The Lockdown Diaries: French GP

Image by Mauger/LAT

The Lockdown Diaries: French GP

Formula 1

The Lockdown Diaries: French GP

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The disruptions caused by current shutdowns reach into every corner of the racing industry. RACER.com is sharing stories of how different entities in the sport are tackling these unprecedented challenges in a special series called The Lockdown Diaries.

The turmoil that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the world means there’s absolutely no telling when things will return to “normal,” and what that will look like. Within the motorsport industry, everyone’s waiting for a date, and their first race to target.

As it stands, that first race on Formula 1’s schedule is the Canadian Grand Prix, and while there is not the same lead time as Baku, it’s another temporary circuit that needs significant warning if it’s not going to host a race on June 14. After that, attention turns to France, where there’s more optimism.

“We are planning for four scenarios which are: Postponement, cancellation, business as usual – you have to do this because it’s a few months of work to put on a race – and a fourth scenario that is to downgrade the size of the grand prix,” French Grand Prix managing director Eric Boullier tells RACER.

“If we had a late call to go for the race but ticket sales have slowed down and we can’t have enough people coming, then we need to adjust the expenses. That’s a discussion as well that we’re having with F1, because they are part of the expenses – they are my biggest one! So, if for some reason we could hold the grand prix and have the race in France in June, we might have a scenario where we control the expenses and the capacity of the race.”

The sticking point of lead times that is faced by both Baku and Montreal does not come into the equation to the same extent for Paul Ricard, with a permanent circuit being much more flexible.

“To be honest with you the difference with a street circuit is we don’t have to build a track in cities,” Boullier added. “Nevertheless we have our own deadlines, but these are not deadlines which would stop the project.

“We could basically try to go to the 20th of June and see if we have to cancel it or not. But operationally we might have to downsize the capacity at some stage because we will not have enough time anymore to build enough grandstands, for example. So that’s our only limitation, but we don’t have an exact deadline, let’s say.

“If needed, depending on the level of ticket sales we can adjust the capacity of the grand prix by making a prediction. That’s an internal deadline because it’s a decision we have to take a few weeks before the grand prix, when we know physically the company building the grandstands needs X weeks. So X weeks before the grand prix we need to decide if we need those grandstands or not.”

At this stage, Boullier is optimistic. Even in the week before the race, he is confident the event could refund all spectators and cover its expenses in the event of a cancellation. But like so many events, any decision on the viability of hosting the race will be the result of a number of different inputs.

“To be honest nothing has really been discussed at this stage because it’s so unpredictable, we will see in three months,” he said. “Even if I already have had a few chats with the people from F1, this is three months away and we have no guarantee how the pandemic is going to develop and for how long. Most of the sports events until June have been postponed or cancelled, so June is clearly now the new deadline when we will see. We can afford to wait a few more weeks to see, which will give us a clearer picture of where we are going.

The French GP the luxury of some flexibility, but it is still simultaneously planning to run a full event on schedule, run with a reduced capacity, or face postponement or cancellation. Image by Etherington/LAT

“We have to monitor four countries, which is another specific. France, of course, but also the UK, Italy and Switzerland where all the teams are based. In monitoring France, we are in contact with the Sports Minister and the French federation – the FFSA – and there is a wish today to send the kids back to school on May 4. Firstly it’s positive that there’s this sort of thinking, but secondly between May 4 and June 28 it’s nearly eight weeks. So that gives a lot of time to consider and see if there’s the possibility to run the grand prix.

“Everything is possible and we are just monitoring the situation. Priority is obviously for safety of the spectators and also the people working in Formula 1. So we will take the decision we have to take. We are in a good position where we can work on any scenario.”

Three of the four scenarios are already planned for in some form – the race as normal, cancellation and a downsizing of the venue – but postponing has been the approach most other races have had to take. While Boullier is in regular discussions with F1 about anything happening in France that impacts the chances of a successful event, he says it isn’t yet time to consider a different date.

“Every grand prix has its own limitations. In our case we obviously can’t be running during the summer break because everything is full normally, because it’s a holiday place,” he said. “And you can’t run it in December because it’s too cold.

“So if we had to postpone the race we’d have to find a slot between September and November at the latest, so that gives you a very short time frame. Obviously, there are another 15-18 GPs to try and pin down in the calendar!

“Plus all the logistical aspects, you can’t have too many races back-to-back, you’ll have flyaway races in the middle so there’s a minimum number of days to allow for logistics and travel of people and freight.

“It’s very complex to put in place and I think today F1 is not even working on trying to rearrange yet, I think they have listened to every grand prix and promoter to understand the constraints in case there is a postponement, but I think they’re waiting to understand when the season can properly kick-off and then will work on the calendar.”

With a split set-up of offices in Paul Ricard and Paris, Boullier – who lives in the UK – has a team used to relying on modern technology to communicate. The Frenchman is also having individual calls with every one of his employees at least once a week “so I know their state of mind and can help if there’s a problem” given their different environments working from home.

Aside from that, it’s business as usual because the official advice Boullier is receiving points to a realistic chance of being able to host a race in some form in three months’ time.

“Like everybody there is the French federation and obviously the government – so the Sports Minister – that we effectively follow. If there is a limit on the number of people gathering then it’s a legal position from the government and you have to respect it,” he said.

“I don’t want to be over-optimistic, but if kids are going back to school at the beginning of May then I would think that maybe there is a possibility that, legally-speaking, we will be allowed to do the race at the end of June. But we will see, we are monitoring the situation day by day.

“Safety first, that is our biggest concern. We will do everything we can. If it happens then I think it will be a nice racing party where we will hopefully be able to bring some thoughts to the many, many families who will have been affected by the drama of this year. If we had to cancel then we can refund everybody, so we’re ready for all scenarios.”

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