On its summer break after a blistering first half of the season, Formula One continues to bask in the warm glow of Lewis Hamilton’s and Max Verstappen’s gripping title fight. The pair have a chance to relax now but it is likely neither will be able to completely banish from their minds the consideration of what comes next, who has the edge and the pressing concern of where and when they will resume battle.
F1 has completed 11 races, with Hamilton leading Verstappen by eight points after turning round a deficit that stood at 33 before the British Grand Prix. The sport’s intent is that they should conclude their fight over 12 more races to take the season to 23 – the stated aim at the beginning of the year and a record number in a single campaign.
There is a clear imperative to this: to alleviate the financial damage the sport sustained in 2020 because of the pandemic. F1 managed an impressive 17 races last year but they were almost entirely behind closed doors. One‑off deals were done to ensure races went ahead, with the sport bearing the brunt of the costs in order to meet contractual obligations to broadcasters.
This year no such deals are in place, with promoters paying their full hosting fees. That is why Silverstone was unequivocal that it would have gone bankrupt had the British Grand Prix this year taken place without fans, and why the French GP took a real hit with just 15,000 fans in attendance in June. With fees back in place it is also why F1 is so determined to try to reach 23 races.
As things stand the next three races – Spa in Belgium, Zandvoort in the Netherlands and Monza in Italy – all look to be fairly safe bets. They are due to be followed by Russia, Turkey, Japan, USA, Mexico, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, with one slot on 21 November, after the Brazilian GP, still to be filled. Of these, few can be guaranteed to take place. F1’s chief executive, Stefano Domenicali, had said he hoped to have a decision on the calendar by the middle of this month.
The McLaren chief executive, Zak Brown, believes the situation remains fluid. “I’m hearing a lot of different scheduling scenarios. I think the reality is no one probably definitively knows,” he said. “I think it is a bit of a chess game of what happens in this market and it goes on the red list, or what have you, and there’s a domino effect. I’ve heard a variety of scenarios.”
Turkey, Mexico and Brazil are all on Britain’s travel red list, a major issue with seven of the 10 teams based in the UK. Mexico and Brazil are still in the throes of serious outbreaks of Covid. Japan remains undecided, although the success of the Olympics in avoiding major coronavirus issues suggests it could yet still happen.
F1 needs it to do so as, scheduled after Turkey, the intent was to allow teams to be in Japan to see out the 10 days after leaving Istanbul to avoid compulsory hotel quarantine on their return to the UK. If Japan falls, Turkey is the next domino.
As if to illustrate just how tempestuous the situation remains, the Circuit of the Americas in Texas had been proposed as a double‑header venue to make up the numbers. Yet on Monday Austin, where the race is held, warned of a “catastrophe” as hospitals were inundated and the city elevated its risk threat to the highest tier, with infections in Texas as a whole rising 134% over the past 14 days.
Having more races in Europe, as was the case last season, does not seem likely. The deals that brought the Nürburgring and Mugello on to the calendar last year are no longer on offer and as time ticks on the weather in Europe increasingly militates against it. Instead the title may be decided in a five-race mini‑season flitting across the Middle East, which increasingly appears to be F1’s only option and crucially is a place where paying to host, fans or no fans, is not a problem.
The Losail International circuit in Qatar is understood to be taking up the empty November slot, which was once occupied by the cancelled Australian GP, while Bahrain is in the frame to host a second race after it held the season opener. It could again use its outer‑loop configuration that proved successful last year.
The Jeddah street circuit in Saudi Arabia has also been mooted to hold two races, as well as potentially switching with Abu Dhabi to host the final race of the season to once again allow teams to work through the required 10 days to avoid quarantine.
The moves, as Brown noted, are myriad and complex but cannot be delayed for too long. The sport requires pre-booked air freight to ship the cars and equipment; Pirelli moves its tyres by sea weeks in advance and the teams also ship pit and garage equipment. It is an exercise in logistical planning that cannot be achieved at the last minute nor changed easily once committed to.
While Hamilton and Verstappen take a well-earned break, F1 has much to do. The aim of 23 races still appears a hopeful ambition given the circumstances but by aiming high and allowing for some dropout the sport might yet still pull off a perfectly acceptable 20 or 21 races this season – more than enough for a normal year, let alone one battling through a pandemic.