The impossible challenge of the 2020 F1 calendar

Formula 1’s plans to kick-start the 2020 season are very much in a state of flux.

On Monday there was formal confirmation from Chase Carey that the intention is to begin with a behind closed doors race in Austria, but after that, everything remains vague.

All fans really gleaned from Carey’s statement is that the intention is to run from July to December in Europe, Eurasia (which in F1 terms covers Azerbaijan and Russia), Asia, the Americas and the Middle East.

Apart from the possible addition of Baku alongside Russia, and the December finish that was already planned, that is pretty much how the original calendar was going to run anyway – so everybody is still very much in the dark.

So what will the final version look like? Anyone can have a bash at compiling one, and various permutations are floating around the internet, some better informed than others.

The bottom line is that F1’s own prospective schedule is evolving if not by the day, then certainly by the week, as circumstances change.

Two signposts are reasonably definitive – the start and the end. Carey confirmed that he hopes to begin in Austria on July 5, and that the plan is to run two races, followed by two more at Silverstone – although the UK events are still far from being confirmed.

The season will end in the Middle East and, unofficially, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi are likely to fill the first two weekends of December, with the latter famously having a contract that guarantees it the final spot.

Everything in between is very much a work in progress, and it will continue to be so until the last minute.

Australia, Monaco and France, are officially cancelled, and won’t take place at all in 2020.

From a starting total of 22 that leaves 19 possibles, and taking Carey’s upper figure of 18 – while knowing that at least two double-headers in Austria and Silverstone are planned – that suggests that even at his most optimistic he’s talking about 16 different venues.

In other words, F1 already knows that at least three other races definitely won’t happen.

The seven postponed events that are still available to be slotted in are Bahrain, Vietnam, China, the Netherlands, Spain, Azerbaijan and Canada, while 12 more are still listed with their original dates.

What has been made clear is that you shouldn’t pay too much attention to where those 12 races currently sit. 

Some races are less mobile than others – especially Singapore, which as a street venue faces far greater logistical issues than normal tracks, and requires a substantial lead time.

Most permanent venues are relatively flexible, with some limitations. COTA for example still has a MotoGP race scheduled two weeks after its current October 25 date.

Then there’s the question of weather – most F1 circuits become impractical as we head into October/November, so there are limits on how far races can be pushed back. That doesn’t apply to the Middle East of course, which is why it’s a no-brainer to put Bahrain in front of Abu Dhabi in December.

What could the calendar look like?

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF90, leads Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes AMG W10, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W10, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL34, Kimi Raikkonen, Alfa Romeo Racing C38, and the rest of the field at the start

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

If the plan is to run the two double-headers in Austria and Britain, that fills July with four races.

Taking Carey’s upper total of 18 again, that leaves 20 weekends if you count all the way from August 2 to December 13, and 14 more races to fit in. And 17 venues are currently available to run them.

Allowing for a few breaks, and the occasional two-day meeting to take the pressure off the relentless back-to-back schedule (Ross Brawn has specifically mentioned China in that regard), it is theoretically possible to reach a total of 18.

The reality is likely to be very different. Inevitably, everything is tied to the progress of COVID-19 and the ever-changing government regulations in each country that can hold a race, and indeed others in Europe through which transporters would have to pass.

DIY stores, hairdressers and schools may be opening or about to open in different territories as governments bow to pressure to ease restrictions, but the world is far from having the conditions necessary to run a grand prix in most places, even one with no fans.

How will local regulations complicate matters?

Lance Stroll, Racing Point RP19, leads Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso STR14, Antonio Giovinazzi, Alfa Romeo Racing C38, and Nico Hulkenberg, Renault F1 Team R.S. 19

Photo by: Gareth Harford / Motorsport Images

Bans on mass gatherings are among the biggest hurdles to cross. Canada, Belgium and the Netherlands have rules in place until at least the end of August, and in the case of the two European events, that has really restricted F1’s options. As things stand, Spa cannot go ahead on its planned August 30 date.

There may be wiggle room for behind-closed-doors races in some countries, but even without paying fans, F1 involves thousands of people.

The other complex issue is that of closed borders, restrictions on entry to people who have been in or passed through certain countries, and compulsory quarantines.

That stuff is unlikely to go away any time soon, and it will become incredibly complex as F1 tries to plan double- and triple-headers.

Any travel combination involving Singapore, Russia, China, Japan and Vietnam would be absolutely impossible to do now, and no one can predict how it will look come September/October. The same goes for Canada, USA, Mexico and Brazil and the Americas leg.

Most of F1’s own personnel and seven teams have to travel from the UK, two from Italy, and one from Switzerland. Pirelli staff also have to come from Italy, although the company has a back-up plan using only British-based personnel.

To the list you can add Honda folk from Japan (although most are UK-based), and FIA people from France and Switzerland, while other individuals, including drivers, hail from all over Europe. Even with minimal behind-closed-doors staffing levels, and no media allowed, a lot of countries are in the mix.

The plan is to use charter flights, but it is still going to be a huge challenge, and in most countries there will have to be delicate negotiations with the relevant immigration authorities.

In places such as Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, where races are directly government funded and promoted, that will be a relatively straightforward conversation – it is unlikely to be so in China, the USA or Japan for example, where the trivial matter of an F1 race will be of no interest whatsoever to central government.

It works both ways, of course. If the UK or Italy has strict quarantine procedures in place staff travelling home in a gap between flyaway races will face a big problem.

Inevitably all of this big picture stuff is out of the control of F1, and all Carey can do is hope that as the weeks and months pass, the restrictions are relaxed.

Will the promoters still pay up?

Chase Carey, Chairman, Formula 1

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

What Carey does hold sway over is his dealings with each individual venue, and especially on the commercial side.

Money is a huge part of the calendar story, and it explains the urgency to run as complete a schedule as possible, even behind closed doors. We know that if the race total falls below 15, F1 has to start to refund the broadcasters who have paid for a full season.

We don’t know what F1’s own sponsorship contracts with the likes of DHL and Heineken say about the number of races, but it’s safe to say that those guys expect a reasonable number of races for their money, so that their brands can get some exposure.

In other words, running races guarantees income for F1, and hence the teams.

The race-hosting fees are the other element in the equation, and it follows that F1 wants to generate as much as it possible can in the unusual circumstances – and how that plays out will likely be on a case-by-case basis.

The 22 races on the original calendar operate with 22 different business models, although some – such as the two Middle Eastern races – have much in common.

Some events are run by private entities, notably Silverstone, while others have local, regional or national government involvement to varying degrees. With some events the benefit generated by that support is focussed mainly on creating a two-hour global TV ad for their cities or countries, and fan attendance is incidental.

For other races the public funding is more tied to bringing in tourists who spend money in hotels and restaurants.

Some promoters work on the basis that the huge hosting fees that every flyaway race pays will at least in part be offset by ticket sales – others can in theory afford to write-off a full fee, even if no spectators are allowed in.

We can safely assume that with no paying spectators venues like Silverstone aren’t paying their hosting fee – and may have costs related to running two closed doors race subsidised, as the track can hardly be expected to take a loss.

Austria is a slightly different case. The owner of the track also owns Red Bull Racing and AlphaTauri, and has a vested interest in hosting not one but two races, just to get the season going. It will also be a huge marketing exercise for the drink brand, even without fans present.

We can thus perhaps assume that Red Bull will pay something, but that given the lack of ticket income, it won’t be the full usual fee – or that the very least it will take a hit and absorb the running costs.

Other European venues still in play – Barcelona, Hungary, Monza, Spa and Zandvoort – will also have to be given free or very cheap deals, or otherwise it makes little sense for them to run a race.

Flyways are a different matter for two reasons. Firstly the costs involved in getting to them, and secondly the fact that most are so overtly government-backed, as noted above, and thus to a greater or lesser extent they use the race mainly for global TV advertising.

The flyaway cost issue can’t be underestimated. The F1 circus fills seven Boeing 747s with cars, spares, and FIA/F1 equipment, including the two safety cars and two medical cars. Sending that around the world costs a great deal, and it also helps to explain why F1 wants to have a simple Asia/Americas/Middle East schedule, with minimal logistical hassles.

Normally those costs are absorbed in the high fees that flyaways pay, so that provides further encouragement for F1 to try to keep either all or as much as it can of those fees, even if races are run with no spectators.

We can assume that negotiations with each promoter are ongoing. Those that can’t justify or won’t pay a representative amount may quietly slip off the schedule, and priority will be given to those that do cough up.

Which races are least likely to happen?

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes AMG W10, leads Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB15, Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF90, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W10 Alex Albon, Red Bull Racing RB15, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF90, Carlos Sainz Jr., McLaren MCL34 and the rest of the pack tab the start

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

One event that has a particular issue is Austin. Its whole raison d’etre is its $25m plus annual funding from the Texas state, which is based on the notion that tens of thousands of people flood into town for the race and spend money that generates sales tax. If a US GP is held behind closed doors, clearly that state government input cannot be justified.

Montreal and Singapore don’t have quite such clear-cut arrangements, but both heavily justify their existence through fans coming for the race.

Both events have also been mentioned by team sources as being either very unlikely to happen or already off Carey’s menu of possibles, even if officially they both remain the calendar.

The double whammy for Singapore is the aforementioned logistical challenge of closing roads and building up the track. The nightmare scenario is that – as in Australia – all that work is done and paid for, and then at the last minute, the race doesn’t happen.

“Singapore GP is monitoring the COVID-19 situation closely and maintaining an open dialogue with Formula 1, the Singapore Government and our stakeholders during this time,” a race spokesperson told me this week.

“The Formula 1 calendar for the 2020 season is currently being reviewed. Singapore GP will continue to keep a close watch on developments, placing the health and safety of our patrons, fans, spectators, crew and staff as our topmost priority.”

Canada also has logistical issues as it is a semi-permanent venue, while the weather means that it can’t be slotted into late October or November with the other Americas races.

It’s hard to see Montreal happening, although for the time being it officially remains on the list of postponed events looking for a slot.

“We can confirm that the information released by F1 [on Monday] does align with the conversations we have had with them,” a spokesperson told me. “Although Chase Carey does say that we are ‘subject to the unknowns of the virus,’ which is crucial.”

Another venue which looks shaky for logistical reasons is Baku, even if Carey has reserved a slot for a “Eurasian” event. The organisers need three months’ notice to build the track, and 7000 people would be involved even for a behind closed doors race. Even with full government support that work can’t start unless a race date can be guaranteed.

The one street race that you can bet will happen come what may is Vietnam. It’s a huge project for F1 and for the country, and the track was almost ready to go when the race was postponed. A November slot, between the Americas and the Middle East, looks likely, and no effort will be spared to make it happen.

Will venues still want to run a race?

Empty grandstands

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

One more element has to be considered on top of regulatory, political and financial considerations, and that’s what you might loosely term the moral issue.

You can argue that restarting F1, in common with other sports, represents a return to normality, and gives people something positive to enjoy.

On the other hand some promoters, especially those with close government ties, may be loathe to hold a sporting event that some would regards as frivolous, and in so doing put their citizens at risk.

Even if the COVID-19 crisis is easing and they can in theory dodge restrictions with a behind closed doors event, they may feel that it’s not appropriate to do so. Don’t forget there was a lot of negative PR connected to efforts to get Ferrari folk into Australia – and the situation has escalated since then.

The bottom line to all this is that Carey and his calendar specialist Chloe Targett-Adams face an impossible task as they try to stitch everything together amid changing circumstances.

Anything can happen. In addition to the existing events, Imola has emerged with a bid for a race. We could also speculate that if the flyway legs in September/October become impractical and there’s a sudden gap there could be a last minute return to Europe, and even to the Red Bull Ring or Silverstone, for further events.

Whatever calendar Carey and his team are looking at now certainly won’t be replicated in reality – there will be endless changes and as yet unforeseen hurdles to overcome. We can only wish him luck.

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