Back in the time pre-COVID-19, one of the many storylines that seemed to be never-ending within Formula 1 was that of plans for a second race in the United States, the first anchored at the expansive Circuit of The Americas (photo above).
Plenty of locations were mentioned, with destination cities high on the agenda. Las Vegas cropped up fairly often; so, too, California. But Miami was always the front-runner and the South Florida city soon confirmed plans to host a grand prix downtown in 2019.
We all know how well that went.
Even with the delays, 2021 was a very realistic target. The race organizers had taken on board concerns and were trying to find ways of getting approval for a race at Hard Rock Stadium, as they had an agreement in principle in place to join the calendar next year.
If you’ve been following the latest developments surrounding the 2021 F1 calendar, there are plenty of questions you might have:
* Is a March start in Australia realistic?
* Should F1 be racing in Saudi Arabia?
* Why are there likely to be triple-headers again?
* What’s happened to Miami?
I’m going to take one of the easier options today by focusing on Florida, but that doesn’t make the other questions any less valid.
F1 hasn’t raced in Florida since 1959 when a grand prix was held at Sebring, and the sport is clearly keen to return. Liberty Media set out its vision to have a bigger U.S. presence long ago, but COVID has put the brakes on that.
Today, Liberty announced its third-quarter results for 2020, and when it comes to F1, there was good and bad news. When you compare revenue in this quarter ($597M) to the third quarter in 2019 ($633M) it doesn’t look too bad. But costs were higher, and contracts were changed.
In total, the Formula One Group lost $115M in the last quarter, whereas in 2019 the same period saw operating income at $32M. More races in the period helped somewhat, but the overall schedule has triggered alterations to broadcast contracts and lowered income.
Against that backdrop, it’s no surprise new races we are seeing confirmed – such as Saudi Arabia – come with an extremely large race-hosting fee and therefore valuable income for a sport that has been bleeding money this year.
Miami was set to be a very different business model.
There was not set to be a sizable race-hosting fee for Miami, but instead some sort of revenue-sharing agreement that would allow Liberty to add what it saw as a strategically important event. But now is not the time to be taking on that added risk.
“On Miami, we’re still actively engaged – actually we had a conversation with the Dolphin group leadership a few weeks ago,” F1 CEO and chairman Chase Carey said on the Liberty Q3 conference call. “I think both of us decided that when the virus issues came to the forefront and uncertainty associated with it, we were better off going a little slower and trying to get to a place where we had a bit more visibility in how this is going to play out.
“I think we’re as excited as ever about the opportunity in Miami but we felt the prudent path forward was to make sure we’re confident.”
In many ways, the timing for Miami couldn’t have been worse. This year’s calendar was decimated by the virus, with iconic venues across Europe getting to host events because F1 couldn’t head Stateside, and because a large hosting fee wasn’t required for a one-off race. But that meant postponing or cancelling a number of established events, and needing to find ways to maintain a positive partnership moving forward.
F1 has only pressed pause on its business model, not ripped it up and started again as a result of the coronavirus. To plan for a best-case scenario – as well as keep the existing contracts valid – a record 23-race calendar that looks similar to this year’s original one (plus Jeddah) has been drafted. Bringing in Miami at this stage would be a big ask of the teams and a leap of faith from Liberty that would border on reckless in the current climate.
“We feel pretty good about next year,” Carey adds. “Our early events are the ones we’ve had the deepest conversations with; all seem confident about having fans and having events that are, if not normal, feel pretty close to normal. We’re getting great enthusiasm, but there’s still uncertainty.
“For a new race, we want to launch in the right way so we both thought the right thing was to go a bit slower until we have better visibility, whether it’s vaccines, treatments or testing. Ultimately, growing the sport, in the U.S. is, as we’ve said all along, not a 12-month proposition; it’s a longer-term proposition.
“It’s more important we do it right than fast. The virus represents challenges until you have a better sense of it. We’re certainly still engaged, but we’ll continue to monitor the broader environment and see when it makes sense to move to the next phase.”
Even though the precise location of the Brazilian Grand Prix is uncertain – with both Rio de Janeiro and Interlagos being looked at – a second U.S. race wouldn’t fill the gap if neither came off. Multiple new and returning options in Germany, Portugal, Italy and Turkey have raised their hands this year, after all.
And therein lies another aspect to take into account when it comes to the second U.S. race: Fans and drivers have been clamoring for some of the old-school venues to stay beyond this year, but there’s an understanding that money talks and anything expanding the calendar now must be financially worth it to the teams.
To try and push the number of races up even higher with a Miami race would need to come with more guarantees than it currently does, and the plans have already had enough knock-backs as it is.
Miami won’t be on the final 2021 calendar as planned. While there’s a risk the project could quietly disappear altogether, taking itself out of the firing line for a little while does give it a better chance of appearing in future.