December 16, 2020
By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – Formula One’s pandemic-hit season was packed with novelty and surprises, even if Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes retained their titles in record style and by massive margins once racing returned.
The strangest of campaigns crammed 17 races, instead of the record 22 originally envisaged, into little more than five months from July with four triple-headers.
Races were held behind closed doors for the first time, with teams operating in ‘bubbles’ to protect against COVID-19, but the season delivered more than might have been expected when the planned Australian opener was cancelled in March.
Races in places not visited before, two first-time winners and Romain Grosjean’s ‘miracle’ escape from a fiery crash in Bahrain that split his car in two provided sensational storylines.
Three drivers caught the novel coronavirus, including Hamilton after he had won his record-equalling seventh title, but the show stayed on the road.
Some 80,000 PCR tests were carried out but fewer than 100 were positive.
The sport showed it was quick to adapt in other ways too, teams turning their hands to designing and producing thousands of hospital ventilators in otherwise shuttered factories during the early months of the year.
Italy hosted three races — a first for the sport — and there were new formats and untested layouts with several circuits hosting two rounds.
Glamour showcase races in Monaco and Singapore were binned, as well as what would have been the first Vietnamese Grand Prix, as Formula One kept it simple and stayed in Europe and the Middle East.
Records were broken all over the place, Hamilton breezing past Michael Schumacher’s benchmark 91 wins — ending the year on 95 — and matching the Ferrari ace’s seven titles.
The Briton, now the most successful driver of all time, won 11 races and used his platform to highlight injustice — taking a knee before each race in a Black Lives Matter shirt and campaigning for greater diversity.
The Silverstone pit straight was renamed after Hamilton as the 35-year-old ended the year with more points than the second-placed Red Bull team’s drivers combined and with 124 more than second-placed Finnish team mate Valtteri Bottas.
Mercedes, who secured both championships for an unprecedented seventh year in a row, won 13 races and took pole position in all but two.
Mexican Sergio Perez contracted COVID-19 — replaced by super-sub Nico Hulkenberg for two races — but ended the longest wait for a win with victory in his 190th start, going from last to first around the Bahrain circuit’s outer loop.
Ferrari, the sport’s most successful team, joined the others in signing a new commercial ‘Concorde Agreement’ and celebrated their 1,000th race in the first held at Mugello.
They also suffered their worst season since 1980, without a win and sixth overall, and said goodbye to four times champion Sebastian Vettel who moves to what was Racing Point and will be Aston Martin.
Going the other way, McLaren — with new U.S.-based investors and Australian Daniel Ricciardo joining next year — returned to the top three behind Mercedes and Red Bull.
The latter won twice with Max Verstappen, including the Abu Dhabi season-ender that raised hopes for a more competitive 2021.
Italy-based AlphaTauri also shone, with Frenchman Pierre Gasly taking an emotional first win at Monza.
Former champions Williams, the founding family departing after selling to U.S.-based Dorilton Capital, failed to score for the first time since the 1970s.
Their driver George Russell still starred, the youngster joining Mercedes for the Sakhir Grand Prix and nearly winning as stand-in for Hamilton who was sidelined by COVID-19.
The 22-year-old Briton’s hopes were dashed by Mercedes making a rare pitstop error before a late puncture but he emerged with his name even more firmly on the list of ones to watch.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ken Ferris)
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