Why Formula 1’s Goal of a 23-Race Season Is Looking More Like a Pipe Dream

If Formula 1 is still planning on a 23-race season in 2021, it might just need a miracle.

That darn COVID-19 virus refuses to go away quietly.

The F1 World Championship calendar was announced in November, and it seemed, even at the time, a very ambitious schedule, with 23 races all over the world.

It was no great surprise in mid-January that with travel restrictions brought on by COVID-19 forced F1 to push the Australian Grand Prix back from March 21 to November 21, postpone the Chinese Grand Prix indefinitely and rearrange other races to fit with the changes.

This move was made ahead of the Australian Open tennis competition, which left the world’s top tennis players in isolation for 14 days. A positive test for a hotel worker this week meant that about 500 players, officials and support staff have been put back into isolation with the warm-up events cancelled as a result. The organizers hope that this will be the last setback and that the delayed competition can go ahead on Monday.

The new variants of the virus, continues to cause higher infection rates, further lockdowns and border closures. Formula E is hoping to kick off its season with two races in Saudi Arabia on February 26-27, despite the fact that the kingdom has suspended entry from 20 countries in an effort to limit the spread of the virus. People traveling from Britain, France, Germany and the United States are all impacted, but Formula E says it has an exemption from the Saudi government and is working to find the best ways to get people to Riyadh in the possible safest way.

International sport at the moment is surviving on government exemptions and this is vital for Formula 1. The majority of the F1 teams are based in Britain, but the government there has an exemption that exists for “international elite sportspersons and essential support staff.” This means that F1 teams have been able to come and go without even needing to quarantine. But since January 18, when Britain was in the grip of the second wave of infections, the government cancelled a number of the exemptions, in an effort to slow the infection rates.

Britain, despite being an island, has suffered almost 110,000 deaths. When compared to France, which has six land borders with other countries (plus tiny Andorra and Monaco) has managed to keep its death toll 40 percent lower than the U.K. The exemptions that were cancelled in January included journalists, performing arts professionals and TV and film production staff. The word is that the country is now reviewing all other exemptions, with a final decision due shortly.

Up to now, the Formula 1 TV production crews have been included in the elite sports category and granted the travel waiver, but F1 is very coy about the status of the other broadcasters, notably Britain’s Sky Sports, which provides coverage for pay-per-view subscribers in the UK, and also provides the commentary for the English-speaking F1TV streaming service offered by F1 and the feed to American broadcast partners. Without TV coverage, it is pointless for the sport to try to continue.

With another seven weeks before the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix on March 28, it is hoped that the latest round of infections will blow over and that the season will be able to get going. So far, that plan has not worked so well over the past 11 months.

The teams are rushing to build their 2021 cars with the goal holding a March 12-14 test in Bahrain. Already there are well-founded rumors circulating that things are likely to change. on that front, as well.

The third race of the year is still to be officially confirmed on May 2, but it is an open secret that the intention is for another Portuguese Grand Prix at Portimão, in the Algarve region of southern Portugal. The weekend is a traditional holiday in Portugal—the Dia do Trabalhador, or Labor Day—and the organizers have been hoping to be allowed to have a good crowd, but in recent days Portugal has been hit with frightening infection and death rates, higher (by population) than either the United States or the United Kingdom. This has caused a lockdown to be extended and the country has closed its borders. Flights from the U.K. to Portugal have been suspended.

The suggestion in F1 circles is the season will now start with back-to-back races in Bahrain: the first on the normal circuit and the second on the shorter track, as happened last autumn. This would be the simplest way to replace a race that is dropping out. And with F1’s equipment and staff already in place, it would not add to the costs in a drastic way. In order to make this possible and to win more time before races begin in mainland Europe, the planned race at Imola would be pushed back from April 18 to April 25, adding another week between the clumsily-named Made in Italy Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix (the official title for the race) and the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona, which is scheduled for May 9.

F1 sources say that no decision has yet been made, but admit that there are conversations taking place about the different possible scenarios. Having two races in Bahrain is definitely one of them. Travelling to Bahrain is not as complicated as some other destinations, although it will still require F1 personnel to have specific invitations from the government and to have the necessary testing on arrival, with a minimal amount of quarantine required before those with negative test results can go to work. This worked well last autumn.

The other big question that will soon need to be addressed is what happens with the annual Monaco Grand Prix—the crown jewel of the F1 season. This was called off in 2020 and it may still be in trouble. In order to build the famous street circuit, the Automobile Club de Monaco (ACM) needs six weeks. The plan is for the track to host an historic Formula 1 race on April 23-25, a Formula E race on May 8 (using most if not all of the F1 track) and then the Grand Prix itself on May 20-23.

The construction in Monaco is a huge job, requiring 250 people hired by private contractors to erect the 13 miles of safety barrier, the same amounts of safety fencing, plus Tecpro and tire barriers and, of course, grandstands. The biggest challenge is actually to build the race control tower, which includes a huge amount of high technology equipment. The pits and the paddock are easier but it is still an enormous task. It is doubtful that the race would be held without spectators.

Unless events in Monaco are canceled, work needs to begin in the week of March, with decisions being made before that to allow the contractors to hire the required workers. In other words, time is short, and making a decision in the next month is going to be very difficult because of the risk that the race might not happen. Monaco is surrounded by France and there are restrictions crossing the border, something that most fans would have to do every day.

If there is way to find a solution, Formula 1 will find it, but for now, all that lies ahead is uncertain.

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