Too many races, not enough places: the conundrum of the 2021 Formula 1 calendar

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This Formula 1 season promised a lot. The last year before the new 2022 regulations, an intense world title fight between seven-time winner Lewis Hamilton and younger talent Max Verstappen and a record number of 23 races. Yet, is it the case that there are now too many races and, because of the pandemic, not enough places to hold them?

The logic behind the original 23 race calendar is obvious. As Lewis Hamilton, infamously quipped before the eventually aborted March 2020 Australian Grand Prix, “cash is king”. More races mean more revenue, and since taking over in 2017, Liberty Media have targeted a potential 25 races per season. 

But holding even 23 races was always optimistic. Against the backdrop of Covid-19 many speculated whether it would be feasible. The answer now appears to be no. It was confirmed that, following the cancellation of the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, the calendar would be reduced to 22 races. 

Since its formation, the initial calendar has faced many other changes where races in Singapore, Vietnam, and Turkey were all cancelled. Although Turkey was later reinstated, its status remains tenuous due to its position on the UK’s Red List. Teams do not have quarantine exemptions in the UK for Red List countries, meaning that it would require the teams based in the UK (Mercedes, Williams, McLaren, Aston Martin and Alpine) to conduct 10 days isolation in a quarantine hotel. 

The revised calendar show that this, as the third race of a triple header, alongside the Mexican and Brazilian Grand Prix, could amount to a logistical nightmare.

Further headaches have been caused by the cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix, which is now heavily rumoured to be replaced by a race in Qatar, although this is yet to be confirmed. 

However, the revised calendar shows that this, as the third race of a triple header alongside the Mexican and Brazilian Grand Prix, could amount to a logistical nightmare. Not to mention the impact of jet lag on teams, particularly those who will work during the week such as the mechanics and engineers. 

With rising coronavirus rates, the US being placed on the EU’s red list and the majority of the non-UK teams being based in EU territory, this is also likely to be a cause for concern ahead of October’s US Grand Prix. 

The reality is that, under the circumstances of the pandemic, a worldwide 23 race calendar was too ambitious and, inevitably, requires constant monitoring as the global situation changes. 

Some have suggested that Formula 1 would have been better sticking to a solely European calendar. However, I think last week’s events in Spa perfectly explain why that is not a practical option. 

The weather in Europe, particularly in the north can be unpredictable at the best of times. With the Formula 1 calendar running into December, many countries will be unsuitable due to the risk of significant rain, ice or even snow – even countries with warmer climates such as Spain, Portugal and Italy already have races within the calendar. 

There is also the issue that 23 races in 52 weeks is too many. When discussing the proposed 23 race calendar for 2021, commentators and drivers alike commented on the risks associated with such. There is a real risk of burnout, particularly for the teams’ engineers and mechanics who work considerably longer hours than the drivers.

It seems more likely that Formula 1 was attempting to maximise profit.

Williams’ driver George Russell and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen both expressed concerns about the amount of work 23 races would place on them and the fact that they could potentially suffer, particularly with having to be away from their families for long periods of time. 

To combat such issues, many team Principles have argued that they would need rotating teams in order to cope with 23 or more races. For smaller teams and even larger teams with the cost cap regulations, this could be a problem that has the potential to have negative results such as driving down wages. 

There is also another problem with too many races: viewer fatigue. If there are too many races it is likely that people may get bored and the excitement of a Grand Prix may wear off. It is possible that viewership could decline.

It appears that the 2021 calendar was ill thought out. It is possible that organisers misjudged how long the pandemic would affect travel for and the seriousness of coronavirus variants.

Yet, these were long predicted. Instead, it seems more likely that Formula 1 was attempting to maximise profit, in a way that would appease Liberty Media and pave a way to achieve 25 races. 

However, there are significant ramifications of such on team personnel. At the end of the day, Formula 1 cannot afford to neglect its staff – tired and overworked staff is a safety concern. In 2021 it is perhaps clear; there are too many races and not enough places. 

Image: Renzopaso via Creative Commons

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