The month of April is traditionally when the motor sport season gets into full swing. It’s when racing truly becomes the norm again at most given weekends.
But it’s best not to dwell on the glorious action that we might have been watching during this month’s sunny weekends.
“We have no clear idea of when we can actually start – whether it be the first of July, the first of August, or next week…”
Instead, let’s ask what British racing looks like when it does return? How do organisers fit an entire season into a few months?
There will be upheaval, and the 2020 schedule will look like no other. But one aspect won’t change at all: the fact that British racing calendars pivot around the Formula 1 World Championship dates.
The scheduling of grands prix (and also how to not clash with them) is first and foremost in an organisers’ mind, and in this country it doesn’t get bigger than Silverstone’s British Grand Prix.
The British Grand Prix
The Grand Prix is currently the barometer for British racing and will give us some sign of what the remainder of 2020 holds in store for the sport.
By the end of this month, we should know if it is happening on July 19 as planned or not.
There’s a good chance that it will be rescheduled, and plenty of speculation that Silverstone could host more than one race, but for the national racing season, any delay in the country’s largest race would send a strong signal to smaller race organisers – one that indicated further delays.
Currently, Motorsport UK (MSUK) has suspended all race organisation permits until at least June 30. It is hoped the sport can get back underway in all its might during July, coinciding nicely with the British GP’s scheduled date.
However, nobody knows if this virus will have receded enough for us all to get back to the tracks for July. As depressing as it sounds, further delay is a very real possibility, and the only option is to ride it out, as the economic and social impacts worsen with each passing week.
A July season start?
What happens if racing is given the green light to resume from July, at the earliest?
The UK’s organising clubs will have to act swiftly to reschedule any already lost events, while the entire sport scrambles to cram eight months’ worth of race season into five, or less…
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We could see back-to-back, relentless racing when things do start up again, and many series could be racing well into the winter. There are all sorts of contingencies and options available to organisers – but as of yet, no start date.
“The way it stands at the moment, we cannot even look at the calendars, as we have no clear idea of when we can actually start – whether it be the first of July, the first of August, or next week…” says Ian Watson, general manager of the British Automobile Racing Club, which looks after a swathe of championships – from club series to the British Touring Car Championship and truck racing.
“Without clear information, which nobody has at the moment, let alone motor sport, we’re all in the dark. I’d imagine we’ll know more when things fall into place a bit more this month. And by the start of May we’ll certainly be clearer as we’ll know whether the British GP is happening, and that dictates so much of the UK race calendar. That will be quite indicative of where we stand with everything else.”
The British racing pecking order
The calendars for the British season are put in place soon after the FIA ratifies the F1 schedule (usually in the preceding October-November), so the national dates will be set by Christmas in most cases. After F1 and international series – like the World Endurance Championship and MotoGP – have set their dates, the top-tier British classes get their turn with the BTCC, British Super Bikes and British GT taking what best suits them. It’s then up to the club racing organisers to take up what’s left and form their own schedules.
That’s in normal circumstances, however. Losing the first three months of a season (at least) has left most championships facing unprecedented confusion.
It’s not like major series like the BTCC can simply pick a new date at random. With the entire first half of its season on hold, it has a 10-event schedule to fulfil, with a TV agreement, sponsor commitments and so on. The TOCA package is a multi-media powerhouse, with hours of live coverage from each race day being pumped out on ITV. Therefore things have to stack up for the broadcaster, too. If something like the Tour de France (one of ITV Sports’ other large assets) was rescheduled to the same date as a BTCC round, that would be less than ideal. It’s a tangled conundrum of factors, all of which will have to be worked out in a very short space of time once the green light does arrive.
Expect the BTCC and BSB to still secure the dates at the venues it needs, both because they will have first refusal on rescheduled dates once the current calendar is largely ripped up, but also because the venues themselves need them.
From a circuit’s point of view, of course, it wants to do as much as it can to honour commitments to its existing events, but commercial factors will override all eventually.
The start of the British motor racing season has been pushed back until at least July, following Boris Johnson's announcement of a coronavirus lockdown for at least three weeks. All…
Venues are coming under more and more pressure the longer this racing blackout continues. The lean months of the winter are offset by the busy summer period, yet so far tracks are being starved of income during what would usually be a boom period.
Take a venue like Thruxton. It can only hold 12 days of racing per year and can only run test days in school holiday periods (which, incidentally, is why the TOCA test is never on the same week as the actual race meeting). To remain financially viable, Thruxton needs spectators, so it needs the events that draw crowds – like the BTCC, BSB, Trucks and so on.
The BARC operates Thruxton, Pembrey, Croft and the Gurston Down and Harewood hillclimb courses. Watson says: “The financial impact for the venues has been fairly catastrophic already. If you’re somewhere like Thruxton, with limited days of racing activity anyway, and you’ve lost half of that already, there’s a lot of pressure to be able to reschedule those missing events. You have to recoup the most of your losses, so you go for the big events that draw in spectators.
“One side is that the BARC venues do have flexibility to get events in, whereas something like a Donington Park or Brands Hatch [which host a huge number of events each year, often staging racing of some form almost every weekend] may not.”
A new look for races?
That opens the door to some interesting possibilities of seeing series visit unusual places, purely to get additional rounds in. Suddenly, a track like Thruxton with three permitted dates available could be a tempting option for some top series, which wouldn’t usually head there.
Could we see a return of the double BTCC round of last year, or even a first visit of British GT since 2010? How about touring cars back to Pembrey for the first time since 1993? Perhaps even big-hitters like the BTCC and British GT sharing the same bill if rescheduled track time did become very difficult to secure – admittedly paddock space and commercial rights would be very tricky barriers to hurdle, but again it’s one of the (admittedly very) extreme possibilities that could arise. Anything is technically possible in the current climate.
And what of the possibility of extending the racing season, purely to fit in additional fixtures? Currently, there is no legal or permit-related restriction of when clubs can hold races during 2020. Most events are run to British Summer Time, for obvious reasons, meaning the vast majority of championships are settled by mid-October, but this year we could see racing much later, and even into December. Admittedly, once the clocks go back, organisers would be fighting against tight daylight hours, so meetings would have to feature stripped-back content.
Racing behind closed doors
Of course, all of this could also be negated by any exit strategy restrictions that may be placed on public events after the worst has passed. Should the government lift the outright ban on events, but still enforce a maximum head count of, say 2000 people, that would still make larger race meetings unviable.
While some F1 grands prix may have the luxury of government funding, allowing them to negate the loss of paying spectators, that plan would surely be ruinous for the British GP, one of the few races to operate entirely without government funding. British racing wouldn’t be immune. BTCC supremo Alan Gow told Motor Sport that his events demand a huge workforce to run efficiently, saying: “Could the BTCC have raced behind closed doors? No. We require hundreds of people to make our championship run. At Donington, for example, we have 280 marshals alone, so by the time we added up all the people, even on a minimum basis without compromising safety, we were over 1000 people. So behind closed doors was a non-starter.”
And an attendance limit would be terrible news for venues, which would be relying on those crowd-drawing events for financial flotation.
For now, clubs and venues are in damage limitation mode. Both the BARC and MotorSport Vision Racing have been forced to place large sections of workforce on the government’s furlough scheme to stem losses until activities can resume. MSV declined to comment when contacted about the situation at its venues – Brands Hatch, Donington Park, Oulton Park, Snetterton and Cadwell Park – and its efforts with the demands of rescheduling,
Racing clubs tick over
At the BARC, senior staff are mucking in with routine maintenance in an effort to keep the club’s venues ready for action.
“All of our main staff have been furloughed, the senior managers are working from home and the managerial staff at Thruxton, Pembrey and Croft are going in to do the maintenance work that’s required to keep the circuits operational for when we can run events again,” says Watson. “It’s the silly little things, like when you arrive at Thruxton we’ve got two great big grass car parks. Well if we leave that grass to grow for three months unattended, then we won’t get anybody in them when we do re-open!”
Clubs are being helped by MSUK. British championships have been subject to a rule that any calendar change would require a majority vote (of around 80 per cent) of competitors to agree before official changes can be made. That has been waived to allow clubs and organisers maximum flexibility when rescheduling. MSUK has also announced a £1m support fund in an effort to ensure there that as many of its current 720 affiliated motor clubs as possible are still around when this is all over.
This is a time shrouded in uncertainty, but one thing is for certain. The sport will return, just as it did after two world wars, but this time the parties should extend far beyond just Goodwood.