F1’s tight title fight means urgent answers are needed to calendar conundrum

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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’.

Start, Suzuka, 2019
Will Japan welcome F1 after the Olympics?
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.

Losail International Circuit, Qatar
Analysis: Why Qatar could be a surprise addition to this year’s F1 calendar
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.

Start, Circuit of the Americas, 2019
A second COTA race could use the new ‘sprint’ format
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.

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45 comments on “F1’s tight title fight means urgent answers are needed to calendar conundrum”

  1. So in context of Brazil wanting to be moved a week, because of a surprise (!) public holiday, that’s just a tatic so it’s FIA who say “no” and they save face?

    1. Good point @falken, I also wondered about that (esp. since the stated reason of a special holiday is hardly something that cannot be foreseen well in advance, which makes the request to move coming only now a bit odd).

    2. Brazil moving back a week might actually work well if Japan gets cancelled. Then they could do either another race at COTA or one at Indianapolis the week before the US GP, before heading to Mexico, with a now two week break before Sao Paulo, avoiding 4 races in a row which the teams probably wouldn’t be keen about. That TBA slot could also move back a week and it could be a Qatar/Bahrain to Saudi Arabia to Abu Dhabi triple header to finish the season. So under this scenario the end of the season may look like this:
      16. Turkish GP – October 3
      17. Texas/Indianaplis GP – October 17
      18. United States GP – October 24
      19. Mexico City GP – October 31
      20. Sao Paulo GP – November 14
      21. Qatar/Sakhir GP – November 28
      22. Saudi Arabian GP – December 5
      23. Abu Dhabi GP – December 12
      However at this stage Japan probably will go ahead, but those last four races will likely happen on those dates I’ve chosen anyway.

      1. I believe Indy has already indicated they are not ready for a GP in 2021, but I won’t be at all surprised to see one there soon. Austin is in a mess with COVID and just getting worse. The number of infections in Texas has gone from about 3,000 to about 12,000 just in the last month. I wouldn’t bet on a 2nd race here, and maybe not the originally scheduled one, either.

      2. @milesy-jam In this scenario, UK’s red list would simply force Turkish, Mexican, and Brazil cancellations, as the following weekend would be a non-race one.

    3. Brazil simply wants to move back to their original date. They gave up their original date to accommodate Australia. Now Australia is cancelled.

      1. Brazil is deep on UK’s Red List so as of now Brazil is looking to be a no go this season.

  2. Liberty did a bad job imo and i disagree with the article. Why we got 4 weeks of vacation in f1 instead of 2 for example.
    Everyone in the right mind know that covid is less of a problem in the summer and that as we progress to autumn the situation will get only worse. The vaccination wall that the politics promise us, after the Delta variant is not working as expected and the infected people rise exponentially. Just see what is happening in Israel which is the country with the most vaccinated people.
    All of the above shows that liberty must had altered the race schedule to put the races earlier if they really wanted a full schedule. Also i prefer less races with full grandstands than more with empty.

    1. @bluechris Summer break has traditionally occurred at this time of year. Having three consecutive non-race weekends is also a tradition.

    2. Liberty/FOM does not decide the summer break — it’s mandated by the FIA in the Sporting Regulations and has been around for about 20 years.

      1. @x1znet Not for that long. Since late-noughties.

    3. @bluechris,

      There’s a couple of reasons why they take a forced summer vacation, especially this year even though it doesn’t look obvious. As mentioned before by @x1znet and @jerejj, FIA is the one who mandates the forced Summer vacation that’s been long established. All the teams have employees with families, to reduce attrition and fatigue to the teams, the action has proved vital and necessary despite what fans may prefer. It’s also in the middle of the summer when fans are also out and about with family and not sitting on the couch in front of their TV’s on nice summer Sundays.

      Because of Covid, the schedule has become a very fluid situation and means almost anything is possible in the schedule and makes it very uncertain when and where races will take place. F1 has always intended to have 23 races this year, add the fluid schedule and the craziness of it, it makes very difficult for all the teams employees to schedule any of their own time (Yes, they do have their own time). This makes its even more reason to have the forced scheduled summer vacation.

      I’ll admit, it doesn’t look good if all the races on the scheduled aren’t met and there still was a long summer vacation but FIA and F1 have no way of knowing that ahead of time when making the schedule for the summer vacation which just can’t be moved around for the sake of some race fans. Imagine your boss telling you & your family to change your Christmas vacation to end of Jan.

  3. Two races in Austin? I’m starting to have my doubts that there will even be one race here. The COVID-19 situation is bad in Austin, and is just getting worse. There is one ICU bed available in the 11-county Austin service area. There’s also a report that the Austin MotoGP race in early October is in serious doubt.

    1. Texas has generally not cared about covid numbers before. Why would they start now? This is a serious question. They probably should care. I just haven’t seen any evidence to date they are willing to a) wear masks, b) get vaccinated, c) cancel events in any significant numbers. So who ultimately would make the call on the Austin GP? If it’s politicians or the race organizers what are their motivations going to be to cancel? I will say if it’s local politicians you are talking probably the most liberal leaning zip codes in all of Texas.

      1. If it gets cancelled like last year’s GP, it’ll likely be one of the City of Austin, Travis County (not likely), or F1 (also not likely imho) who cancels it.

        Now, if the City or F1 says COTA can have the race, but without fans, IMHO COTA Boss Bobby Epstein will try to get a different kind of deal with F1, like a low-risk, low-reward track rental. Failing that, imho he’ll find a way out of the race, as a lack of fans would prevent him from harvesting COTA’s annual $25+ Million subsidy from the State of Texas (more than $225 Million so far).

        Last year the City was the driving force in the cancellations of SXSW, ACL Fest, F1, MotoGP & more. This year’s Austin Covid numbers are worse than last year’s. Who knows …

        It’s also noteworthy that this year’s GP is the final race in F1’s contract with COTA, & at least publicly, there’s been no extension. It’s possible that we’ve actually already seen the final F1 GP at COTA – back in 2019.

      2. And check out this latest news that just dropped about an hour ago: Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who is trying to ban mask mandates in Texas, has tested positive for COVID after attending a packed, maskless GOP event.

      3. @Jay It isn’t that Texas is going to start caring now, because they’re not as long as Greg Abbott is the governor. The issue is that the MotoGP regulations say they have to have a letter signed from the 2 or 3 closest hospitals(I forget exactly how many) with a trauma unit saying they’re willing to take severally injured riders or circuit personnel(i.e. marshals) during the race weekend. Right now it is highly doubtful that the nearby hospitals would agree to this, since pretty much all of the ICU beds in the Austin area are 100% full. Now since there is a lot of money involved, I won’t be surprised if Dorna and Cota try to bend the rules, which could lead to strike threat by the riders. F1 has a similar rule related to hospitals.

        1. Thank you. That is helpful context I wasn’t aware of.

        2. @forrest Thank you for this explanation. I was never aware of a specific rule related to hospitals before.

      4. From MSNBC

        As preparation for further grim developments, Texas has requested five mortuary trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Texas trails only Florida among states with the most COVID deaths a day, both averaging more than 160. No other state is above 50.

        I don’t see how Texas will be able to run a race, let alone two and a concert. This is really getting stupid here in the States with the anti-vaxers. I am astounded how national health policy has become some political thing. I guess (and I’m American) there is an inability to understand what vaccines are and how they work; polio, smallpox et al seem to have been forgotten. The anti-science component of America is the same as the Trumpistas…. Sad days indeed as they affect (and infect) the rest of us. Vaccination here is free and readily available, but….. idiots.

        1. Agree 100%. It’s sad.

    2. @tim wood, I share the same skepticism.

      1. Yeah, Jere, it’s not looking good, and now GP One is reporting that Austin will be replaced by Misano on the MotoGP calendar.

  4. I get the final conclusion but I do feel like it forgets that we really are still in the midst of a global pandemic and unprecedented times.

    The article feels like it glosses over this and I personally don’t take the same issue with having uncertainty with regards to the state of the championship and what drivers and teams are facing. Everyone is up against the same issues. I think we all just have to accept that globally we are still in this, it hasn’t gone away even if in some e countries, especially the UK, we do feel like we’re on the way out from this. Same can’t be said of many places the world over and this is a global championship, not a UK one.

    1. @davidhunter13, I do agree with you to some extent (though UK is of special importance as the vast majority of the teams are seated there, so it is a big practical consideration, and if that means that a race = 10 days quarantine, then that is a problem from budget and planning point of view). Still, some of the delay does feel a bit arbitrary (though having said that, had they decided on Zandvoort a few weeks ago, it likely would have had to been cancelled, and that might well be similar for quite a few of the coming rounds, maybe COTA included!).

  5. I agree. I also find this uncertainty over more than a single event unideal. For now, Japanese GP uncertainty is the only one bothering me, especially as 10.8 was the reference day, but still no definitive answer seven days on. Time is indeed running out, given freight lead time, so sooner or later, everything has to be entirely clear for Suzuka, i.e., 100% clear teams wouldn’t have any stumbling blocks facing on their Japan arrival. UK’s red list ultimately determines Mexico’s and Brazil’s fate. Presently, they couldn’t go ahead, but a simple solution would be merely swapping Brazil and the US around to cancel the red list impact altogether. A non-issue, of course, for Turkey as long as Japan doesn’t face cancellation. I also saw some skeptical mentions about US GP recently, but I’m not worried for now.
    Anyway, having uncertainty generally bothers, but especially concerning race calendar.

  6. Selfishly, I would be OK with another race at COTA (or even at Indy). I was planning to go to COTA this year but some friends scheduled their wedding for that weekend, so an additional race would give me the opportunity to go in person. This whole situation seems like a logistical nightmare for the teams though.

    1. You need different friends …

    2. COTA also seems expensive this year, so selfishly hoping things are cheaper on the 2nd race weekend!

    3. @BDN A possibility of not having even a single race exists. Thus, you mightn’t lose out on anything after all.

  7. I’ll say again. No chance of Mexico and Brazil races this year.

    Question – which has more padding… Bibendum or this article?

    1. @Simon, I agree with you on Mexico and Brazil.

  8. I think Liberty are doing their best with the calendar taking into account there is still so much that is potentially subject to change. The delay and uncertainty in decisions on individual races is only to be expected really I think.

    I am not sure there is much else Liberty can do. However, I feel they do need to make a compromise on the 23 race target for 2021. It is probably better for all involved, to have certainty on the final calendar as soon as possible, and to settle for less races this year.

    1. AJ (@asleepatthewheel)
      18th August 2021, 5:21

      I agree with you. The obsession with 23 races (read $$$) is going overboard now. 20-21 is a good number, though I wouldn’t mind a race with the outer layout in Bahrain.

  9. Wrestling back control from who exactly? The global picture changes almost daily, saying they should decide a calendar and stick to it is ridiculous with what is still happening.

    1. The problem is that they need to schedule way ahead of time (more than you think), trying to forecast & gamble on tens of millions of dollars on picking a location. This means they have to pass on all sorts of possibilities due to not being concrete enough to tell the teams and place it on schedule. You have immense amounts of logistics ($$$) to deal with on the fly. And then being able to give the venue enough time to get ready for the F1 circus to arrive, the housing wouldn’t have been locked in and scheduled the year before because no one knew they were going back then, making things even harder to go. It’s not like telling the kids and wife to get ready and go on a last minute on a camping trip.

      All of this makes it very frustrating for everyone.

      1. Agreed.

  10. In terms of the fan/team complaints/WCC/WDC, I’d say that Liberty is in a no win situation, regardless of how they handle change.

    If a venue, as is likely, becomes impractical, then there will be the inevitable complaints that “losing this one affected our championship chances” or “ the replacement venue favoured xxxxx (insert competing driver/team) over yyyyyy (insert your favourite driver/team)”

    Unfortunately that is what it is – there’s no real way around it. To me all decisions have to be made on the basis of safety for F1 personnel first and then practicality, regardless of whether it has a perception of increasing or decreasing the chances for a team or driver.

    What I don’t want to see is them making changes to artificially try to bring about various advantages or disadvantages specifically to try to engineer a “last race decider”. If the calendar has to be shortened, so be it, it’s not unexpected and hasn’t been all year. I’d rather that than for Liberty to cast about for venues with $$ that give them a chance to engineer “the show” based on who is leading at the time.


    1. @dbradock,

      Totally agree, they need to keep the integrity & quality of the racing without compromise this season, certainly no easy feat but there’s already been controversy this season.

      I also agree that Liberty is in a no win situation.

  11. I mean, with Japan, Brazil and Mexico likely to be cancelled, yeah, that makes a real difference to the season when Monza and Spa won’t be. Advantage Hamilton.

    1. @hahostolze The former is now, and even COTA might join this list.

  12. Just get 21 over yet. Outcome is clear. Lets move to 22

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