To 23 and beyond: Qatar joins F1 ahead of marathon 2022 campaign

Formula 1 is shoring up its post-pandemic accounts with the announcement of a lucrative 11-race deal in Doha, but can you have too much of a good thing?

This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.

Formula 1 is on the brink of completing a 22-round cross-continental campaign, and with this week’s confirmation of a brand-new race in Qatar, the path the chequered flag for this COVID-complicated season is finally clear.

The Losail circuit’s addition to the tour as a gap filler for cancelled races has long been rumoured, but the announcement went well beyond a single-race deal. After a year off in 2022 to host the FIFA World Cup, Qatar will return on a blockbuster 10-year race deal at a to-be-confirmed venue.

“We have shown that we can continue to adapt and there is huge interest in our sport and the hope from many locations to have a grand prix,” F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali said. “The huge effort from all the teams, F1 and the FIA has made it possible to deliver a 22-race calendar, something that is very impressive during a challenging year and something we can all be proud of.”

After the new-for-2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix and the established races in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, Qatar will be the fourth championship round in the Middle East and representative of the sport’s deepening ties in the region. It now hosts more races than Asia, for which the sport’s interest has apparently cooled after the recent collapse of the Vietnamese Grand Prix and the earlier withdrawals of events in Malaysia, Korea and India.

The sport clearly has an affinity for floodlit desert races and has long made peace with accusations it is allowing itself to be used as a vehicle for ‘sportwashing’ the human rights records of the governing regimes, but while these state-backed races in resource-rich nations may boost the bottom line, there are other costs to the funding injection.

Just days after Qatar’s confirmation, Domenicali hinted at some of the details of next season’s schedule, due for release after this weekend’s Turkish Grand Prix, the headline for which will be a record-breaking 23-race tour condensed into just eight months, from mid-March to mid-November.

Subtracting the regulated three-week midyear break leaves just 33 weekends clear for an average of 2.7 races a month, an increasing number of which are far flung from the teams’ European bases.

The logistical gymnastics required will be immense. As per one leaked draft, a new grand prix in Miami will appear between rounds in China and Spain, Azerbaijan and Montreal will resume their unwieldy 9000-kilometre partnership, and Russia, Singapore and Japan will host one of three triple-headers, theirs a round trip of at least 35 hours by air.

It’s hardly congruous with Formula 1’s attempts to bolster its environmental credentials, the centrepiece of which is its 2030 net-zero carbon target.

And while next year’s November World Cup means the calendar will likely snap back to a more comfortably December conclusion in 2023, old desires to grow the calendar to 24 or 25 rounds — though recently played down by the sport — will have to be wrestled with.

But how many races is too many?

Formula 1 has historically been appointment viewing. The scarcity of races has meant each plays an important role in in the title, enhancing the entire campaign.

With two races every three weekends, the sport may lose the very element that helped it stand out in an increasingly cluttered sporting landscape. Events will become forgotten in a quagmire of races that struggle to coherently articulate a championship narrative.

Considering the effort required to stage a race — the unsung backroom team personnel work 12-plus-hour days six days per race, spending weeks at a time away from their families — the sport may find that more is less and less is more.

It might just be that F1 can have too much of a good thing.