11 Grands Prix have already taken place in 2021, as F1 continues to overcome the challenges posed by COVID-19, though it remains to be seen whether the sport will be able to navigate its way through a much more complicated second half of the season and reach the 2021 target of 23 races.
The first triple-header
When F1 comes out of a month-long summer break next week, the championship will go full speed into a triple-header sequence featuring the Belgian GP (August 29), Dutch GP (September 5) and Italian GP (September 12) on consecutive weekends.
Confirmation that the Dutch Grand Prix will go ahead only came at the beginning of this week. As per government approval, it will be held at two-thirds capacity, though that’s enough for 70,000 fans – many of whom will be backing home hero Max Verstappen – to flock through Zandvoort’s gates each day.
"For me, the glass is two-thirds full. We’re just going to do it," said Dutch GP Sporting Director Jan Lammers as the news arrived.
If the decision had gone the other way, F1 would have faced a major dilemma in the quest to hit 23 races, but the season will restart as planned.
It brings F1 up to 14 scheduled events for 2021. So far, so good.
What happens next?
After one weekend off, the next triple-header sequence comprises Russia, Turkey and Japan.
Russia looks set to proceed as planned, but after this, things get a little bit more complicated.
F1 is waiting on authorities in Japan to confirm whether or not it will allow the Japanese Grand Prix to go ahead – with or without fans. A decision was due on August 10, but there has been no more word. If the green light is given, the triple-header should be able to proceed as planned. If not, it could all come tumbling down.
Turkey is currently on the UK’s ‘red list’. As things stand, UK-based personnel (i.e. most of the F1 paddock) would be required to spend 10 days in hotel quarantine upon their return to home soil, at a significant cost to teams. Japan, meanwhile, is on the UK’s ‘amber list’, meaning only a COVID-19 test is required on arrival. Therefore, if the Japanese GP goes ahead, there’s potential for personnel to see out this quarantine period after the Turkish GP on the move. This would, of course, rely on Japanese authorities being lenient. If there’s no Japanese GP, teams would be faced with significant bills for quarantine hotels.
Right now, the fate of this leg very much lies with Japan.
Heading to the Americas
Beyond this, F1 is set to fly out to the Americas for the United States, Mexican and Brazilian GPs in late October and early November.
Both Mexico and Brazil are also on the UK’s ‘red list’ at the moment, with significant COVID-19 cases seen in each country, but their GP promoters remain adamant that the events will go ahead.
Indeed, the renamed Sao Paulo GP is pushing on with ticket sales. Organisers have also requested a date change, from November 7 to 14, which would break up this triple-header sequence, and bring the race in line with Brazil's Republic Proclamation Day – a national holiday observed the following Monday. It remains to be seen if F1 will grant this request.
Should issues arise with Mexico and Brazil, there has been talk of the Circuit of the Americas hosting an additional race after the United States Grand Prix. But if Turkey, Japan, Mexico and Brazil fall by the wayside, one replacement round in the US would not undo all the damage.
The final sequence
If all goes well and F1 makes it to this point with 20 races under its belt, the season will be sprinting to the finish line.
The new-for-2021 Saudi Arabian GP in Jeddah is scheduled for December 3, followed by the now traditional season finale in Abu Dhabi a week later. No obvious issues here, with several races having gone ahead smoothly in the Middle East during the pandemic.
Before this, a 'TBC' event has been pencilled in for November 21. At the moment, this would be a standalone event, between the legs in the Americas and the Middle East. But there is clear potential to shift it based on what unfolds.
In any case, F1 has plenty of options to link up with events in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Another race in Bahrain, for example, possibly on the ‘Outer’ layout once more, or even a visit to Qatar’s Losail Circuit, which has hosted MotoGP for several years.
What about the championship?
Time will tell whether F1, and the countries involved, can pull off what is a hugely demanding calendar of events in normal times, let alone during a pandemic.
Unlike in 2020, there are no concerns about this year’s calendar falling short of the eight-race requirement for a World Championship. But managing the situation will be a challenge for teams and drivers. Circuit/car preferences, mental preparation, fatigue, engine management and more will all come into play.
Whatever the number of races F1 ends up with this season, the paddock should make the most of each one that proceeds, and the enthralling title battle between Red Bull driver Verstappen and Mercedes rival Lewis Hamilton.