F1 reserve venues on standby as 23-race schedule looks shaky


F1 is ready for more unpredictability when it comes to its 2021 calendar

2020 Austrian Grand Prix

F1 is set for more unpredictability in 2021

Grand Prix Photo

On Friday morning the FIA and Formula 1 issued the detailed schedule for the 2021 season, a document that pops up around this time every year and which outlines the daily timetable for each race weekend, including race start times.

It was also a reminder that we are still full steam ahead with the busy 23-race calendar that was announced in November, and tweaked in January.

However, given the ongoing impact of Covid-19 around the world no sensible observer would bet on all 23 of those races happening as currently planned.

Vaccines are being gradually rolled out, but every week brings news of more restrictions on global travel that could trip up F1’s plans. In every country that the sport visits governments have the ultimate say about whether or the travelling circus will be allowed in, and right now some might not be as welcoming as they were in 2020.

Last year the sport did an awesome job to get 17 races run at 14 venues, crammed into a July-December window.

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Strict Covid testing procedures, a minimal number of people in the paddock and no spectators – apart from at a few late-season races – allowed the FIA to run a representative World Championship, even if the focus was very much on Europe.

Given that in spring the world was in lockdown and races were being cancelled or postponed having any kind of season at all was quite an achievement.

“That kind of March to June timeframe, we were all staring at Austria as the most hopeful start,” McLaren boss Zak Brown noted in December.

“But I don’t think until we actually got to Austria that any of us had 100 per cent confidence, because races were just getting cancelled one after another. And it seemed like the world didn’t have Covid under control.

“And clearly, in some parts of the world, it’s very much still not under control, even though I think there’s a much better awareness on how to treat it, the testing is much more aggressive.

“I think even in June, it was still, ‘Are we’re gonna get a season in at all? And then we got three, four races into it, and we saw how well prepared F1 and the FIA and the rules were in place that we kind of thought, alright, we’re gonna get 17 races in here.”

“I can assure our supporters, our fans, is that really we want to make sure that the season is there”

Brown was bullish about prospects for 2021: “I feel very confident that we’ll get the races in next year, and Chase [Carey] is very confident we’ll get the full calendar in.

“I think we’ve shown that we can race without fans, which is definitely not an ideal scenario for fans or the teams or sponsors or partners.

“But everything I’m hearing is, it’s all systems go. Maybe there’ll be some limited audience early on, but let’s hope that these vaccines come fast and furious now and give us a clean run at it next year.”

Former F1 CEO Carey always said that the 2021 calendar would be the one that was abandoned in 2020, and the first version as published on November 10 last year was pretty much a facsimile.

The major talking points were a “TBC” where Vietnam was supposed to be, and the addition of a new race in Saudi Arabia at the end of the year.

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The only significant date move was Zandvoort’s switch from May to September. That was a result of the Dutch organisers hoping that the extra time would diminish the impact of Covid and thus give the race a fighting chance of happening after 2020’s disappointment.

Back in November Carey was adamant that, give or take the presence of spectators, things would run to schedule. He had to start with the best possible scenario of a “normal” calendar, given that races involve ongoing contracts with huge sums at stake. Cancellations have significant legal ramifications.

“We are planning for 2021 events with fans that provide an experience close to normal and expect our agreements to be honoured,” he said.

“We have proven that we can safely travel and operate our races and our promoters increasingly recognise the need to move forward and manage the virus.

“In fact, many hosts actually want to use our event as a platform to show the world they are moving forward.”

That was early November, but through December and into the New Year Covid’s grip on the world tightened.

Despite Carey’s optimism nobody in F1 thought that the planned season start in Australia in March was ever realistic.

The country has imposed some of the world’s tightest restrictions on entry, and a proposed 14-day hotel quarantine on arrival – as experienced by those allowed in for Melbourne’s Open tennis tournament – was simply unrealistic for F1 personnel.

It was no surprise therefore that concerns over Albert Park were addressed when a calendar update was released on January 12, two months after the original version.

As anticipated, Bahrain became the season opener as Melbourne was pushed back to November. Meanwhile China – which was to have been the second race – was squeezed out and demoted to reserve status, should an opportunity to run it arise later in the year.

2020 Australian GP

Australia has slipped from the 2021 calendar’s opening slot

Grand Prix Photo

The only confirmed new event was Imola in April, after the track’s successful return to the calendar last year, while one “TBC” remained in early May, reserved for Portimao, but yet to be formally announced.

So what happens next? The official line is that all 23 promoters are ready to go, with the presence of spectators the main question mark.

Nevertheless, it seems inevitable that some will fall eventually by the wayside. Logic suggests that flyaway races outside Europe, with more complex travel and transport arrangements, are more vulnerable – most were wiped out last year.

However, there are now tighter restrictions all over the continent than were in place last year, so travel could be more complicated. The UK is regarded as a high-risk red zone by many other nations, and that’s a potential concern, given that it’s the home of seven of the teams, along with many employees of F1 and the FIA.

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The street events face the biggest hurdles. Permanent venues can hold races at relatively short notice, and if there are no spectators or limited numbers then preparations are even more straightforward.

In contrast Monaco, Baku, Singapore, Melbourne and to a lesser park track Montreal all require a lot of work to get ready, with lead times of two or three months.

Nobody wants to have a repeat of the situation we saw in Australia last year, where the money had been spent, but there was no race. There is also the issue of the personnel involved in erecting barriers and so on being exposed to Covid. It’s hard to argue that it’s essential work.

As noted earlier, all races are subject to the wishes of the relevant governments. In many cases there’s a close link between politicians and the race promoter, and not just in obvious places like Singapore and Abu Dhabi.

That can work both ways. As Carey hinted, holding a major event like a Grand Prix can be a sign of normality returning, and thus the red tape can be cut through to allow a race to happen.

On the other hand, there is a risk of a PR own goal. Positive Covid tests created unwanted headlines for the Australian authorities after 1300 or people were allowed in for the Open tennis when others are not allowed to travel.

As in 2020 the magic number for F1 is 15 races, the total that triggers full payments from the TV broadcasters – below that, they get a rebate.

Even with the likely cancellations that still looks achievable. Reserves are on standby to fill any gaps, and as last year, some venues could host a second race.

Sebastian Vettel, 2020 Sakhir GP

Bahrain hosted two races with an alternate layout used for the Sakhir GP

Grand Prix Photo

It will be another complicated and stressful year for the folk in charge – with a lot of income for F1 and hence the teams riding on whether paying spectators will be allowed as the season goes on.

Carey’s replacement Stefano Domenicali, who knows the circuit management business well having once run Mugello, is optimistic.

“What I can share is that I’m personally speaking on a daily basis with all the organisers,” he told Martin Brundle in a recent Sky Interview.

“We know the pandemic is still there – that’s why we changed the place in the calendar of Australia.

“But so far the information we have is that everyone really would like to go ahead with the plan.

“Of course, we need to be flexible enough to understand that maybe in the first part of the season we may have some events with no public or with restricted members of the public.

“But what I can assure our supporters, our fans, is that really we want to make sure that the season is there, we have a commitment and we want to take that on board, and we have possible alternatives in case. But so far no one has given us different information to what we have shared.

“This is what we know today, but we know how the pandemic has evolved so we need to be ready for a flexible approach on the season.”