Wednesday, March 29, 2017

How Can Formula One Get to 25 Races?

Formula One's new owners Liberty Media has made it no secret since announcing its takeover of the global series that it wishes to race more and has even targeted more races in Latin America, Asia and the United States while recognizing the European spine of the calendar. It has even put a night race in Las Vegas on the top of its wish list. During the pre-Australian Grand Prix press conference, Daniel Ricciardo even echoed the desire for a race in Las Vegas. Lewis Hamilton said he wants a race in Miami. Sebastian Vettel wants a race in Germany.

Putting Ricciardo's and Hamilton's wishes aside because what realistic chance is there of either of those likely dull street race occurring, could Formula One possibly add five more races to its calendar?

There were 21 races last year. The drivers said during the press conference that they want to race more and would love to race more and they think the teams would like to race more but I think the teams might want to have a word about that claim. While the drivers don't see an issue with a few more races, they are the ones who likely arrive to a location on Wednesday night, have press events on Thursday and then start the race weekend Friday and are out by Sunday night. 

The teams, as in the men and women who put together the cars and make sure it gets from Europe to Australia, China, Brazil or wherever Formula One is competing, likely don't have as relaxed a week as the drivers. While the drivers are in bed or in first-class, the team is still working on the car in the garage hours before the first session begins or breaking the car down before loading it up and shipping it back to the factory or the next race on the calendar. The teams are probably gassed by Italy and still have trips to Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, the United States, Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi ahead of them. 

The good news for the teams is there is at least one driver who sees the grind of the Formula One schedule. Fernando Alonso voiced that the schedule was at its limit late last year. However, we don't live in a fair world where the bourgeois owners see the backbreaking works of the teams and thinks enough is enough. The goal is to suck as much money out of the fan base and that means schedule expansion is inevitable. 

The problem is Formula One schedule can't expand within the current timeframe. There are 17 off-weeks between Melbourne and Abu Dhabi so there is room but there isn't. Outside of the three-week summer break in August there are no multi-week breaks this season and there are four back-to-back occurrences. 

The season will have to start earlier if a 25-race schedule is to happen. It already ends the final week of November and I can't imagine the teams want to race into December. How much earlier? It depends where Formula One expands to and maybe we should figure that out first. 

We know the French Grand Prix is coming back in 2018 at Circuit Paul Ricard and while the German Grand Prix isn't happening this year, next year it appears set to return to the Hockenheimring. That would bring the calendar up to 22 races but we also know Singapore and Malaysia are on the fence about Formula One returning in 2018. It should be noted that China, Singapore, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi don't have contracts for next year but I can't see Liberty Media not returning to at least China and Abu Dhabi seeing how popular those races are and the emphasis already on racing in Asia.

Let's say Singapore, China and Bahrain all return but at the cost of Malaysia, then the 2018 calendar would stand at 21 races, four away from the magic number Liberty Media has thrown out. Keeping in mind the three areas Liberty Media sees for potential expansion, let's tackle Latin America first. I don't see anywhere the series can go. Mexico is great but Brazil has been on the fence. Outside of that, the only Latin American country with the infrastructure for a Formula One race is Argentina, the forgotten motorsports hotbed, and I am not sure the funding is there. 

When it comes to Asia, India and South Korea each received races in the last decade and both fell off the schedule after facing financial difficulty. India has to be high on Liberty Media's list for Formula One expansion as it has over a billion people and is growing but I am not sure the FIA has cleared up its tax dispute with the state of Utter Pradesh. One place where expansion could occur is the Middle East. While the region already has two races, the region also has two FIA Grade 1 circuits in the Dubai Autodrome and Losail International Circuit in Qatar, which hosts the MotoGP season opener and has lights. There is also a Grade 1 circuit in Buriram, Thailand, which hosts Asian Le Mans Series and World Superbikes. 

Then there is always Formula One's ancestral home Europe. Depending on how you look at Russia and Azerbaijan, Europe has somewhere between seven and nine Formula One races out of twenty. Even if you are being generous, Europe is less than half the Formula One schedule. It wasn't long ago that Imola was in contention for replacing Monza. Jerez once hosted Formula One. As did Magny-Cours. With Max Verstappen painting the hillside along the Kemmel Straight at Spa-Francorchamps orange maybe a return to Zandvoort should be in the cards. Heck, Mugello is Grade 1 and Algarve, Portugal has a lovely track, though I hear there is only one road to the track and not many hotels in the area. 

For the sake of this, let's just say Formula One adds Imola, Algarve, Qatar and a second race in the United States but not some street circuit in Las Vegas or Miami but let's say Formula One returns to Indianapolis or Road America bites the bullet and upgrades to Grade 1. 

The season would have to start no later than the second weekend in February, a month and a half earlier than the current season opener and it could no longer be at Australia. The season is going to have to start in the Middle East and Bahrain is going to have to move up and the addition of Qatar provides the series with a back-to-back to start the season. After two weeks off, Melbourne could take place a few weeks earlier in March before being followed by China in another back-to-back situation. 

After a week off, Sochi could be the first week in April followed the next week by Baku. After another week off starts the traditional European portion of the schedule with Barcelona and Algarve back-to-back. A week off would be followed by Imola and Monaco back-to-back in the middle of May and ten races would be completed before the start of June.

The first two weeks of June would see Formula One run in North America with wherever Formula One ends up going in the United States paired with Montreal. The final weekend in June would see Formula One back in Europe and this is where the French Grand Prix would fall. The first weekend in July would be the British Grand Prix followed by a week off. Once back to racing, the series heads to a Germany-Austria back-to-back before the three-week summer break starts the last weekend in July. 

When the summer break is over, Formula One would head to Hungary with a week off before Belgium and a week off before finishing the European portion of the season in Italy. The 20th round of the season would occur at Singapore on the final weekend of September with Japan the following week. After a week off, the Formula One season would wrap up as it does now with Austin and Mexico City back-to-back at the end of October followed by Brazil two weeks later and Abu Dhabi the final weekend in November. 

As you can see, back-to-backs would have to be the key to Formula One reaching 25 races and keeping the current slate of races. The total would skyrocket from four to ten. However, while most of these would be done strategically, it doesn't mean it would be any less grueling for the teams. There would still only be 17 off-weeks during the season but five more races when compared to 2017. And I am not sure how much earlier the season could start. 

If the season started on the second weekend of February, when would testing start? Would the quality of racing suffer because of underdeveloped cars? Teams could start with year-old cars, that was a common occurrence for most of Formula One's history but when in the world would teams have the time to test and have their new cars ready by let's say Sochi? Is the two-week break between Qatar and Melbourne going to be filled with testing and forcing the teams to work around the clock for six consecutive weeks at five different race tracks on three different continents? Is that really what is best for Formula One? 

Even Formula One's new managing director Ross Brawn sees the issue with expanding the schedule and he believes the solution would be for Formula One to follow the NASCAR model with two sets of crews and engineers rotating in and out. That sounds great but would the increase in personnel needed to run a team crush the little teams? Is it really fathomable for Sauber, Force India, Haas and Scuderia Toro Rosso to double their staffs? Even factory teams would have to be reaching the breaking point if it had to double its Formula One personnel. 

The Liberty Media-era is just starting and whether it seriously takes a look at a 25-race schedule will come in time but the question maybe shouldn't be how can Formula One get to 25 races but if a 25-race schedule is for the best of Formula One?