The growing signs that a 23 race season is too much for F1

F1

Has Formula 1 diluted an incredible title fight between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton? Chris Medland says the record-breaking calendar has its cons

Valtteri Bottas with his face in a towel after 2021 Monaco GP qualifying

Can you have too much of a good thing?

Maybe that’s not the right way for me to ask that question. But can the tantalising wait for a true championship battle to build into a crescendo prove too long?

It’s nearly the start of June, and if Formula 1 pulls off the record-breaking season it has planned, we are just over 21% of the way through the season – not even a quarter of the way through.

If this were 2003, we’d have a third of the season all but done and something like the Monaco Grand Prix weekend would really feel like a massive moment in the context of the championship fight. Max Verstappen overturning a 14-point deficit in the space of two hours to now lead Lewis Hamilton by four points could be monumental, but there’s just so far to go…

And this is where there’s perhaps a risk of over-saturation. There was a lot more energy in Monaco thanks to the easing of restrictions that added some atmosphere to the paddock, pit lane and grid, but it does feel a little bit like everyone is already going through the motions. Jumping from one race to the next, the toll on the teams involved is one that shouldn’t be overlooked.

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Team personnel have been strained for the last year operating under Covid protocols

Peter Fox/Getty Images

It’s the Austria double-header that really amplifies it. Turkey was added in place of Canada to try and keep the provisional calendar at 23 races, partly due to concerns that not all of the events later in the season will be able to happen. It also made sense as it paired it with Baku, but that proved a premature move, as a matter of just a few weeks later the COVID situation meant Turkey was on the United Kingdom’s travel red list and a trip to Istanbul was off again.

Instead of the teams getting a little space to breathe ahead of a brutal summer and autumn schedule, they were then hit with a rejigging of the calendar to accommodate two races in Austria, shifting France a week earlier.

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A year ago, that sort of move was understandable. But with so many events still on the calendar this season, the risk of the final number dropping to levels that cost the sport in television revenue is so much lower. And it’s hardly a new promoter spending massive money, even if the Red Bull Ring might give F1 a decent fee.

So to keep the number at 23 races there are now four triple headers on the calendar, which seems to come with scant regard for the personal lives of all those who work in the teams.

“At the moment, you’re running through the races, it’s important to be reliable, consistent and not lose too much ground”

Many of you might be reading this in the UK, and as a result, you’ll understand the restrictions that you have faced over the past year and how they have eased in the last few months. But for those who work in F1, the travel means they are unable to escape a mandatory period of self-isolation when returning from every race.

Those involved in making the sport happen have to be tested on day two and day eight after arriving back in the UK, and self-isolate until at least day five, when they can take an extra test in order to end the isolation period. Assuming all the results are negative, of course.

That means even if there is a weekend “off” between races, a team arriving home on Monday after a race will only be able to test on Saturday and be free from isolation on Saturday evening as a best-case scenario. Three days later and they’re on a plane to the next event, which will trigger a new period of self-isolation on return.

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Red Bull now leads both championships but isn’t getting carried away whatsoever

Pascal Le Segretain/WireImage

It’s a similar situation for the teams based in Italy too, where they recently had to undergo five days of “smart isolation” when returning from races – essentially the same as the UK, meaning they could only travel to work, otherwise couldn’t leave their homes.

They’re making huge sacrifices to put on all of these races, but even from my position of luxury where I can pick and choose the events I want to travel to and the ones that aren’t worth the isolation, I’m not too sure if so many races are a good thing right now.

Familiarity breeds contempt, and with so many races still to go, it’s almost like these earlier events have less of a bearing in the championship battle. Yes, all of the points are worth the same at the end of the season, but when the finishing point seems so far away and there are so many of those points still up for grabs, it just takes the edge off.

From a title perspective, it’s the equivalent of the early stages of a Formula 2 sprint race, where everyone is cruising around far off their potential pace in order to protect tyres and waiting for it to all kick off at the end.

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It turns out I’m not alone in thinking that, with Red Bull team principal Christian Horner telling me he views this stage of the season as a spell when the pressure is nowhere near as high.

“Look, it’s still a long, long way to go but when they have an off day, it was very important for us to bank a lot of points,” Horner said. “To do that and come out leading both championships is beyond expectations certainly coming into the weekend. It just shows how close things are and things can move around very quickly.

“We’ve just got to keep in striking distance until the back end of the championship and that’s where the pressure really comes. So at the moment, you’re in that [place] where you’re running through the races, it’s important to be reliable, consistent and not lose too much ground.”

Winning a world championship has always been about building a complete season, but the longer you make that season and the further away the final target becomes as a result, the significance of each individual moment feels like it is diluted that little bit more.

This year’s battle is one that filled everyone with anticipation and excitement back in March. Ideally, it will stay close because F1 needs to monitor if there’s a dip in that enthusiasm over the coming few races. If there is, it might mean it’s more than just the personal lives of the sport’s employees that suffer from such a bloated and backloaded calendar.