F1’s calendar cram makes path to Abu Dhabi uncertain

Less than half the 2021 Formula 1 season has been completed, but where the remaining 12 rounds will be raced is as much a mystery as who will win the title in December.

This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.

Formula 1 is enjoying its traditional August summer break, and with up to 12 races still to run from the end of the month to December, the teams would do well to maximise their rest.

The ongoing pandemic has put unprecedented strain on this intrepid sport. Last year, having delayed the start of the season until July, Formula 1 raced 17 times in 23 weeks, or once every 10 and a half days. Including the opening half of this year, the sport has been on a 28-race binge in 56 weeks, exactly one grand prix a fortnight on average.

But to reach a record-breaking 23 rounds the second half of 2021 will be more intense still, with 12 races spread over 16 weekends. Featuring a race every nine days spanning Europe, Russia, Japan, the Americas and the Middle East, the run to December will be the most gruelling schedule of grands prix in F1 history.

It will be a test of human endurance, with the close title fight between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, Mercedes and Red Bull Racing, likely to go down to the wire, but the challenge is being made more onerous by the uncertainty stitched into the schedule.

Formula 1 allowed races to cram into the second half of the year hopeful for relaxed COVID restrictions and eased international travel barriers, and this has partly come to pass. The United States could have as many as two grands prix, while Mexico and even Brazil are increasingly likely to go ahead, unimaginable only a few months ago. The successful hosting of the Olympics has also kept the prospect of the Japanese Grand Prix alive, though it is yet to be confirmed by local authorities.

But permission to enter these countries is only half the battle. With so many races in such a short space of time, stringing them together is proving substantially more difficult.

The main sticking point is avoiding quarantine requirements in the United Kingdom, where seven of the 10 teams, almost all F1 personnel and most of the media reside. With an already burdensome workload and travel schedule, sacrificing to isolation the precious little personal time remaining would be a bridge too far.

At the time of writing Brazil, Mexico and Turkey are red-listed nations, for which 10 days of hotel quarantine are mandatory upon arrival in the UK.

A convenient workaround is to schedule another race immediately after each of these to absorb seven or eight of the 10 days, leaving only the balance to be served upon return. But currently Turkey on 3 October is hanging on the decision on the Japanese Grand Prix on the following weekend, while Mexico problematically precedes Brazil on 31 October and 7 November without a race afterwards.

A double round in the United States is being prepared to bolster the calendar if Japan falls away, while F1 also has one ‘joker’ race in lieu of the cancelled Australian Grand Prix in November, which is shaping up to be a new event in Qatar.

But even then a major reshaping of the calendar would be required to work around the red-listed nations, and with the balance of the 12 rounds, including Qatar, on the UK’s amber list anyway, any major spike in cases could downgrade them have them upgraded to red and the delicate dance around these patchwork regulations thrown into disarray.

Formula 1 has confounded its critics in successfully executing ambitious itineraries this year and last with very few COVID infections, but it will have to be nimbler and more enterprising still in its determination to race a record 23 times in the shadow of the ongoing pandemic.

The race continues behind the scenes to keep the racing on track to December.

Current F1 calendar

Belgium — 29 August

Netherlands — 5 September

Italy — 12 September

Russia — 26 September

Turkey* — 3 October

Japan — 10 October

United States — 24 October

Mexico* — 31 October

Brazil* — 7 November

TBC — 21 November

Saudi Arabia — 5 December

Abu Dhabi — 12 December

*Denotes UK red list