F1 clings to record-breaking calendar despite coronavirus chaos

The cancellation of the Singapore Grand Prix for the second successive season bodes badly for Formula 1’s record-breaking season.

This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.

Formula 1 announced its 23-round schedule for 2021 only a matter of months ago, but there’s little chance of the campaign getting to December via its preplanned route.

This month the blue-ribband Singapore Grand Prix announced it wouldn’t go ahead for a second year. The city-state’s strict immigration controls present too great a logistical hurdle to importing the thousands of people required to compete in and run the event, and the spectre of restricting ticket sales to local audiences only would make the event financially unviable.

Though the race wasn’t scheduled to take place until September, the lengthy lead time required to not only set up the street track but also dispatch sea freight from Europe meant the decision had to be made months ahead of time.

Singapore’s withdrawal followed the cancellation of the Canadian Grand Prix, originally set to run last weekend. It was to be replaced by a race in Istanbul, but a surge in cases in Turkey meant that too was cancelled.

Instead the French Grand Prix has been brought forward seven days to this Sunday, 20 June, with two races back to back at Austria’s Red Bull Ring to follow.

With Singapore’s vacated weekend to be filled later in the year, F1 can purport to still be targeting what would be an unprecedented 23 grands prix. But serious further problems loom.

The Australian Grand Prix, postponed from March to November, is also in doubt. The Australian government maintains strict immigration controls similar to those that undid Canada and Singapore, and the country’s lethargic vaccine rollout means it’s unlikely to hit the immunisation benchmarks that could facilitate the race.

The Melbourne temporary circuit also requires significant build time, and F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali has told the BBC he expects to have more to say about the antipodean race by the end of the month.

The Japanese Grand Prix too is in flux. Though Honda, owner of the hosting Suzuka Circuit, is pushing hard to run the race in its last season in Formula 1, local authorities are unlikely to clear it until the Olympics have been run successfully or otherwise.

The Brazilian Grand Prix is unlikely to proceed due to its persistent COVID infection rate, though Mexico City Grand Prix organisers are working to convince the sport it can run its event safely as daily coronavirus counts decline.

The final round of the year, in the United Arab Emirates, is also potentially under threat for its placement on the UK’s do-not-travel list, which would require F1’s seven UK-based teams to quarantine up to Christmas upon return.

Apart from logistics, new problems are emerging. Governments in the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will require full vaccination for travelling personnel, and the only hope for salvation for the Australian Grand Prix is likely to be on the same terms. Though the UK’s rapid rollout will have most of the sport covered, the three teams and any other European personnel are now urgently grappling with the continent’s slower inoculation rate.

The sport has some races in reserve. The United States is being worded up to host two rounds in Texas, while last year’s fallback races at the Nürburgring in Germany and Mugello in Italy are likely to reappear to keep the sport within the certainty of the European environment.

Formula 1, among the world’s best travelled sports, has worked hard to shield itself from the pandemic, and for four races in a row it has recorded no coronavirus infections among travelling staff.

But eventually this supreme determination will have to compromise with the reality of the second year of the pandemic.