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A LIGHT AT THE END OF THE COVID-19 TUNNEL?

In this Velocity Magazine feature article, we are pretty sure we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, whilst also hoping its not the train!  Our editor John Morris sat back and took a long hard look at where we are now after COVID-19 shut us down.

‘Maydayis an international distress signal which is universally recognised in voice procedure radio communications. It was derived from the French term venez maider, which translates to ‘come help me.  The term is often linked mistakenly to the May Day festivities that are celebrated during the first day of May across some 66 countries throughout the globe. The origins of May Day trace back to Beltane, a Celtic celebration of seasonal change and the move from ‘darkness’ to ‘light. A large, decorated column called the ‘maypole’ became a centrepiece for the day.

As the world haemorrhaged under an unprecedented plague, with global lockdowns and social isolations that plummeted the world back towards a darker age, the sporting world came to a standstill. In this modern era, professional sport is driven by the electronic media, which provides the lion’s share of funding through broadcast rights. It was also inextricably linked to advertising and the gambling industry. No sport meant no broadcasts and a huge loss of income right across the industry.

The three R’s; restructures, reduced hours and redundancies became the new buzzwords as the world fought to survival. As the weeks turned to months, sports administrators lobbied national health bodies for a lifeline. The mayday calls were finally heard as governments sort to find the delicate balance between saving lives and saving economies.

Maydays from the sporting world were finally answered on May Day 2020 with the release of the Australian Institute of Sport’s Framework For A Reboot Of Sport In A COVID-19 Environment. The framework detailed the conditions required for a return to racing and the steps that needed to be met in order to achieve those goals.

Sydney Motorsport Park’s (SMSP) ceremonial placement of the first of 132 permanent light towers a few days later, was another significant May Day. Dignitaries gathered around as a modern day maypole was stretchered into place. The moment personified a transition from darkness towards the light.

NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro seized the moment as one of the Government’s strategic investment plans at SMSP moved a step closer to completion. “It’s a new era of racing and the 2020 lighting project at the Western Sydney Motorsport precinct couldn’t have come at a better time, he said.“We know that COVID-19 is taking its toll on this state, and racing can be a real morale boost for those isolating at home, so it will be fantastic when motor racing gets back on track.

The NSW circuit has subsequently become the motorsport resumption epicentre as the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship and then the Australian Racing Group (ARG) announced revised calendars with SMSP the chosen venue for their return to racing.

Supercars released their revised calendar on 17 May, with a 12 round championship that won’t conclude until February 2021. The Sydney race, scheduled for the final weekend in June represents a step into the unknown, with neither spectators nor support categories slated to join the festivities across what will be a surreal moment for Australian Motorsport. Team personnel will be kept to an absolute minimum with many, including the media, set to operate remotely.

“There’s two reasons,Supercars CEO, Sean Seamer said when explaining why SMSP had been moved to late June. “The first is logistical reasons, that it’s in between most of our teams in Queensland and Victoria; it has the convenience of the hotel over the road; it also has good proximity for TV crews so we can have less people travelling interstate to deliver the event. In addition to that, it’s a good precinct for us from a management point of view. There’s plenty of room out the back of the pits, it has big pit garages, so it enables us to meet the restrictions and be compliant.

The revised calendar saw the Gold Coast and Newcastle fall victim to the ‘new normal’ of social distancing. The difficulties in ensuring that the Australian Institute of Sport’s Safe Guidelines and State Health Department protocols were met within a semi-residential environment, were simply unsurmountable in the short term amidst fears of a second wave of COVID-19 infections.

FURTHER READING

ARG also elected to run at Sydney Motorsport Park for the opening round on August 15, with back to back rounds in at Symmons Plains and Baskerville in January 2021 concluding the six race championship.

“It’s been an unprecedented crisis and its effect on motorsport all around the world has been huge,said ARG CEO Matt Braid. “Through it all, we are really pleased that we are able to confirm a condensed, dynamic racing schedule.

F1 finally confirmed the first eight races for their 2020 season on 2 June as Europe slowly eased restrictions as they continued their battle with COVID-19. Twin weekends at the Red Bull Ring in Austria are followed by a single event in Hungary before another twin weekend at Silverstone. The second race in England will mark the 70th anniversary of the Formula One World Championship. Spain, Belgium and Monza complete the calendar to date. Formula One plan to  run between 15-18 races in the 2020 season, but have refrained from releasing a final schedule as the COVID-19 situation continues to vary across international boundaries.

“In the past weeks we have been working tirelessly with all our partners, the FIA and the teams to create a revised opening 2020 calendar allowing us to restart racing in the safest possible way,Formula 1 CEO Chase Carey explained. “We are pleased to be able to set out our opening eight race calendar today. While we currently expect the season to commence without fans at our races we hope that over the coming months the situation will allow us to welcome them back once it is safe to do, but we know the return of Formula 1 will be a welcome boost to sports fans around the world.

While Australia and Europe have earmarked the mid year period for a return to racing, the United States jumped the field as NASCAR returned to racing at Darlington Raceway on May 17. As the COVID-19 pandemic reached close to 1.5 million cases across the US and edged towards 90,000 deaths, a very different environment greeted the 40 car field for the 400 mile race.

“Getting out of the car, it was like, ‘I don’t really know what to do here,'” said race winner Kevin Harvick as he stood on an empty Victory Lane. “There was that sense of awkwardness, until we get this all situated, of exactly what we’re supposed to do … no team guys. I was able to give my team guys a nice little elbow bump there as I left Victory Lane and tell ’em, ‘Great job.’ But those guys didn’t even get a chance to take a picture with their car.

Third placed finisher Kurt Busch explained the new normal of race crews wearing protective masks and ensured adequate social distancing.“Even just walking down pit road [before the race], crew members with masks on, you halfway don’t recognize anybody until I got to my guys. And that was our core group, he remarked.

Karting NSW celebrated a return to racing in the final days of May with the following post in their Facebook page.

WE DID IT! KNSW SUCCESSFULLY HOLDS ITS FIRST RACING EVENTS IN LISMORE & ORANGE

Karting (New South Wales) Inc was first across the finish line in bringing kart racing back after the Covid-19 lockdowns. Even with restricted numbers, strict guidelines and no spectators, KNSW successfully held two race events on Sunday 31 May 2020 at Lismore and at Orange.

The events were a great success with registrations at Lismore exceeding 60 and Orange with almost 50. We also held practice at 10 of our other Clubs in New South Wales over the weekend.

It is important to understand that each State has different legislation and different requirements. There are even some key differences between NSW and ACT.

We are very excited for next weekends events at Coffs Harbour Kart Club and Griffith Kart Club and of course Round 4 of the Southern Stars Series to be held at Circuit Mark Webber in Canberra. The Series has already over 100 pre-entries registered. All Clubs are doing a sensational job in preparing for return to racing at their Clubs.

The Board of KNSW wishes to commend the outstanding work of its volunteers at each and every one of its Clubs. They have gone above and beyond to ensure the sport of karting can return safely and within guidelines.

As the first wave of COVID-19 ebbs away, the fall out from the illness is still to be felt. While those infected by the disease slowly regain their health, the lives that were taken will remain a very painful memory for some time. The financial implications and impact on the Australian economy will also be felt for years to come.

Figures released from the Australian Bureau of Statistics on 3 June 2020, showed a 0.3 drop in the economy, with worse news forecast for the June quarter. Federal Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg suggested that Australia had entered into a recessionary period.

So what does that mean from a motorsport perspective? To put it quite simply, even though we can now have scheduled race meetings doesn’t mean that they will actually take place. Promoters need to have the money to run an event, competitors need to have a budget to run and spectators need income to pay to watch a race when they are eventually allowed to do so.

We have already seen the loss of RED 23 racing after the effects of the COVID-19 virus forced Milwaukee Tool Australia to withdraw their support for the team. It is a sad reality that will impact on drivers, teams and categories across the globe.

McLaren sought to raise funds for the manufacturing division and race team with. the possibility of mortgaging the marque’s Woking head quarters and historic F1 collection to secure their future by raising  275 million pounds

The Williams Group ended their sponsorship deal with naming rights sponsor ROKiT and ROK energy drinks as then entered into a strategic review which could see the family owned team sold off.

Locally, there are mixed opinions about the financial impact of COVID-19 on a return to racing.

“There are numerous impacts for motorsport for us and without doubt everyone,” David McAdam explained. “The sponsorship side is now broken and with the economic impact being felt across the board the first thing to go is discretionary spend, then sponsorship and the marketing budget.  The auto industry is in a world of pain and so is its entire supply chain.  This has a direct impact on the whole racing industry.  We have seen the majority of our current and prospective sponsorship money dry up and no ability to see when it might come back on board.”  

David Wall, owner of David Wall Racing echoed the hardships faced by David McAdam but held an optimistic view for the future.

“It is effecting us and others greatly,” Wall said.“Our team is based on us being able to race/test etc and without this the workshop also slows as the cars are not being used. We are doing everything we can in the shop at the moment so that we can come back bigger and better when possible. I feel the industry will survive but it will take some time to get back to how it was only a few months ago.

The sponsorship side of things is going to be a difficult one, the government is doing a great job to keep everyone going in business and let’s hope that when this does end at some stage that a lot of businesses will want to push their products once again to re-grow their brands and build everything up once again. Those that kept working throughout the lockdowns may be in a position to expand may also want to advertise.

I think everyone will have to think differently to help reduce the costs of the sport and get us back to the track ASAP to produce/compete in the sport we all love.”

State based racing had been suggested as the most likely form of motorsport to lead the way out of isolation, with Darwin the first venue to see cars return to the track. Dean McMahon, President of the Queensland Touring Car Championship was confident that the state based category would be well supported once the restrictions at Queensland raceway were lifted.

“It will be interesting to see whether the race meetings are able to be run as they traditionally are, or, whether there is some sort of hybrid race weekend to manage the number of people at the facility at one time,” Dean McMahon said. “Suffice to say, our members are all chomping at the bit to get back in their cars. Theres been plenty of shed time recently with people hard at work and tuning the cars. I just know our guys and ladies are keen to get back at it.”

While local and national level motorsport is about to recommence, there was sobering news with the announcement that the 2020 Australian Moto GP had been cancelled. The event would have seen Valentino Rossi’s last local ride on the Monster Energy Yamaha and Jack Miller’s final Phillip Island race on the privateer Pramac Ducati before his much anticipated move to the Ducati Factory team for 2021.

The world of motorsport has a long road ahead before we can all go racing in the manner to which we have been accustomed. The loss of Australia’s blue ribbon International events will be sorely missed and offer a sobering thought that a 2021 Australian Grand Prix is no certainty. However, the announcement of national events from the final weeks in June, albeit sans spectators and most media, offers some light at the end of the dark tunnel that has been COVID-19.

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