For owners who were keen to do all of their negotiating behind closed doors and not in public, Liberty Media struggles to prevent leaks just as much as Bernie Ecclestone did.
Admittedly, that’s partly because as media you learn when to be seeking certain stories and information, and the fall is always when we’re digging around for a provisional calendar. So the one that finally appeared in an official capacity today was not a surprise — but nor was it necessarily welcome.
2020 has provided most of the world with huge challenges, not least those in the sports and events business. Schedules have been ruined, crowds have been hit and all of that has hurt finances, too. So the fact F1 has managed to put a season together and keep the sport afloat — saving jobs at the same time — is both impressive and a crucial achievement.
Everyone involved knew that, and it’s why they’ve been more willing to make sacrifices of their own. Many media have been locked out of the paddock, most TV stations haven’t traveled at all, but both have plenty to report on because the sport put together an intense schedule. Team members accepted (albeit some begrudgingly) three tripleheaders in a row to start the year, all to get races in where possible and make a championship.
But that was because of exceptional circumstances. Next year, we’re still likely to be faced with some, but F1 has planned for a season that features, in its own words, “a level of normality” and looks much like 2020 should have.
Only they’ve added more races, and retained tripleheaders.
The financial reasons are obvious. The more races you can have, and the more of those that are run as “normal” events with fans, the more money comes into the sport. As part of the way revenues are distributed, that is money that will make its way to the teams.
But then it also costs money to put on more races. There’s the logistical cost for teams to get to each one, more spares needed to cope with the schedule, and at the rate we’re going, more personnel to hire in order to share the workload. Only, we’re introducing a budget cap next year that is forcing some teams reduce their headcount, not increase it…
As a fan, I love the idea of more races. I only ever want to see F1 cars going wheel-to-wheel as often as possible, but as someone working in the sport I also get to see what it takes for these races to be put on in the first place.
In 2018, when the first tripleheader was attempted, it didn’t appear on the next calendar because it was understood to be too much to ask of everyone involved. This year, the teams accepted it given the pandemic and the fact their jobs could be at risk if the sport didn’t react, but as one team member put it to me today, the 2021 calendar surely “can’t be any worse than nine races in 11 weeks!”
And then you look at what’s actually being asked once again. That early 2020 schedule was brutal, but it was across six different countries and all within Europe, with some back-to-back races at the same circuit involved. For 2021, there’s a post-August run of nine race in 12 weeks, spanning nine different countries and four continents.
So how did we get here?
Again, it’s money, but not always just from the sport’s perspective: it can come from promoters, too. To offer an example, the new race at Zandvoort is banking on a massive crowd coming to support Max Verstappen, and (understandably, like many venues) wanted a slot later in the year in order to improve its chances of a big attendance. The later in the year, the more likely COVID-19 won’t offer such a big hurdle.
On the 2020 calendar, Zandvoort was originally scheduled to take place at the start of May as the first European round, but by getting moved to after the mid-season break it condenses things even more. That move alone has led to a pair of tripleheaders as it fits in between Spa and Monza, and forces Russia-Singapore-Japan to be grouped together. So if you’re the sport’s owners, do you push back and say you can’t make that happen, or take the money?
“It’s BS,” another team member told me today. “I’m torn. We have jobs, which is good. But to have a schedule like that… these people have no idea just how punishing it is for those who do every race.”
The word “brutal” popped up a lot when I was talking to F1 personnel. Some mechanics took to social media to voice frustration, and others responded with their opinions in emoji form.
The argument that “they know what they signed up for, loads of people would kill to work in F1” doesn’t hold water for me either, I’m afraid. Yes, it’s a dream job, but no, nobody signed up to be pushed to their breaking point. These sorts of schedules — getting ever-more tough — were not what they agreed to, they just appear to worsen each year.
I put it to you that even if you totally love your job, how would you respond if you were told your hours were being increased by half an hour each day next year, for no extra pay? And the year after that, another half hour is added on. Then half days on the weekends are added, too. When do you raise your voice and say it’s asking too much?
It’s true that lots of people would love to work in F1, just like so many of the people currently working in the sport gave everything to get here. The warning is that after all that, they’re being pushed so hard to the point some will walk way, others might crack, and the dream job stops existing.
To be clear, I’m also talking as someone who can benefit from more races. As a freelancer, some jobs I do are what I’m paid per-race, so I stand to gain, but most team personnel are salaried — there’s no increase when they’re asked to do another race weekend or two.
I’d had my mind opened to just how tough this year is within the teams a few races ago, when one source told me how they have no life at all outside of F1 anymore. When they return home from one race, they lock themselves away to ensure they are able to go to the next one, seeing nobody, doing nothing.
And they do it because they do still love their job, and more importantly, they can’t afford to lose it. It’s for those reasons those in F1 will keep committing to whatever the sport asks of them, in the knowledge that other people have lost jobs amid the pandemic, or face far harsher realities in their line of work.
But next year’s calendar appears to be capitalizing on that willingness and understanding, and stretching those involved even further. When the call was made to drop Vietnam from the schedule, it opened up the perfect opportunity to move Zandvoort to an early-summer slot, removing both triple-headers as Spa-Monza reverted to its usual pairing and then Russia or Singapore could become standalone.
22 races would still have been a record. Instead, because everyone’s adapted and shown they can pull it off, even more is asked of them.
Whether the cost is a few more people quitting, or a dangerous mistake being made, there is a breaking point. Instead of acknowledging that and trying to avoid it, it now looks inevitable the sport will hit it before it reacts.