With the spread of coronavirus wiping out the first part of the 2020 season, Formula One Management, the FIA and team bosses will spend the coming weeks and months trying to salvage what’s left of the calendar.
Their success in doing so will entirely depend on how the pandemic evolves over the coming months, and at this stage there is no guarantee of when racing will resume this year. The following is merely a look at what might be possible based on present information and the challenges facing various races that have already been — or are expected to be — postponed.
Although a news release claimed F1 was hoping to start racing again in late May at the Monaco Grand Prix, internally the sport is targeting the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on June 7 as a best-case-scenario season opener — meaning the first seven races of the year are effectively postponed, at best. If that’s the case, the challenge will then be to fit as many of the postponed races back into the calendar as possible. It seems somewhere between 16 and 18 races is a realistic outcome if racing gets back underway in June, but again, any predictions at this stage are based on assumptions about the spread of the virus and incomplete information.
Ways of creating space in the calendar
No summer break
To create more space on the calendar, F1 motorsport boss Ross Brawn has talked about abandoning the traditional summer shutdown. The enforced 14-day hiatus in factory operations is stipulated by Article 21.8 of the sporting regulations and is designed to ensure team members get time off to enjoy holidays with their families.
However, given the current situation, the two-week break will likely be moved to March and April (and possibly extended), freeing up three weekends in August between the Hungarian Grand Prix on Aug. 2 and the Belgian Grand Prix on Aug. 28. Not all the weekends will be used for racing, but they offer the possibility of fitting at least one extra race — and possibly two — back into the calendar.
Because it will require a regulatory change, changes to the summer break will need unanimous agreement from all teams and sign-off from the FIA’s World Motor Sport Council. But given that the teams receive a share of F1’s revenues as prize money for the next year, it is in everyone’s interest to ensure as many races as possible go ahead this year.
Two-day race schedule
Brawn talked about crowbarring two races into the summer break, which would likely result in a double-header combined with Hungary and a triple-header combined with Belgium and Italy. That would provide the least disruption to existing race dates and their ticket sales, but this is purely speculation at this stage and is based on the assumption that travel is no longer restricted.
Triple-headers are not popular among teams, and the last one, in 2018 — over the French, British and Austrian GP weekends – was supposed to be the last. However, there is a certain logic to racing in the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy in three consecutive weekends, and if the events can be condensed to two days, it would free up some of the logistical challenges faced by teams.
That would likely mean scrapping Friday practice so that there is one practice session plus qualifying on Saturday and the race on Sunday (or two practice sessions on Saturday and qualifying and the race on Sunday — as was the case at the typhoon-hit 2019 Japanese Grand Prix). It would need buy-in from the teams and the race promoters (who would both lose a valuable day of track action) but could be a sensible option to condense the calendar.
The other advantage of running two-day race weekends this year is trialling the concept for future seasons when F1 wants to up the number of races throughout the year. There is also a correlation between exciting races and grand prix weekends when Friday practices have been rained off — the theory being that races are less predictable because teams have less knowledge of how the tyres will react.
Push Abu Dhabi finale back two weeks
To avoid as much disruption as possible to existing ticket sales, F1 will be keen not to reschedule races with dates later in the year. However, if one race were to move, it will almost certainly be the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, as postponing it by two weeks opens up an opportunity to slot one or two more races in at the end of the year.
Abu Dhabi pays a premium to be the final race of the year, so it is likely to want to retain that position rather than just have races added after its original date on Nov. 29. The latest it could realistically move back to is the weekend of Dec. 12-13, as anything later would start to come close to Christmas and eat even further into teams’ winter break. That would create space for at least one extra race — perhaps two if the logistics of long-haul back-to-backs can be factored in with one race following Brazil and another before the rescheduled Abu Dhabi.
What will happen to the postponed races?
Australia, Bahrain, Vietnam and China
We know already that the first four races of the season have been postponed. Australia was originally announced as cancelled, but at a press conference later in the day, AGPC CEO Andrew Westacott said that was a deliberate choice of words to convey to fans that the race would not be going ahead that weekend or in the near future.
Westacott claims the race was, in fact, postponed, although of the first four races it is the least likely to find a new spot later in the year. That’s because the Melbourne race takes place on a temporary parkland circuit just south of the Central Business District, and the disruption that holding a race later in the year would cause would likely be met with significant backlash by locals. The state government provides a significant proportion of the funding for the race, but is more likely focused on ways to limit the cost to the taxpayer rather than committing to a race at a later date. Considering how congested the calendar looks later in the year, it’s likely F1 will not return to Australia until 2021.
Bahrain has been postponed, but there does not seem to be the same urgency to get it back on the calendar as there is with Vietnam and China. However, when you consider the race organisers are also the rulers of the kingdom, there is likely to be far more flexibility to slot it into a date than with some other races. What’s more, Bahrain was willing to host a race behind closed doors and would likely forgo the lost income from ticket sales to ensure the race goes ahead even if there are no fans in attendance. The weather in the Middle East also adds flexibility when trying to reschedule the race later in the year.
Vietnam is an important race for F1 as it was set to be the first new grand prix signed, sealed and delivered by Liberty Media. There is likely to be an effort to slot it back into the calendar later in the season, and it could be a candidate for a stand-alone race weekend in November if Abu Dhabi can be pushed into December. While there would be a certain logic to making it back-to-back with nearby China, F1 has a long-held policy of ensuring new races are not back-to-backs due to unknowns about freight passing through customs.
The Chinese Grand Prix was the first race to be called off back in February, long before the spread of COVID-19 became a pandemic. It is an important race for F1 given the sport’s desire to expand in the market, and there was talk of sandwiching it back into the calendar from the moment it was postponed.
What comes next?
Netherlands, Spain and Monaco
For a long time, there was talk of the Dutch Grand Prix being the season opener if the first four races got called off, but the spread of coronavirus in Europe means it will almost certainly have to be postponed as well. F1 has not made an official announcement about these three races, but in its last communication it effectively ruled the Netherlands and Spain out by saying the earliest hope for the start of the season was the end of May.
Like Vietnam, the Netherlands is another new race for Liberty Media and therefore a strong candidate for rescheduling. As mentioned previously, it could be the first of a triple-header with Belgium and Italy and a chance to test out two-day race weekends. That would free up another race, perhaps China, Vietnam or Bahrain to latch on to a double-header two weeks earlier with Hungary. However, if that all proves too difficult, the Dutch Grand Prix could still occupy a place in the middle of the summer break nicely spaced between Hungary and Belgium.
With the country of Spain in lockdown, there is little hope of the Spanish Grand Prix going ahead. The Circuit de Catalunya had secured a one-year deal to remain on the calendar in 2020, but there seems to be very little incentive to reschedule the race later in the year. In theory it could be slotted into the summer break, but it’s likely the races mentioned above, all of which have longer and more lucrative contracts with F1, will take precedence.
In the news release confirming that Bahrain and Vietnam were postponed, F1 kept the door open to hold the Monaco Grand Prix at the end of May. The famous race on the streets of Monte Carlo is due to take place over four days, from first practice on May 21 to the race on May 24. However, work on preparing those famous streets starts between six and seven weeks before race day, meaning a call on whether the grand prix will go ahead will need to be made in early April. There might be an attempt to condense that work — especially if the Historic Monaco Grand Prix, originally due to take place the weekend before, is called off — but even so it seems incredibly unlikely. As of March 14, all bars and restaurants and the legendary Monte Carlo Casino closed for business for the foreseeable future.
Assuming the Monaco Grand Prix does not go ahead, it will be the first time it has not been staged since 1954. The logistical challenge of setting up the race means it is not a candidate for rescheduling, and the fact it pays no sanctioning fee means F1 has no incentive to slot it into a weekend when a fee-paying race could be held. It will be very strange to have a Formula One season without Monaco, but it seems very likely right now.
If Abu Dhabi is moved back a couple of weeks, Shanghai could find a slot either at the end of the calendar or in the first of the two summer break slots. Tight and complicated customs procedures mean China is not favoured for back-to-backs, but it did appear as the first part of a back-to-back with Bahrain in 2017 and as the second part in 2018. Either way, it is likely to be near the front of the queue when the rescheduling starts.
Azerbaijan and beyond
Optimistic projections suggest the worst of the coronavirus pandemic could be over by June, but others suggest it might be hitting its peak in the U.K. and Europe. If the latter is the case, there is no way F1 teams will be able to travel and any hope of fitting 18 races into the rest of the season will be lost.
However, taking the best-case scenario, Azerbaijan could host the opening race of the year on June 7. Azerbaijan currently has 21 active cases, so it could be at the lower part of an exponential curve of infections and might still prove to be an unsuitable location by early June. If the virus can be contained in Azerbaijan, then there is more hope, but it also raises the question of whether it would be sensible for a large number of Europeans to visit the country. Those questions will only receive answers in the fullness of time, but it means F1 might have to remain flexible even if it targets Baku as its season opener. It should be noted that Baku is a street circuit and requires some preparation each year, but because a lot of the track infrastructure remains in place throughout the year, it is not a job on the same scale as Monaco.
Even if the season starts in Azerbaijan or later, we can pretty much write off the rescheduling of races in Australia, Spain and Monaco for logistical or financial reasons. A season starting in Azerbaijan could look something like the below, but this is purely speculation based on the fundamental principles of keeping as many of the existing races in their current dates and looking to take advantage of as many available opportunities to reschedule postponed events as possible.
A potential 2020 calendar
Here’s a potential calendar based on an Azerbaijan start:
June 5-7 – Azerbaijan
June 12-14 – Canada
June 26-28 – France
July 3-5 – Austria
July 17-19 – Great Britain
July 31-Aug. 2 – Hungary
Aug. 7-9 – China
Aug. 22-23 Netherlands (two-day race weekend)
Aug. 29-30 – Belgium – (two-day race weekend)
Sept. 5-6 – Italy (two-day race weekend)
Sept. 18-20 – Singapore
Sept. 25-27 – Russia
Oct. 9-11 – Japan
Oct. 23-25 – USA
Oct. 30-Nov. 1 – Mexico
Nov. 13-15 – Brazil
Nov. 26-29 – Vietnam
Dec. 11-13 – Abu Dhabi