A frontline medic explains the challenge of running Le Mans
Dr Dhushy Surendra Kumar reveals the challenges of holding an event like Le Mans during a global pandemic
For the first time in its near hundred-year history, the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be run behind closed doors in a few days’ time. Spectators will not be allowed into the Circuit de la Sarthe’s sprawling grandstands and the number of ground staff and media in attendance will be heavily restricted. The challenges of returning to motor racing, that most multinational and populous of sports, has kept its governing bodies very busy over the last few months. Now, with the ultimate endurance race just around the corner, one of the medical experts helping to get the world racing again reveals some of the challenges his colleagues face.
Dr Dhushy Surendra Kumar is a critical care consultant who has lent his experience to the world of motorsport for the best part of 30 years. He has served as chief medical officer at everything from grass roots racing events to Formula E and was in charge of setting up the medical centre and medical services at the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. However, since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, his focus has been on fighting the virus from the frontline, at the busy English hospital where he is based.
According to Kumar, motor racing is probably the toughest sport for controlling the spread of COVID-19 due to the numbers of people present at events as teams or officials, but he underlines how implementing measures at the appropriate stage does make it possible.
“Of course the first thing was getting the teams back into their garage environments and building the cars,” Kumar says. “And space is at a premium, so ensuring people don’t get within two metres of each other is very difficult. Motorsport is a collaborative occupation that relies on people working closely together to get the job done. So a lot of work has to go into ensuring safety in an enclosed space.”
It has been far from easy, with factors beyond the organisers’ control and even now a degree of give and take will be required to allow the teams to operate efficiently at an event like Le Mans. “With spectator and journalist numbers down,” Kumar says, “there will be intense team activity surrounded by a largely sterile environment. The organisers can only control so much and have to limit contact with those they can’t control. I always take a pragmatic view, however: you can’t wrap everybody in cotton wool, so you do the best you can while allowing the work to continue.”
So mask wearing, social distancing and strict hand hygiene remain paramount, even within the closely knit team bubbles, with regular testing vital to pinpointing anyone who has picked up the infection regardless of the measures in place. It is essential for the revival of motorsport, Kumar points out, that large and high-profile events such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans are not later proven to have been the cause of a spike in infection.
“Motorsport is essentially bringing people from all around the world into one place. Concentrations of people in enclosed spaces is the main problem and the paddock is perfect for that, which is why we take it so seriously. You have to be happy that no-one on your team has COVID-19 before, during or after, and this means regular testing,” he says.
Everyone working on site, from the engineers and drivers to stewards and staff, should be tested at intervals, and while Kumar concedes that at such a large scale event the safety measures cannot be impregnable, the evidence suggests that they remain very effective.