How Coronavirus Might Help Formula 1

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Image: Viacheslav Lopatin/Shutterstock.com

You’re sick of hearing about it, and I’m sick of writing about it. The world has been rocked by the coronavirus crisis this year. We know. How could we not as expressions like ‘social distancing,’ ‘growing exponentially,’ and ‘flattening the curve’ have all become part of our daily lexicon? It’s been a tough year thus far, but for Formula 1, there could be several silver linings from these… ‘unprecedented times’ *groan*.

The Budget Cap

We can’t ignore that F1 teams are suffering hardship, just like many companies around the world. McLaren is cutting 1,200 jobs across their wider business, and Williams is seeking financial support from investment or a buyout. These struggles highlight how crucial racing is for constructors that exist to race. If teams can’t race, they can’t get paid, and when they can’t get paid, their tight budgets get stretched to breaking point.

Now, that same budget tightening experience the smaller teams have long endured has been forced upon the big boys of F1. And things are rapidly changing. The budget cap has been a contentious issue for years. The $175m cap for 2021 took a long time to be agreed as the larger constructors worried over job losses. With Renault cutting nearly 15,000 positions across their entire company in a bid to save €2bn, the pandemic has overpowered profit-making thoughts of manufacturers, who instead are in survival mode. And so, the agreed development cap for 2021 was reduced by $30m thanks to coronavirus, and now sits at $145m, decreasing to $135m by 2025.

Some fans will argue against the purity of any handicap in the sport, even though it’s not on the racetrack. I believe that this solution protects F1 from running with only a dozen cars and provides a timely lifeline for struggling teams like Williams and McLaren. Constructors, potential investors, or even new teams, can finally forecast long term costs. It’s one thing to raise $150m/year to run an F1 team, but quite another to know you won’t be way behind the development of others when you do so. The cap will be a long term gain for a sport which until now had an ever-rising barrier of entry.

Virtual Grand Prix

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Image: plg photo/shutterstock.com

Had the pandemic swept the globe a few years earlier, we might not have seen any officially organized events to bring the drivers together. Liberty Media bought the F1 rights in 2016 and has since invested a lot in making F1 digital. They introduced F1TV and F1TV Pro, they expanded the presence of F1 in social media, sanctioned a Netflix show, and took sim racing seriously. The official F1 Esports debuted in 2017, and last year the prize fund was raised to an impressive $500k.

Having a ready-to-go virtual racing series meant more than just asking some drivers to turn on a games console and spend $40 on a PlayStation game. Sim racing is a serious business. A studio was already in place, with commentators, presenters, branding, and crucially, AV and broadcasting equipment ready to be deployed.

F1 had essentially ran three years of Esports trials preparing for the arrival of F1 drivers past and present to join. We’ve seen Jenson Button, Stoffel Vandoorne, Esteban Gutierrez, and many more ex-drivers appear alongside today’s talent where they’d otherwise turn their nose up if any ‘real’ racing were an option. With no coronavirus, they’d have no interest.

F1 is about characters as much as it is racing and being able to cheer on your favorite stars, even virtually, has a certain appeal to it. The fact that they show up, with the younger drivers in particular regularly appearing, has lured new eyes to Esports. 3.2m viewers tuned in across all formats for the first race. Virtual Grand Prix will never replace the real thing. Still, perhaps it can provide Formula 1 with a new way of delivering content in non-race weekends or the off-season with the midfield drivers in particularly having an opportunity to shine.

Different Race Weekend Formats

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Image: cristiano barni/shutterstock.com

Though still on the table with nothing confirmed, the weekend format for a Grand Prix is something Liberty Media has repeatedly mentioned they’d like to change. I understand their desire. They have a global TV show with each episode spanning three days, but only two hours in which the audience will tune in. Even during the episode finale on Sunday afternoons, there is no guarantee it will be worthwhile viewing. But testing an alternative weekend setup is near impossible with so many stakeholders to please. Why should one race have a different format and not another when some teams are more potent at some circuits than elsewhere?

Enter coronavirus and the requirement to run some races twice to bulk out the calendar. When we finally get the season underway in July, the second weekend will be on the same track, with the same constructors, cars, and drivers as the weekend before. There will still be three practice sessions for a team to get a perfect setup even though they spent 6–7 hours doing just that one week prior. Though a circuit layout rarely differs, in a regular season there, would be a new car or different drivers to justify practice sessions, not so for these Grand Prix.

So these double-header races represent a unique opportunity to try something new. Reverse grid races look unlikely, but there are other options possible. Sprint races for reduced points, splitting qualifying sessions to have a Q4, or extending Q3 to occur on Sunday. Even removing Friday entirely, seeing as there are no paying fans to entertain, could condense the action to a tightly packaged two-day event. Changing the available tire compounds for the race seems likely, but these duplicate races are a rare chance to go further with fewer objections, and F1 needs to capitalize.

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Image: David Acosta Allely/Shutterstock.com

Unlike days gone by, the Formula 1 governance has found itself receiving praise for being so agile and quick to handle the challenges presented by Covid-19. They rightly received criticism for the last minute call to cancel the Australian Grand Prix, but since that point, I’ve been encouraged by everything they’ve announced. Somehow F1 looks likely to step out of the coronavirus crisis in better shape than it was before.

Originally published at https://www.fortloc.com.

A tall man, living around the world, watching fast cars

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