Formula 1 seemingly defied the odds in 2020 by successfully pulling off a 17-round world championship season amid the coronavirus pandemic, and it faces an even greater challenge this year.

Tuesday’s announcement of a revised 2021 calendar that is still targeting a record-breaking F1 season featuring 23 events across the globe seems an incredibly ambitious plan when a pandemic is still ongoing, but it has been faced with this conundrum before.

When the start of the 2020 season was ravaged by the coronavirus outbreak which forced F1 to cancel the opening 10 races of the year, the championship acted swiftly and decisively to re-write the season and create a 17-round schedule consisting of predominantly European-based races which kicked off in early July.

Despite being met with initial scepticism over whether it was first, morally responsible to go racing in such times, and secondly, even feasible, F1 ultimately triumphed with a remarkably well-managed campaign that was made possible by the introduction of strict health and safety protocols and a rigorous testing programme.

Less than a year later and F1 is attempting to go six events better as it presses ahead with plans to start its latest world championship season even earlier. The Australian Grand Prix, scheduled for 21 March, came a little too soon, however.

Unlike in 2020, when the Melbourne curtain-raiser was scrapped altogether, F1 has agreed with the Australian authorities to re-arrange the event for later in the season on 21 November, which in turn has resulted in a re-shuffling of events later in the year.

With Australia unable to go ahead as planned due to stringent travel restrictions in the country, the 2021 season will instead begin a week later with the Bahrain Grand Prix on 28 March. While not yet confirmed, pre-season testing is also set to be pushed back from its early March slot to a later date in Bahrain, rather than at F1’s usual winter home in Barcelona.

April’s Chinese Grand Prix has also fallen, though championship bosses and race organisers are hopeful of re-arranging the event later in the year, possibly as a replacement for other rounds that could yet fall by the wayside.

After the success of its one-off outing as a substitute race in 2020, F1 has confirmed that Imola will return to host the second round of the 2021 season on 18 April. As such, the 2021 F1 season will be the first since 2007 to feature a three-week gap between the first two races of the year.

Imola had been vying with Portimao to replace the abandoned Vietnam race on 25 April, but the alterations to the season start mean there is now a place for both events to take place.

It is expected that the Algarve circuit will once again stage the Portuguese Grand Prix to fill the current ‘TBC’ spot on 2 May, subsequently forming a back-to-back with the Spanish Grand Prix on 9 May. For now, at least, the rest of the first half of the season schedule remains unchanged.

To accommodate Australia’s standalone status in the autumn, Brazil’s newly-named Sao Paulo Grand Prix has been shifted forward one week to create a third triple-header in 11 weeks, with the season finishing a week later on 12 December in Abu Dhabi. F1’s inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix has also moved, resulting in a Middle East back-to-back with the Yas Marina finale.

Needless to say, it has been an incredibly busy first few days in the job for new F1 CEO and president Stefano Domenicali, who only took over from Chase Carey at the beginning of the month.

The former Ferrari F1 team principal and Lamborghini head acknowledged the situation remains “fluid” but is confident that the experience of 2020 shows its latest task can be achieved.

F1’s current version of the schedule is a particularly ambitious goal considering that its 2020 calendar was European-centric. In contrast, 2021 feels much more ‘international’, thus creating added challenges and logistical dilemmas, such as those seen at city-based street races in Monaco, Baku, and Singapore - all of which require long lead times to prepare for events.

There is also the concern of burnout, with three triple-headers and a total of nine ‘flyaway’ events in a relentless period between the end of September and mid-December presenting teams and their staff facing another Herculean effort this year following on from what was a compressed 2020 season.

The series is pushing hard for limited numbers of fans to return this season too, after spectators were only permitted at four events last year, with Emilia Romagna President Stefano Bonaccini already signalling Imola’s intention to allow fans to attend its race this year.

“We are hoping to be able to open the circuit to the public, albeit with a capacity and within the limits that can guarantee maximum safety,” he said in a press conference held on Tuesday morning.

“We continue to propose sporting events as few others are able to do, giving continuity to a program of national and international events of a high caliber.

“From here the desire is not to stop, to demonstrate once again that when we must insist on fighting the virus, and with the launch of the vaccination campaign that must make us look to the next months with confidence, we are ready to rebuild.”

Despite mass vaccination programmes being rolled out to combat the pandemic, the coronavirus is not yet in retreat. Meanwhile, the emergence of a new variant has caused great concern across the globe and resulted in the United Kingdom entering a third national lockdown earlier this month due to a sharp rise in cases.

As it was in 2020, along with other elite sports, F1 has been allowed to continue.

The championship will undoubtedly face more hurdles in the coming weeks and months but last season demonstrated the sport can be safely and flexibly delivered.

If anyone can do it, F1 has proved it can.

 

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