Off Camber: It will take as long as it takes

With the 2019 Formula 1 season having reached it’s conclusion in December, the void that fills the gap between it will certainly feel like an impasse for many. With the globe on lockdown, we are stuck in a place of perpetual limbo between the past and the future of our sport.

As it stands, the first eight rounds of the 2020 season have now been cancelled or postponed with Baku being the latest event to be temporarily struck down.  That brings us to a season opener on June 14th at Canada. The void of 196 days would make this off season the sixth-longest in F1 history. The latest time the off season was longer? 1965 crossing over to 1966 at 211 days.

That all seems well and good until you take into account that just over one week ago, Team Canada revealed that they wouldn’t be sending any athletes to the now postponed Tokyo Olympic Games that were due to take place in July and August. Given the scope and scale of logistical operations involved in organising and delivering the Olympic games and athletes coming from every corner of the globe, despite Tokyo’s desire to press on the result was always going to be postponed. But in that case, why did Canada call it quits early? For the safety of it’s own athletes and personnel. The 2012 London games brought in 841,000 ‘inbound tourists’ to the city between July and September; expect the same, if not more from Japan’s neighbours including China and the Korea — the initial Coronavirus epicentres.

Justin Trudeau’s end goal will be to protect his country with his prime ministership to be defined by his response. The 2017 Canadian Grand Prix was the most populous event on the calendar with ‘360,000 fans through the turnstiles’ across the weekend‘. 360,000 is a huge influx for any city to accommodate. Granted, many of these will be Canadian nationals. But not all of these nationals will be from Montreal. For ease, let’s make an educated guess that 50% of ticket holders will be from Montreal and the other 50% will travel from further afield. Going ahead would simply jeopardise those on the front line, staffing tourist offices and other stores and attractions but, of course these are all shut down as the same goes for nations worldwide. Surely the inevitable will have to be confirmed shortly…

The fates of many upcoming Grands Prix due to take place in the Summer are due to be decided around Easter weekend with Silverstone expected to make their decision by the end of April. However, the truth is that these decisions need to be taken sooner. The delayed response in Australia is exactly what worsened the situation, leading to an uproar that still hasn’t completely died down.

The perseverance of the FIA and Liberty Media to continue with the 2020 F1 season as soon as reasonably possible has been greatly attributed with the commercial side of the sport. Among critics of the sport are six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton. When pressed on why the circus was in Australia just prior to the cancellation of the event, Hamilton said: “Cash is king. I can’t add much more to it. I don’t feel like I should shy away from my opinion.”

So where do we go from here? On March 19th, it was announced by the FIA that the regulation overhaul pencilled for 2021 would be postponed to 2022 . I, like I’m sure many of you, was very much looking forward to the future of the sport under the new regulations but the delay was inevitable. The FIA issued the statement revealing that teams had agreed to “use their 2020 chassis for 2021, with the potential freezing of further components to be discussed in due course.” 

If we go ahead and read between the lines, this may suggest a season that straddles the later half of 2020 and stretches into 2021. Funnily enough, this is the option lauded by Mattia Binotto — cue Ferrari International Assistance comments. On a more extreme (yet equally realistic) note, Bernie Ecclestone has also mentioned that if it were still his choice, cancelling the entire season would be the prudent way forward.

As we have all been told, we need to flatten the curve and the best way to do so is to follow advice and practice proper social distancing. Former Red Bull and McLaren driver David Coulthard can see a time where F1 returns in the not too distant future but behind closed doors. In talks with Ziggo Sport, he said: ““I think in the short term there will be grand prix’s without [in-person] audiences. Later in the season we’ll have grand prix’s with audiences.”

I would presume we would all be in agreement that the final outcome would initially be the most favourable for F1. But then again, sport is highly dependent on the atmosphere that is produced by fans and the audience at these events. Unfortunately, balancing the seesaw between the pros and cons of doing so is a much harsher task than initially expected. Take Forbes journalist Christian Sylt who, in an article responding to the Bahrain GP going spectator-less, writes about the further knock on impacts. Hosting fees wouldn’t be covered by government subsidies alone due to the wipeout of revenue from ticket sales. Around 80% of race organisers are private entities increasing the chances of the majority falling into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Then, the prize money received by the teams comes into question.

This really is a case of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Although I am very well aware of how frustrating these stories on COVID-19 quickly become, the truth is that the situation is fluid, dynamic and continuing to worsen. Until that curve is flattened, it is up to us to question the methods of those at the top and find answers to those questions.  The situation will take as long is it takes to be resolved to even the smallest resemblance of normality. It is going to take a lot of patience and organising from global officials, not just sporting, as they continue to get the show back on the road.