Four-time world champion Vettel was ruled out of the opening round of the 2022 season in Bahrain after returning a positive COVID-19 test, with Aston Martin drafting in reserve driver Nico Hulkenberg to take his place on the grid.
Vettel was the second F1 driver to test positive in the space of a week after McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo was absent from the final pre-season test in Bahrain after he too tested positive for the virus.
After operating to extremely tight rules over the past two years, F1 has eased many of its restrictions for the 2022 season, including dropping mandatory on-site testing. However, all personnel are required to be vaccinated in order to enter the paddock.
Several teams have moved away from holding online media sessions over Zoom and similar web-conferencing software and have returned to staging face-to-face interviews, giving a sense of a return to some kind of ‘normality’.
But a positive COVID-19 test still carries the same penalty of missing a race for the drivers.
That prompted Sergio Perez, who missed two races in 2020 with COVID-19, to call on F1 to consider allowing drivers to continue to race even after catching the disease, provided their symptoms are not severe.
“Going forward it’s something that we should discuss, whether we allow the drivers to race with COVID, if the symptoms are mild,” Perez said. “These days if you’re feeling bad, obviously the drivers can be the judge, but I think it makes sense to have a discussion.”
Perez, Lance Stroll, Lewis Hamilton, Nikita Mazepin and Kimi Räikkönen have all been forced to miss at least one race as a result of testing positive for COVID-19 over the past two years.
Seven-time world champion Hamilton insisted it would have been impossible for him to have raced when he had COVID-19 due to being “very, very sick.
“There was no way I could have raced when I had it,” he said. “I was very, very sick. And even when I came back, just on the tail end of it, I barely made it through the race. I just actually messaged Seb because it is sad not to see him here. I hope that he is OK. I know Daniel was heavily affected by it.”
Hamilton also urged the F1 community to continue to take precautions in order to protect vulnerable people.
“It is strange that the world is getting more and more used to having it and you see less of it on the news,” he said. “I don’t ever see any of it on the news anymore. But it is still around us and I think we still need to take precautions, continue to wear our masks and continue to stay safe and keep others safe.
“If we all stop wearing our masks and everyone in the garage gets it, everyone’s going to be sick and it will affect people differently. Some people don’t even know they have it and some people get really ill.
“So it’s better to just not take the risk for now. Also for the message that we are sending out there, I think it’s important that we keep our masks.”
Like Hamilton, Ricciardo also doubts whether he would have been able to race with COVID-19.
“I was definitely in a pretty rough place so I would have struggled,” the Australian admitted. “I was pretty knocked out from it.
“So I think it’s really case-by-case, and if you feel like you can do it then yeah, maybe show some kind of little fitness test and prove it. But I would have struggled a week ago.”
Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz agrees with Perez that it should come down to driver choice because he believes there are enough precautions that could be taken to avoid spreading COVID-19 around the paddock.
“If there is a sport where you can compete without spreading the virus too much, or zero, I think it’s Formula 1,” he explained. “You could do all your meetings back in your hotel room, arrive with your suit and your helmet on, jump in the car and go.
“Personally I feel like if I get COVID and am in the middle of a championship fight or a very important thing, I would struggle to accept to miss a race if I am feeling well and perfectly fit.
“If I am feeling bad, I will be the first one to raise my hand and say I cannot race and the third driver would need to jump in. I think it’s an interesting case which we should investigate, because I think our sport gives us the chance to maybe be a bit more protected and less spread. I think it should be up to the driver to decide.”
Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas echoed a similar view: “I also feel like it should be a call for the driver. I would vote for yes, should be allowed but only in a way that it can be made sure that there’s no risk of spreading it further.
“So I think that maybe then for someone who has COVID there should definitely be extra protocols to make sure that other team members don’t get affected, because obviously with every person the symptoms can be different, for some less risky, for some more risky. So I think that’s the question mark.”
There is a general consensus among the drivers that F1 should be moving forward and reflecting the wider world in its approach to dealing with COVID, providing it is carried out in a responsible and cautious manner.
“We are seeing the world move forward,” said Stroll. “We’re adapting to the world we live in now, and I still think it’s important to be responsible when you are around elderly people, grandparents, all these things I think are separate, that’s everyone’s responsibility to be around elderly people.
“But as F1, as a sport, as a world we have to move on and live our lives. We’re starting to see that all over the world now.”
The Aston Martin driver, who has twice contracted COVID-19, reckons he could have been well enough to race with it on both occasions.
“I think there are ways of being very cautious and responsible, whilst having COVID and still competing,” Stroll said. “I think there are ways of isolating yourself, putting your helmet on in your room, and minimising complete contact with everyone.
“There are ways to do that. I do think I could compete with it. I was just a little cold when I had it.”
Pierre Gasly caught COVID-19 while on a winter training camp in Dubai ahead of the 2021 season but insisted his preparations for that campaign were not impacted.
“I think physically clearly there was no problem,” he said. “I got tested after having done like an 18kms run, and I never felt as good as it did at the time. And I was kind of in shock when I got the news but after that I was still feeling fine. I haven’t had any symptoms at all, and obviously physically it would not have been any problem.”
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff called for F1 to implement a “common strategy” in how it is relaxing its stance, with COVID-19 becoming “seen as a flu”.
“Covid is going to be seen as a flu that you can judge yourself, whether you want to go to work or not,” he said. “So I believe that in the next few weeks, we are going to see a pattern that Formula 1 will follow.”
That view was shared by Haas team principal Guenther Steiner, who also believes drivers should be able to decide for themselves if they are well enough to race.
“It should be treated as a flu pretty soon,” Steiner said. “And if you have a flu, you decide yourself what you’re going to do. Nobody else is deciding for you, so if the doctor says OK, the person who has it is OK, then why not?”
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner added: “I think it very much will get to a stage at some point where it will come down to his physical condition. It’ll be no different to any other virus that you could pick up.”
In the meantime, Aston Martin faces an anxious wait to find out whether Vettel returns the required negative test he needs in order to travel to Saudi Arabia on Friday. If not, the German will be forced to sit on the sidelines for the second weekend on the trot.