How F1 has made itself battle-ready for calendar shocks

The changes to the 2021 Formula 1 calendar announced on Friday are unlikely to be the last, as it's inevitable that COVID-19 restrictions will continue to impact races worldwide.

How F1 has made itself battle-ready for calendar shocks

It's an evolving nightmare for the F1 organisation, the FIA and the teams, as events outside their control continue to cause disruption. Several of the flyaway events in the latter part of the year look vulnerable, even at this stage.

The Turkish GP was only formally announced on April 28, as a replacement for Canada. It seemed like the perfect alternative, not least because it was on the way home from Azerbaijan both for personnel and freight. In fact, it was a more convenient and cheaper option than the race it replaced.

However, less than a fortnight later, Turkey was placed on the red list by the British government. The usual "elite sport" exemptions that allow F1 folk to escape quarantine would not apply, and instead there would be a compulsory 10-day stay in an approved hotel, at a cost of £1750.

To further complicate matters, Turkey also went on the quarantine red list for France, home of the next scheduled round of the world championship.

Given the logistical timing for the combined Baku/Istanbul trip, F1 couldn't wait for a change to those red lists. It had no choice but to cancel the Turkish event with just a month to go, and juggle things around elsewhere in order to get another Austrian race on the calendar.

The fact that it happened relative smoothly is a testimony to all the work done last year, when a season was salvaged from the ashes of the original calendar, with the usual timings for organising events thrown out of kilter.

The F1 executive in charge of putting the 2020 calendar together is Chloe Targett-Adams, global director of race promotion.

She was ultimately responsible for creating a 2020 schedule that worked, and that included five venues that were not on the original. Nothing like it had ever been done before in F1.

Lance Stroll, Racing Point RP20, Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16, Sergio Perez, Racing Point RP20, and the rest of the field at the start

Lance Stroll, Racing Point RP20, Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16, Sergio Perez, Racing Point RP20, and the rest of the field at the start

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

"In a normal world it would take us somewhere between 18 months and two years to launch, plan and deliver a new race," she noted earlier this season. "So to do five in one year in a COVID environment, and at two tracks we hadn't raced at before, I mean, what a team effort to do that and pull it off.

"And you can see why it delighted the fans, and it just shows the opportunity of a situation like COVID.

"I'm always talking to different promoters, different circuits. We're so fortunate there is a lot of interest in F1 from many places around the world. So I guess the stars align, and you just think. 'I know, I'll ring up this promoter and see if they're interested in having an F1 race in the next eight weeks!'"

Targett-Adams agreed that the sport learned a lot in 2020, and not just about how to react to race cancellations. There were also wider lessons about how fast things can be changed, and how a variation of venues adds interest.

"I think the one thing that's amazing about F1 is you are continually learning, and in a COVID pandemic situation, it was on steroids," she said.

"It showed us ultimately how efficient the organisation is, how quickly you can adapt to a scenario and innovate, in a way that for something like the race promotion side of the business, which is not necessarily doing that so regularly.

"So the ability to alternate race tracks, for example, and then the reaction in the engagement that leads to with fans, and equally the drivers and the teams. It's something that we've really taken on board, and looking into how we might factor that into our more longer term plans and strategy for the calendar."

A host of factors contribute to the choice of replacement venues, not least the commercial arrangements. Last year, F1 hired Silverstone for its two events, and other late additions got special deals.

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes F1 W11 EQ Performance leads at the start of the race

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes F1 W11 EQ Performance leads at the start of the race

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

There was an urgent need to reach first eight races to qualify for a world championship, and then 15, a number that triggered full-season payments for many broadcasting deals.

This year, from a starting point of 23, new boss Stefano Domenicali and his colleagues can afford to play a little harder when negotiating, and there's more emphasis on making things work financially rather than just adding another number.

Deals are also directly related to the question of potential income from spectator attendance – and local rules are changing all the time.

Along with the money, there are obvious logistic issues, such as transport of freight and personnel, and whether or not a new or not recently used venue is capable of pulling off an event.

One of the men at the centre of such discussions is F1's sporting director, Steve Nielsen.

"My mission is to deliver 23 races if we can," he told Motorsport.com just before Turkey became an issue. "And if we can't make all the ones that are on the calendar, then to find alternatives.

"If we can't go to a race, Chloe and Stefano will say, 'Well, these are the options, what do you think?' And then we'll pick something that works financially and logistically, and make compromises where we have to. That's pretty much how it works."

F1 has to constantly monitor not just what's going on in terms of COVID in the race hosting countries, but also – as Turkey demonstrated – how governments where personnel are based treat those returning from race venues.

"It's very fast changing," says Nielsen. "A few months ago Portugal was on the red list for the UK.

"And it was on the red list when we announced the race. So you're aiming at something that you can't be certain of. You think it's going to be okay, and you hope it's going to be okay. And you hope that it develops the right way.

"We try and track which countries have rising infection rates, and which countries are on the cusp or going down. And it's very, very, very difficult. There is quite a lot of guesswork. And if you're unlucky, it could go against you.

"And obviously, that's what happened in Canada. When we announce a race, we don't do that if we know there's definitely a red line, we would only do it if confident that there's nothing to stop it at the moment. But the way the world is now with COVID, that can change."

Mechanics prepare the cars of Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W11, and Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes F1 W11, on the front row of the grid

Mechanics prepare the cars of Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W11, and Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes F1 W11, on the front row of the grid

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Even with the lessons learned last year, there are still a lot of unknowns in 2021. The first four venues on this year's calendar all hosted races in 2020, but the three coming up next in Monaco, Baku and Paul Ricard did not.

Eight venues in the second half of the year also didn't host a race last season.

"Thrown in this year there's a whole lot of races that haven't had a COVID-type race at all," says Nielsen. "And so it's a combination of promoters and circuits that are familiar with it, and then we're about to go to some that have never had one before.

"So we're still having all those kind of remedial meetings, saying no, it needs to be like this, and you need to do this and this and this.

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"In places it feels quite a lot like last year when you're talking to a promoter, particularly for a street race. We've not done a street race in the COVID world yet. That's got all sorts of challenges and issues, as you can imagine, and we've got Monaco coming up."

The flyaway races are the most complicated, in part because teams send a lot of garage and paddock equipment by sea, weeks in advance.

"Last year was such a different model, such a different mindset needed," says Nielsen. "We have a much better idea now of reaction times and what's possible.

"The teams are really good. We know when they've got to send their sea freight. So that gears a lot of our decision making. We haven't yet, touch wood, had them put stuff on a boat whose destination was cancelled. But Canada was getting close!

"We work very closely with the teams, and we stopped them sending anything there. So we're aware of what their shipping dates are. But I think we are much nimble than we were, because we had to be. You adapt or die."

The cars and the rest of the freight are packed onto seven 747s for flyaway races, and in the current environment securing those planes for each event is not easy.

"The cargo market is quite volatile," says Nielsen. "It's a bit like a hire car, if there's a big event on, your hire car can cost you quite a bit! The earlier you book, the better deal you get, and of course, it's in conflict with the fast-moving calendar. But knowing and predicting the cargo market is very tough.

"We can now use two different configurations of plane, we can use 747s or 777s. All the teams are moving over to what we call 777-friendly cargo. We've actually reduced our [F1 broadcast] cargo enormously, because we're a largely remote operation. So we've been much less limited, and some of the teams as well.

"We've always been able to get the planes so far. But it's a bit like a swan, it looks quite calm above the water, and below the water it can get quite frantic!"

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