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Formula One close to belated roar in pandemic-hit season

It is a season that should have marked a happy occasion for Formula One, 2020 being its 70th anniversary, a time to recall its origins when Italy’s Giuseppe ‘Nino’ Farina went from pole to flag at Silverstone in the first ever race in 1950.

The Covid-19 pandemic though has put such celebrations on hold, throwing the season into uncertainty. F1 CEO Chase Carey recently said there is a danger of the season not happening at all if the situation didn’t improve.

Seven of the 22 races have already been cancelled, including the Monaco Grand Prix—it will be the first time since 1954 that the race won’t wind through the narrow streets of the principality. Azerbaijan, Japan and Singapore joined the list on Friday while many others have been postponed or unlikely to happen.

The return of European top-flight football though has given hope. With the Bundesliga, Serie A and La Liga resuming behind closed doors and Premier League scheduled to restart on Wednesday, professional sport appears to dig deep into its resources and organisational capabilities for a revival.

F1 too is now preparing an initial list of eight races—all in Europe. The season is expected to finally start with the Austrian Grand Prix in Spielberg on July 5 followed by the Styrian GP—named after the Austrian state where the venue is—a week later. Both the closed-doors races will be held at the Red Bull Ring circuit.

Hungary will stage a race in July before the season moves to England with Silverstone hosting two races—British GP and 70th Anniversary GP—on August 2 and 9. It will be followed by races in Spain, Belgium and Italy. Like European football, all races will miss the buzz of the fans, especially at a venue like Silverstone that sees an overall weekend attendance of 350,000.

Though not finalised yet taking the health issues into consideration, F1 then intends to move to Russia, Asia (Vietnam and China) and the Americas (Canada, United States, Mexico and Brazil) to host postponed races. The organisers aim to end with races in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi in late December or early January.

That plan will heavily depend on air travel and quarantine restrictions easing, countries opening their borders and other logistical factors. It could see more European races, to achieve F1’s target of 15-18 races this season. That would still be a world of improvement for race drivers stuck to virtual racing.

“We have made significant progress with existing and new promoters on the revised calendar and have been particularly encouraged by the interest that has been shown by new venues in hosting a Formula 1 race during the 2020 season,” an F1 statement said on Friday.

There are reports that old venues like Hockenheim (Germany) and Imola (Italy) are close to sealing deals to host races. Imola, which last held a race in 2006 when Michael Schumacher won, have renewed their FIA Grade 1 licence, needed to host a race.

Venues like Portimao (Portugal) and Ferrari-owned Mugello (Italy), which are yet to stage F1, are also in contention with more double-headers like Austria and Britain also not being ruled out. “There is a contingency to have an extended European season with another one or two races if needed,” F1 motorsports chief Ross Brawn told F1.com last week. “There are a number of good European tracks where we could add another one or two races on to make sure we have a comprehensive season.”

Sticking to Europe is logistically and economically convenient as most F1 teams are based there. Also, with several European countries lifting curbs and border restrictions, visas won’t be an issue as the Schengen Area covers 26 countries.

GO EAST

The real expansion of F1 into a global sport only happened in the last 20-25 years as a result of former F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone’s ‘go east’ policy. Asian races introduced under him like Singapore, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi (all night races) have become permanent, even at the cost of traditional races like Germany and France. Other races in Malaysia, India and South Korea have stopped.

In F1’s inaugural season, six of the seven races were held in Europe. It began to move out gradually—South America in 1953, Africa in 1958 and Asia in 1976.

Even in 1999, Europe hosted 11 of the 16 races—a share of 68.75 %. But in 2019, Europe only held 10 of 21 GPs, less than 48 percent—also indicating the spread of global wealth.

Asia hosted only one race (Japan) until 1999 when Malaysia was introduced. The number touched five last year—without adding transcontinental Azerbaijan—before Vietnam was included from this year.

The Covid-19 pandemic though has at least temporarily halted the ‘look east’ approach with four out of the seven races cancelled this year being outside Europe and more likely to follow.

GETTING STARTED

Following a long shutdown, F1 teams are slowly opening their shutters. Reigning champions Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes have started preparations, testing their 2018 car ahead of next month’s season opener.

“I didn’t feel like I’ve ever left the water, so that’s a positive,” Hamilton said, having driven a F1 car after more than 100 days. “Every time you take a big break you always wonder whether you can still drive. So, it’s a good feeling to know of course I can, I’m ready, I feel fit.”

Racing Point, Ferrari and Renault have scheduled testing in the coming weeks.

NEW NORMAL

The pandemic has forced organisers to introduce new non-racing rules to protect F1 personnel like no podium celebrations, pre-race driver parades or assembling for the national anthems.

“The practices we have had in the past just can’t be done,” Brawn said. “The podium procedure can’t happen, but we’re looking at doing something on the grid after the race. We can’t present the trophies, as you can’t have someone in close proximity presenting a trophy, (but) we have plans and procedures. We’re looking at how we can present it on TV.”

Teams will be kept in ‘bubbles’, staying in isolation with no contact with the surrounding community.

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