Motor racing: Vettel out of Bahrain F1 season-opener due to Covid-19, Hulkenberg to race

Germany's Sebastian Vettel (left) will be replaced by his compatriot Nico Hulkenberg in Formula One's Bahrain season-opener. PHOTOS: AFP, HULKHULKENBERG/INSTAGRAM

MANAMA (REUTERS) - Germany's Nico Hulkenberg will replace compatriot Sebastian Vettel in Formula One's Bahrain season-opener after the four-time world champion tested positive for Covid-19, Aston Martin said on Thursday (March 17).

"Sebastian Vettel has tested positive for Covid-19 and will not therefore be taking part in the 2022 Bahrain Grand Prix," the team said in a statement. Practice for Sunday's race starts on Friday.

Hulkenberg is the team's reserve driver and has stood in for them three times already since he last raced full time in Formula One with Renault in 2019.

The 34-year-old replaced Mexican Sergio Perez twice and Canadian Lance Stroll once in 2020 when the Silverstone-based team competed as Racing Point, with both drivers down with the coronavirus.

His last race was the 2020 Eifel Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, when he replaced Stroll.

The 2015 Le Mans 24 Hours winner has started 179 Formula One races, without standing on the podium, in a career that began with Williams in 2010 and included stints with Aston Martin's predecessors Force India.

He holds the F1 record for most starts without a top-three finish.

Sunday's race is the start of a new era for Formula One, with a major aerodynamic revamp and the cars heavier and with bigger tyres.

Vettel, who is also 34 and won his titles with Red Bull from 2010 to 2013, is the second driver to test positive for Covid-19 this month, with McLaren's Australian Daniel Ricciardo due to return to the paddock later on Thursday after a period of isolation.

Formula One has relaxed its previously tight Covid-19 protocols this season.

The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah follows next week and there was no word from Aston Martin about plans for that race.

On this season's changes, Vettel had joked last Saturday that driving a city tour bus would prepare drivers better than any simulator for the challenge of wrestling their heavier 2022 cars around tight and twisting layouts like Monaco.

This new models have been designed for the most radical rules overhaul in decades, aimed at allowing drivers to follow each other closely in a bid to improve the racing spectacle.

But with a larger proportion of downforce now generated from their undersides, the changes have resulted in cars that, while quick through high-speed corners, struggle into tighter turns. Required to weigh at least 795kg with the driver in the cockpit, a limit that is set to increase to 798kg before the start of the season, they are bulky, which makes them even more awkward to navigate through sharp, slow turns.

"Maybe it's better to jump on the city bus rather than the simulator before the race to get the preparation done," Vettel had told reporters during the final day of pre-season testing in Bahrain.

"The cars now are different. The first thing that stands out is the weight, the cars are a lot heavier, it's just more inertia, more mass, so therefore the driving has to adapt."

The new cars are also stiffly sprung and fitted with larger 18-inch wheels with thinner side walls that are not as good at smoothing out bumps as their 13-inch predecessors.

As a result, and because of their revised aerodynamics, the cars were seen to be "porpoising" or bouncing excessively - like the movement of a porpoise through water - as they generated and then lost downforce at speed on the straights.

Teams have dialled this phenomenon out to a large degree but the cars at the end of pre-season testing were still giving drivers a bumpy ride. "I'm pretty sure I can expect to have a sore back after Sunday's race," said Ferrari's Charles Leclerc.

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