Max Verstappen’s ‘Orange Army’ was not alone in sighing with relief on Friday evening after the Dutch government approved a 66% spectator capacity for Zandvoort’s grand prix scheduled for early September. In fact, F1’s collective exhale could be heard clearly at the circuit in the dunes, having travelled all the way across the English Channel.
The ministerial decision, described by the event’s sporting director Jan Lammers as “glass two-thirds full”, removes a major headache for F1’s commercial rights holder Liberty Media, which pushed to host its originally scheduled 23 races this season, against considerable odds. European dropouts at this stage would seriously impede that objective, with obvious knock-on effects on the sport’s revenues just as it gears up to its 2022 ‘new era’.
For starters, slotting another conveniently located replacement race into the middle of a triple-header bookended by Spa-Francorchamps and Monza would prove virtually impossible, particularly at such short notice – effectively a three-week window; doing so once the circuit has travelled further ashore after the Italian race even more so. Thus, retaining the Dutch round was crucial to Liberty’s plans.
As things stand now, that trio of races takes F1 up to 14 races of the scheduled 23 listed on the current edition of F1’s 2021 calendar, with the venue for the 21st round still ‘to be confirmed’.
Still, the listing suggests the full quota will be run, but Liberty faces considerable – but not insurmountable – challenges in this regard even if the round after Monza, namely Russia’s race in Sochi, seems assured. However, matters become considerable trickier thereafter: Turkey forms a back-to-back with Russia, Japan is next up a fortnight later. These two events hold the key to staging 23 races for the reasons as outlined below.
Turkey appears on the UK’s ‘red list’, which means all F1 personnel entering the country from Turkey are required to quarantine in a ‘managed hotel’ at a cost of £2,250 for 10 days – whether fully vaccinated or not. Once checked in there is no departure during the full isolation period, in turn spelling a disaster for teams.
However, quarantine could be avoided if Japan permits its grand prix to go ahead – with or without spectators – and accepts F1 personnel from Turkey without imposing stringent quarantine requirements on them. Japan is on the UK’s amber list, meaning fully vaccinated personnel need only subject themselves to a single Covid test after arrival. Thus, the crews would effectively serve out the 10 day post-Turkey period in Japan.
This means the fate of these grands prix rest squarely with the Japanese authorities. A further complication is that teams’ hardware for Japan’s race traditionally travels by sea, and time is already exceedingly tight for marine travel. Sending the various consignments by airfreight would prove eye-wateringly expensive, in turn denting income. A decision was due around August 10th, then pushed back by a week. Still nothing…
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Any further delays could see F1’s visit to the Land of the Rising Sun scrapped this year. But there is another consideration: The race marks Honda’s last opportunity of winning race on home ground, and thus the company, F1 and the Japanese government can be expected to delay any decision until the last moment – which in turn affects the Turkish race, itself a de facto replacement for Singapore’s cancelled round.
The question is how to proceed: Admit defeat and settle for fewer than 23 races or find substitutes? The former would not only pound Liberty’s FWONK share price, but potentially leave the final race tally in the late teens should further events be cancelled; slotting in alternatives poses a financial nightmare with regard to race hosting fees – plus the timing falls within Europe’s autumn, vastly reducing choice. Complex.
Liberty’s next challenge is the three races in the Americas: Austin, Mexico City and Sao Paulo. The latter two venues feature on the UK’s red list, and while there are some widespread doubts within F1 about the wisdom of racing in Mexico and Brazil due to COVID numbers, RaceFans understands both promoters are adamant their events will go ahead as scheduled – whether with full or empty stands.
Circuit of the Americas could, of course, step into the breach and host two races. F1 has toyed with the idea of a ‘Texas Grand Prix’ at COTA – although a race at Indianapolis cannot be excluded. Either way, that makes for but one additional race and F1 could find itself short by as many as four, namely Turkey, Japan, Mexico and Brazil. In that case a second US round would only partially compensate.
Fortunately, though, F1 faces no such issues after the Americas rounds are dispensed with by whatever solution for in the Middle East the sport is spoiled for choice, having three eligible circuits, namely Bahrain, Qatar and Abu Dhabi, within 500km of each other and a fourth (Jeddah) two hours away by air and as many days by road.
The last two are scheduled to host the closing brace of 2021 events, while Bahrain’s standard and/or ‘outer’ circuits may step into any breach. As revealed by RaceFans, Qatar may make its debut on F1’s calendar, with the 17% shareholding held by the country’s sovereign wealth fund in VW Group making a race in the gas-rich state attractive for both parties given the interest shown by Audi and Porsche in joining F1.
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As outlined above F1, could stage anywhere between 19 and 23 rounds this season. The final number is not, though, under the direct control of Liberty but in the gift of politicians and bureaucrats spanning no fewer than 14 time zones.
There are no doubts that Liberty has done a sterling commercial job for F1 under extremely challenging circumstances, but one questions whether delaying a series of crucial calendar decisions best serves F1’s sporting ethos. With (over?) half the calendar run the main protagonists do not even know how many rounds to prepare for. Unprecedented times or not, any world class sport requires such a fundamental parameter.
Last year reducing the number of events made little difference, for the season was a cakewalk for Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes from the start. Given how finely-poised this season is – we may see our first final-round title-decider for five years – it is not difficult to imagine the accusations of race-fixing that would ring from either or both teams should the season be cut short at what they consider an inconvenient point.
Whoever eventually receives this year’s silverware does not deserve such innuendo, and thus it is incumbent upon the sport’s masters to issue a final calendar and stick to it, regardless of whether it features 17 or 23 events. Ultimately calendar uncertainty does the sport and its fans no favours while creating stock market volatility – thus Liberty should decide F1’s 2021 destiny by wrestling back control of its calendar.