Life will never be the same. That much is certain when it comes to trying to find a new normal in a world that’s experienced a recent global pandemic. But something many have struggled to grasp – perhaps unsurprisingly so given the ever-changing nature of how COVID-19 cases have developed at different rates in different nations – is the nuanced specifics of how our behavior must change.
The World Health Organization has been keen to stress from the very start of the outbreak that social distancing is one of the key factors in limiting the spread of COVID-19. This presents many issues, with much of the focus so far on how it’s stopping spectators from attending. But it’s giving teams their own unique headaches in the domain which they occupy on-site: the paddock.
The Magic Weekend taking place at Höljes will be one of the first big rallycross events to run since the COVID-19 pandemic began, taking place next weekend on the first week of July.
Kevin Hansen, who finished third in World RX last year as part of a title fight won by older brother Timmy, won’t be driving at Höljes next month. He’ll be managing instead, fully invested in his role as team principal of YellowSquad; the Hansen family’s junior team focused on World RX support category RX2 and RallyX Nordic’s Supercar Lites class.
Despite only turning 22 years old last month, he’s taking this management stuff very seriously. So seriously that he’s drawn up a comprehensive plan of how YellowSquad is going to operate in this new COVID-19 world down to the smallest details. Among the litany of new protocols being introduced, one is to divide the whole team up into different ‘cells’ that won’t cross paths from the moment they arrive at track to the moment they leave.
“We are working with special groups in the team, so that the contact between the team members is limited as much as possible,” explains Hansen.
There’s a clear inspiration for Hansen’s changes. F1’s aborted start to the 2020 season at the Australian Grand Prix – where a McLaren team member tested positive for COVID-19, which led to the team withdrawing before the whole race weekend was called off – is something he’s keen to avoid.
“If one person gets sick, we don’t have to withdraw the entire team like McLaren had to in Melbourne. We are separated and know that certain groups within the team can continue, because they have not been in close proximity to the person that has been infected with the virus. Then we know it is safe for the others to continue to work.
“We will also work with zones within the team: only certain groups can enter [working spaces] at a time, with a specific flow layout within the paddock base, all going in one direction, not meeting anyone and keeping distance at all times.
“It’s to make sure that our area that we are in, we don’t need to exit our paddock space. We can work there all the time, we can eat there all the time, and the only time we need to move away from this space is when the driver and the mechanic need to go to the pre-grid, or when we need to go to sleep.”
The usual protective measures being recommended by the FIA are included in Hansen’s plan, of course. Two meters of distance where possible, with unavoidable exceptions: “so for example when you need to change a gearbox it’s not possible to keep two meters apart,” he points out. There’s also wearing face masks “from first thing in the morning when team members leave their accommodation, until the end when they go to sleep.”
But it all sounds rather impossible, even with the best planning. How can we expect people working in paddocks to adhere to these measures? The average rally or rallycross team awning isn’t exactly a warehouse with acres of room; space in paddocks is physically limited. But Hansen’s got a plan for that too.
“To keep this distance at all times we are making special restrictions within the awning we have. We are putting less things inside it to open up even more space for everyone to work in. We’ll have barriers between the cars to show where is the limit between them, so it’s even clearer for the guys working not to go over there, just stay on this side here. You’re keeping the distance all the time.
“The one-way flow direction within the team space on certain pathways and walking areas so that no-one has to meet walking to some place, keeping further apart. [Also] making sure that when we are eating, there is a certain amount of tables that are a minimum of two meters apart, with as few people on them as possible, and also eating at different times to minimize people in the same areas. And also keeping the drivers at a good distance, because if one of them is sick, we cannot have the other one sick too, so we are taking strong measures on that too.
“We [will] keep the distance and not only have an idea of what to do, but that we have a layout in the paddock that is very clear for everyone to follow so that in a rushed moment, you can understand this is how you need to do it, because it’s not possible to do anything else than to follow those restrictions.”
And then there’s the head-scratcher of team meetings. Engineers typically congregate in a confined space with the drivers, pouring over data between sessions. But with the mechanics and engineers working on each car now in separate groups that can’t cross paths, how are they supposed to collaborate and find lap time?
“We will move from being inside in a common environment to coming out of the trailer and into an area of the tent which is set off specifically for drivers to have a debrief. So we will have plenty of space for that, almost nine by three meters area that is open just for a driver on one hand and an engineer on the distance, and a TV screen in the middle so that everyone at a distance can see what is going on with the display, explaining everything to everyone.
“So we will gather still in one area, but with a maximum of four people in that very big, around 30 square meter area, just to run through the car and take big steps forward with the set-up and the drivers during the weekend.”
In theory not much of this of this is even necessary in terms of legal compliance. Especially in Sweden, of all countries, which has gained notoriety for its deliberate non-intervention in citizens’ lives during the pandemic. There have been few sweeping measures and no lockdown, with individual responsibility and civic duty prioritized in their place. And it’s that civic duty that appears to be motivating Hansen.
“We have people within the team who are not 20 years old anymore! My father [Hansen Motorsport team principal Kenneth Hansen] is 60 and there are other people in the team that are well over 50, and some people that are maybe not so low on weight, and are in the group with a bit more risk for COVID-19.
“It’s because of them that we take this extra safety and to make sure that other people in the paddock – fathers of people driving, the Legends race with all the people in it – we need to consider safety for them. It’s out of respect that we take the maximum security that we can and are able to do. Not because we need to for compliance, but it’s because we want to and want to show our respect and we want to make sure we don’t take unnecessary risks. It’s a deadly virus and nothing to play around with.
“It’s to know that we can be certain that we’ve done everything we can, and we can be safe in that, and if we wouldn’t have done that, and there was a case [of COVID-19] and we didn’t do everything possible, it would not have been a great feeling. That’s why we are taking so many measures.”
This is unlikely to be the response of every team in rallycross, never mind motorsport as a whole, but failure to maximize fine margins is what COVID-19 preys on. A minor slip up and it can take advantage. Just like Kevin did at Lohéac last year, when a last lap mistake by Timo Scheider gifted Hansen a last-gasp pass to the final.
Rallycross is won and lost on the finest of margins, and teams operate with that in mind. That same mentality will be needed in paddocks when it comes to COVID-19 prevention to ensure the virus doesn’t win out and force motorsport to pause again.