F1 to join coronavirus fight as races are scrapped

Ferrari team mechanics in action at the Interlagos circuit, in Sao Paulo, Brazil 14 November 2019. [Photo: EPA-EFE/SEBASTIAO MOREIRA]

Global motorsport Formula One is on hiatus because of the coronavirus outbreak but its best and brightest engineers are not: a new plan aims to harness their manufacturing know-how to build life-saving ventilators.

F1 mechanics and designers are accustomed to building cars that can hit 375 kilometres an hour or assembling aerodynamic wings that shave a race-winning hundredth of a second off a lap time. Now their talents could help save lives instead.

Championship teams Mercedes, McLaren, Williams, Red Bull, Renault and Racing Point – which all have their bases of operation in the United Kingdom – are assessing how to repurpose their facilities so that they can build ventilators instead.

The sport’s organisers announced that F1 is working in coordination with the UK government, universities and hospitals to judge whether its engineers can be of service but EURACTIV understands that teams could start work as early as this week.

“The teams are evaluating a number of routes in conjunction with existing manufacturers and organisations from the aerospace and automotive sectors,” F1 said in an official statement, adding that a “tangible outcome” should arrive in the coming days.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that the UK needs at least 20,000 extra ventilators – which help critical patients breathe when the virus infection is at its worst – as demand threatens to outstrip the estimated supply of just 6,000.

F1 teams could be a real asset because their factories are already geared towards precision and high-value manufacturing. Personnel are likely to reverse engineer existing ventilators or work along official blueprint lines, rather than pioneer their own designs.

The UK government has already sent schematics to 60 major manufacturers – including Airbus and Rolls-Royce – and although there were doubts over whether such specialised companies could repurpose their facilities at short-notice, many have pledged to do so.

European standards body CEN-CENELEC did its part for the fight against coronavirus last week, making 11 blueprints for personal protection equipment free to use but the EU’s strict approval process risks stifling innovation, according to German MEP Pieter Liese.

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The EU’s strict approval procedure for medical devices must temporarily be relaxed during the COVID-19 outbreak in order to allow ramping up production of vital equipment such as ventilators, a German lawmaker in the European Parliament has warned.

Sport with time on its hands

The F1 calendar’s first race in Australia was cancelled earlier this month and five more have now followed in the Melbourne round’s footsteps. A tentative start-date in mid-June at the Canadian grand prix looks in serious doubt too.

Toto Wolff, the team boss of championship-winning team Mercedes, acknowledged in an open letter to fans that F1 is “by no means essential” and insisted that the health and well-being of fans and team-members is the priority.

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton went into self-isolation at the weekend after British actor Idris Elba – who Hamilton met recently – announced that he had tested positive for coronavirus.

Engineers might soon be building life-saving equipment but drivers also have at least two months of down-time to fill. On Sunday (22 March), some of them participated in the sport’s first ever ‘e-prix’, which brought together drivers and celebrities in an online competition.

F1 intends to replace every cancelled round of its calendar with a similar event, although no championship points or prize money are on offer.

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Formula One championship-winning team Mercedes has announced this week that it aims to become carbon-neutral by the end of 2020, as the glitzy motorsport continues its drive to go green.

[Edited by Samuel Stolton]

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