Formula 1’s Struggles Magnified by COVID

Since the start of the pandemic last year, the world’s entertainment, tourism and travel, have all suffered devastating economic blows, and Formula 1 is no different. When you look at all the glitz and glamour F1 gets as motorsport’s premier series, it is undoubtedly easy to forget what goes on behind the scenes of the F1 “circus”, with countless people working relentlessly to make the whole spectacle possible. Before COVID, the sport was already suffering from high work tension and cost issues, often leading to disagreements with track owners about monetary issues, which in itself courses us to a fan favourite venue leaving the calendar. But during the 2020 season, it became even more of a logistical and financial nightmare.

Logistics: More than Just A-to-B

The 2020 calendar was shaping up to be more ambitious than ever before, with more than 20 races across five different continents being planned before the onset of the pandemic, getting hundreds of millions worth of cars and equipment shipped back and forth across the globe is no easy task. So, teams used a combination of land, air, and water transportation to go from weekend to weekend. In terms of land transportation, things are relatively simple, with cars being stripped down to their barebones components and shipped by liveried trucks. Meanwhile, other types of equipment such as tyres are hauled by technical contractors, in this case, Pirelli.

A myriad of trucks has to be used in order to make the transition from round to round as smooth as possible.

Flyaway races, meanwhile, are a little more complicated, as the shipping is split up into two sections: critical, and non-critical. Critical parts include the chassis, engine, and pretty much all the components of the car. Non-critical parts, meanwhile, include jack stands and garage equipment. Add to that the large number of crew members (mechanics, strategists, etc.) that have to jump through a myriad of hoops in a COVID-infested world with routine tests for every single member, it is safe to say that the operation is not the smoothest, especially with venues being added and removed according to COVID restrictions almost overnight. It is worth mentioning that the season opener in Australia – despite having all the teams present in the paddock after a lengthy shipping period – was cancelled a few hours before Friday’s Free Practice Session due to a few McLaren team members testing positive. Thankfully, none were hospitalised. Turkey and Portugal made surprising returns to the calendar, with the decisions to host races there – along with other uncommonly used tracks like Mugello and Imola – coming up seemingly out of the blue.

Money Talks and its Voice is Loud

But the real issue wasn’t the logistics, nor was it the ever-changing calendar. It was the financial side that took the major hit. Liberty Media (the firm that owns Formula One) reported that the sport suffered a huge financial loss during the 2020 season. Primary revenue in 2020 over a 12 month period was $964 million. For the sake of comparison, FOM (Formula One Management) reported $1,664 million in primary revenue last year, translating to a loss of $700 million. The operating income, though, was the real elephant in the room. In the 12 month period between 2019 and 2020, it went from a positive $17 million to a staggering negative $386 million. Total revenue across both years dropped from $2.02 billion to $1.14 billion, respectively, showing a loss of $0.88 billion. This can be mainly attributed to the absence of fans from all but a select minority of Grand Prix (GP) Weekends, which changed the nature of the contracts between Liberty Media and the hosting venues and led to a huge loss of income for both FOM and said venues. 

It wasn’t just F1 as an organization that was suffering from financial losses, though, as some teams were struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic. While the big three (Mercedes-AMG, Scuderia Ferrari, and Red Bull Racing) didn’t really take a noticeable hit as their yearly Research and Development spend sometimes touches the ceiling at $300 million, smaller teams had a much harder time coping, with the Williams family having to sell off their iconic family team to New York-based investment firm Dorilton Capital, for a reported sum of $180 million, which includes the team and its debts. Even McLaren wasn’t safe from the COVID storm, putting up the iconic MTC for a sale-and-leaseback deal valued at $259 million and axing off numerous jobs amidst a restructure. 

The iconic MTC, home to Woking-based McLaren.

A Mental Battle

In environments akin to Formula 1, there is little to no room for error. This applies to everyone in the industry, whether it be drivers, engineers, or team crew. The spotlight watches everyone and everything with burning lights, damaging those who come into contact with it. One such case recently was the “cursed” Red Bull 2nd seat, especially with the rise, fall, and rebirth of talented Frenchman Pierre Gasly. Gasly was an outstanding talent in his stint at Toro Rosso in 2018, leading to his promotion to the front-running Red Bull Racing in 2019. Pierre wrote an article on The Players’ Tribune not too long ago, describing how it felt to drive for a team like RBR:

From the moment I made my first mistake in a car, I felt like people there slowly began to turn on me. I’d had a crash in winter testing, and from that moment on the season never really got going. Then I had a tough first two races with Red Bull and the media just ate me up.”

And not much later, in the summer break of the 2019 season, Pierre got the call that he was dropped from Red Bull and back into junior team Toro Rosso. He wrote:

“Helmut Marko called me while I was on holiday in Spain and said, “We’re going to send you back to Toro Rosso in a switch for Alex Albon.” I was sad. I can’t lie. I was broken up about it. I want to be a world champion. Who knows when I’ll be back in a car that good again? It’s really, really hard to take a step backward in this sport.”

Pierre Gasly during the 2020 preseason winter test with the newly rebranded Alpha Tauri

The harsh reality in F1 is that there is an inherent danger that lies deep within. Every weekend, drivers climb into their cars, fully understanding the risks they take every time… the risk of a crash. Now, after Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger’s horrific crashes at the 1994 San Marino GP, safety regulations were overhauled but said risks were never eradicated. In the modern-day, drivers usually walk out unscathed, but not all stories carry a happy ending. Such a story was of the tragic loss of Anthoine Hubert, Gasly’s childhood friend. He describes his feelings on that day:

“Sitting in that debrief at Spa, all I could think about was my friend. As soon as our debrief ended, I ran down to the hospitality area to see my parents and girlfriend because I knew they’d have more information. I remember coming down the stairs and seeing them all just sobbing. I could see they were broken. And I understood what it meant. I knew my friend was gone. I was completely broken. I cried until I couldn’t cry anymore. I’ve never experienced a worse feeling than that in my life.”

Sadly enough, the sport lost one of its top junior talents that day, something which left a lasting effect on many people, including Pierre, who went through what is possibly the harshest mental battle – after being dropped from his team, slaughtered by the media, and losing his childhood best friend in a very short span, that lead to the greatest redemption story in 2020, culminating with him winning the Italian GP in what seemed to be the most emotional victory for the past few seasons.

Where to Now?

Safety in F1 has gone a long way to help reduce the danger for drivers, especially with the introduction of safety measures such as wheel tethers and the Halo device in the 2018 season.The Halo device was introduced for the 2018 season as a mandatory chassis component, as part of the FIA’s advance towards safer racing. It is composed of a horizontal, oval shaped bar that surrounds the cockpit, and a central support column that extends in front of the driver’s face. This aimed to reduce injuries and make the sport even safer still, by protecting the driver’s head from debris. It showed its worth very quickly in 2018, with Charles Leclerc being shielded from a flying Fernando Alonso at the beginning of the Belgium GP, along with Marcus Ericsson’s huge crash at Monza the same year. But as safe as things can get, there are still a few outliers, like Romain Grosjean’s horrific accident at the 2020 Bahrain GP, and of course the aforementioned passing of Anthoine Hubert back in 2019, show that even with the long strides taken in safety equipment, there’s no such thing as “too safe”, and it’s been made clear by the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) that it’s their mission to make racing as safe as it possibly can be.

Max Verstappen’s Red Bull. Note the halo device installed over the cockpit.

And even in a system that runs as precisely as a well-tuned Swiss watch, there’s always room for improvement. One of the said system’s most glaringly obvious flaws is by far the number of races in a single season. It’s a simple equation: more races lead to higher moving and operating costs for the teams as they have to manufacture more spare parts in case anything goes awry, more money being paid for the hosting venues, and of course a much more tightly packed schedule. Such a schedule can lead to much more stress on engineers, drivers, team staff, infrastructure workers… and is, in general, something people can do without. 

One easy way of solving such a problem is to obviously decrease the number of races per season, as some races provide little to no spectacle in terms of viewership and are generally disliked by the community. Some that pop to mind are Russia, France, and to an extent Abu Dhabi which, in my opinion, has no place being the final race of the year. This brings me on to my next point. 

Effective scheduling. Given that some venues charge a hefty sum to host a Grand Prix, they could sometimes be placed in a less-than-ideal position on the calendar. In a “normal” year (i.e. a year unaffected by COVID), we have come to see the trend of Brazil hosting the penultimate event, and then the circus heading all the way to Abu Dhabi for what usually turns out to be an anticlimactic season finale. Such ideas place an unnecessary strain on the shipping department with little gain, as after the season finale teams ship their equipment back to their headquarters (most commonly in England, or Italy if you’re Ferrari). For example, I’d suggest having a race like the Abu Dhabi GP placed around the Bahrain GP in the early part of the season, and moving the North/South American races to the end of the calendar, as that cuts the distance of travel between Sao Paulo to Abu Dhabi and replaces it with a much shorter Sakhir-Abu Dhabi route. Again, while this might be a short-term solution, it helps alleviate some of the everlasting stress workers in this field suffer from. 

So, to sum it all up: there’s a much more grievous reality than the glamorous world of Formula 1 that is seen with the naked eye. There are a lot more goings-on behind the scenes that people might seem to the surface. The financial crisis some teams are going through, the mental battles drivers and engineers go through every single day to deliver the best spectacle they can, the nightmare-inducing logistics with the very tightly packed scheduling that management has to stick with, and all those issues got magnified tenfold when COVID was factored in. But in the end, everything goes onwards. They strive for perfection, no matter which way you look at it is still there. Perfection, in itself, is unachievable. But in Formula 1, you can get pretty close to it.

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