just because F1 was due to visit China in mid-April.

Australia 2020

After token COVID measures were taken in Melbourne, the situation soon escalated – F1 2020 was suspended

Grand Prix Photo

“Honestly, with the benefit of hindsight, and I don’t think we were negligent, it hit the world harder and faster than anything certainly in living memory,” he says. “Probably since the last pandemic, 100 years ago.

“I became aware of this thing just after Christmas, I suppose. And like lots of other horrible things you hear circulating, like SARS, it’s kind of distant, and then it goes away. And then the news stops talking about it, and then the world carries on.

“And I kind of approached COVID-19 thinking well, that’s not very good, but obviously, it won’t come to Europe. And then when we were doing pre-season testing, it was already in Europe, and we had a couple of scares at the Barcelona test that turned out to be negative. And then you start thinking, crikey, this could really get quite difficult.”

Inevitably the Chinese GP was an early casualty, but it was business as usual as F1 headed to Melbourne for the season opener in March. However around that time COVID became an issue in Italy, the base of two F1 teams and its tyre supplier. It was getting a little close to home.

“Italy was the first European country it hit, particularly around Milan,” says Nielsen. “Ferrari were already talking about some restrictions. And then I remember going to Melbourne and thinking this is really quite serious.

“Again, I’m not suggesting anybody was negligent, because we just didn’t know what we didn’t know then, but we went to Melbourne really on a wing and a prayer. I think we had some token gesture of social distancing, and maybe even some mask wearing in the paddock, but nothing mandated. Each team and organisation was left to do its own thing.

“And then while we were in Melbourne, we had the positive case at McLaren. I think we ultimately also had one at Pirelli. And the world seemed to change in a week, culminating in something I’ve never seen before, with the race being cancelled.”

Chase Carey

Liberty CEO was determined for the F1 Championship to be held in some form

Grand Prix Photo

After McLaren’s overnight withdrawal the Australian GP was called off on the Friday morning, with thousands of fans stuck in queues at the closed gates.

“And that’s when you think, Oh my God, this is really serious. I remember getting on the plane to fly back. I think most people in the paddock are optimistic, that’s why we can do this. I was thinking we’ll probably have to park up for a couple of months, based on nothing at all other than that’s what I wanted to happen. And then we’ll get this going.

“And then you get home, and you’re at home for two or three weeks, and more and more bad news comes in over the TV about how serious it is. And people are dying from it. And it’s spreading around the world.

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“And you think there’s so much of what an international sport needs to do that is in conflict now with what the world’s trying to stop, international travel, social gatherings, all that stuff. And so you really think this is going to be like getting a square peg in a round hole.”

More and more races were cancelled in the first part of the season, and eventually teams shut up and shop and went into lockdown, awaiting further news. Around April/May, things looked very bleak.

“It was made clear very early that we were going to carry on in some way, shape or form, and so we should just start listing all the roadblocks, and try to find a way around them all. And that’s what we did. And on our side and the FIA side it started in earnest.

“And we just started thinking, how can we change this into what it needs to be now to survive in this environment? And how can we persuade governments that we are responsible, and able to pull this off sensibly, and not become some kind of international diseased colony that is leaving a trail of infections behind it?

“Because not only is the event you’re at important, but you don’t want to then trail it around to other events or leave a trail behind you. And that then began the conversation with the FIA.

Austria paddock 2020

Though the future for F1 was still clouded with uncertainty, aspects of the Austrian GP pointed the way forward – including some paddock protocol

“I’ve been a motor sport guy all my life, and I started reading stuff about the last pandemic, and how that moved around, trying to kind of learn. With Spanish flu, the world was very different than, there were no flights, and it never got to Australia, because the ships had gone, you’d either survived or died from it.

“You start reading about all that stuff, and the waves, how it dies down, it comes back. You read about these people that are sort of pseudo doctors, they pretend to be medically qualified. And they’re actually not at all. I felt a bit like one of those! You’re speaking to a much wider group internally and externally about disease, and how it spreads and all this stuff.

“So it was quite a voyage of discovery, reading about all that stuff. But gradually we were able to arrive at something. We understood that testing was necessary, we understood that isolating a secure area was important. And that we would need to produce a document, a very comprehensive document, for the country we’re going to visit, their health authority, their government, to say, ‘This is how we will do it.’”

Nielsen was deeply involved in defining how a post-COVID race weekend would operate.

“Gradually, as we understood what was necessary, more and more people came to the party and joined the fight. And on the FIA side as well. It started small and grew very quickly, because luckily enough, not only in our [FOM] family, but teams and everything, there’s a very strong can-do attitude, people want it to happen.

“They’re almost military-type organisations. And you can communicate to two or three people and know that whatever you say will be relayed to everybody, and so the army is very quickly all marching in the same direction, because they’re well-organised, and communicate well. And they wanted it to happen, that made it so much easier to do, because you’ve got like-minded people who want to do it.”

F1 CEO Chase Carey was the driving force behind the efforts to make the season happen, in stark contrast to comments to the media from his predecessor, Bernie Ecclestone.

“Chase made it clear very early that we were going to carry on,” says Nielsen. “There were other people, famous in F1, who said that suggested that we should just park up for a year. And that was never an option on our side. We never considered that.

Austria 2020 2

The new look F1 – social distancing became the norm was once F1 returned in Styria

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“We were having regular cabinet meetings. I spent probably most of April and May on Excel moving races around in orders that you wouldn’t normally contemplate. The teams very early said ‘We give you freedom to just put together whatever championship you can’. We started talking to circuits that we haven’t talked to for a long time, or in some cases ever.”

Against the odds F1 began to put a calendar. Helped by strong support by circuit/team owner Red Bull, backed by enthusiastic local authorities, a double-header event in Austria in July became a viable starting point.

“We were really lucky that in Austria they were about the right place in the calendar anyway, on their normal date. Also the COVID rates were low in Austria, and declining. And they were determined to go ahead with the event, even if it was closed doors.

“And because they said very early on, we’re going ahead open or closed, it became a kind of a solid point that we could focus on. So it also determines really how long we had to organise everything, and then the order of races thereafter. And so I think great credit should go to Austria.”

Austrian GP 2020 start

F1 2020 finally resumed in Austria with what turned out to be a thrilling race

Grand Prix Photo

A huge effort went into determining how a Grand Prix weekend could be organised safely, and without fans. The Red Bull Ring served as the test case.

“They did a terrific job. And to their credit, a lot of what we put in place in Austria, most of it was from FOM and the FIA, but not all of it – some of stuff the circuit did. And a lot of that carried through. We call the paddock the red zone, and that was actually an Austrian term that we hi-jacked and quite liked. And there was all sorts of other stuff that we took from Austria.

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“So it became our kind of blueprint. And we very much carried that on after that with the FIA protocols, and have developed it along the way.

“We all understood, FOM, FIA, the teams, that in order to keep this thing going, we had to have the cars on the track. Because without that, it all falls apart very quickly, not only for F1, but for F2, F3, a lot of other motorsports would stop. So it was really important to us to show that we can be responsible, and keep it going.”

For the remainder of the 2020 season races were confirmed in batches as venues became realistic options.

“We would speak regularly on the latest version of the calendar. Is this possible? Isn’t it possible? If it’s not possible, why isn’t it possible? All that stuff.

“I think the most extreme was going from Portugal to Imola last year, where it was 2500kms or something. ‘Is it possible? Let’s have a think about it. It’s only possible if it’s a two-day event to get everything there.’ I didn’t decide where we went, but I had some influence in the order in which we did it.

“We normally take a year to 18 months from agreeing a race to going. And that’s because sometimes you’ve got to build the track, and sometimes because it just takes a long time to put all the infrastructure in.

Austria 2021

F1 is now back in Austria – where it all restarted nearly 12 months ago

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“And I think in Mugello we had six weeks from contract signed to race. And we’d never been there. I had actually tested there in the nineties, but it was completely different.

“So you just have to have a different mindset. Normally you would go and do a whole load of recces, and make decisions based on visiting the venue, but you just couldn’t do that. So we’d got to make all these assumptions. Because we were lucky enough to have a lot of experienced people, those assumptions were generally right, so we were able to put races on. And not only Mugello, there were others done in just a matter of a few weeks.

“And so it has had the benefit of changing where you think the horizons are. If somebody had said to me 18 months ago you’re organising a race in six weeks, I’d have said you’re out of your mind, it would just be a disaster, nothing would work.

“When you have to do it, it’s surprising what you can do”

“But actually, when you have to do it, it’s surprising what you can do. And I think COVID, while it is a terrible thing, it has made us all think in a slightly different way, and re-assess what is possible. I’ve definitely got a different idea of what’s possible than I had before.”

One year on and we’re back in Austria for another double header, with a full crowd now permitted for the upcoming British GP. However, later in the year things are still a little hazy, with races such as Japan, Australia and Brazil looking vulnerable. More changes to the schedule are likely, but in Europe at least, fans are back.

“It does look like there is some genuine light at the end of the tunnel,” says Nielsen. “Certainly in the UK, and Austria once again is in a good place. Not everywhere, this thing rises and falls, and in different parts of the world at different rates. And there are some more challenging races to come later in the year. But certainly the summer races in Europe look like they could be really quite different, with spectators.