Marshal with green flag, Circuit de Catalunya, 2020

Why Liberty Media will have to open its wallet to get F1 racing in 2020

2020 F1 season

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In the best-case scenario, we are 68 days away from the first race of the 2020 F1 season, which will be the Canadian Grand Prix on June 14th.

Realistically, with the first eight events on this year’s calendar already called off, no one can say for certain the race at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, or subsequent rounds, will be able to go ahead as planned.

The only race going on at the moment is being contested by the few dozen companies and educational institutions working on potential vaccines. The first of these, produced by biotechnology firm Moderna, has now entered the testing phase.

But, by necessity, this is a long and painstaking process. A vaccine must be both effective and produce no serious side-effects. Experts in this field estimate it could take a year and a half to have a vaccine ready – barely before the end of next season, never mind this year.

For now at least, our best weapon against the pandemic is to stay away from each other. Therefore across the world governments have shut down societies to unprecedented degrees. I write this in Britain at the beginning of our third week in ‘lockdown’. Several of our (wiser) European neighbours began theirs earlier.

Governments are hoping they can reverse the spread of the pandemic and contain it, beyond which point restrictions can be eased, and further outbreaks contained with intensive testing and localised lockdowns.

It will be in this scenario that all sports, not just motor racing, hope they can find a way to resume their competitions. But as far as Formula 1 is concerned, it is hard to imagine governments moving swiftly from lockdowns to permitting events such as grands prix which bring together hundreds of thousands of people from different parts of the country and abroad.

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This is why many sports are considering the feasibility of holding events ‘behind closed doors’. Remove the fans – by far the largest contingent of people at an event – and the total headcount needed to put on a race or a match are reduced.

Lance Stroll, Racing Point, Circuit de Catalunya, 2020
Will F1 have to ban fans from races to get its 2020 season started?
How low can F1 go? Our analysis last week indicated a figure of around 1,400. Azerbaijan Grand Prix promoter Arif Rahimov later suggested a much higher number of 6,000-7,000, although their criteria may have included some people our assessment considered non-essential.

These numbers will be much higher than are needed to put on, for example, a football match. But they would also be spread over much larger areas (take a look at an aerial photograph of the Circuit of the Americas and its adjacent football pitch for comparison).

But barring fans from the track presents an obvious problem. Race promoters will face a significant loss of income, and many are not well-placed to absorb that cost. The only way F1 can realistically race behind closed doors is if the sport’s commercial rights holder Liberty Media steps in to make up the difference.

Taking on another cost at a time like this will be an unappealing prospect. But the potential economic upside, outlined here, is clearly worth shooting for.

The idea of racing at all this year may seem unrealistic to some. At the time of writing our ongoing poll shows a significant number of readers don’t believe any F1 races will happen this year.

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Do not underestimate, however, the huge commercial pressure Liberty is under to prevent that happening. Again, the same will be true for other sports. The production and broadcasting of live sport is a massive industry.

In due course, governments will find themselves under pressure to loosen restrictions on gatherings to allow live sport to resume. Formula 1 will be no less desperate than its competitors for eyeballs – particularly as viewers, starved of action for so long, will have an appetite for sport to return.

For F1 to be in a position to take advantage of that, racing behind closed doors increasingly looks like an inevitably, and Liberty Media ponying up the dough a necessity.

Video: Will F1 resort to holding races ‘behind closed doors’?

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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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  • 15 comments on “Why Liberty Media will have to open its wallet to get F1 racing in 2020”

    1. So… is it: Liberty have to spend money to make money? Or Liberty will spend money to lose more money?

      Maybe they can stage all the 2020 races at COTA. All one of them.

      1. @jimmi-cynic Or only race in either Bahrain or Abu Dhabi or both this year, although they couldn’t really start earlier than November, or the 2nd half of October at the earliest.

        1. That could work… 8 races in Bahrain and 8 races in Abu Dhabi. And then we’d all be happy to never see F1 race again. ;-)

      2. @jimmi-cynic they’ll have to spend money to lose less money than if they spent no money. They’ll pay 5 to lose 10, instead of paying nothing to lose 50.

    2. Now we’re talking. A couple of quadruple headers could still be possible, each spread over two weekends, with all people involved tested before and “quarantained” (not going into town, basically) collectively during those 10 days.

      1. I’ve been an F1 fan for so many years it would be embarrassing to say. I absolutely would not watch ‘quadruple’ headers. If F1 does this I’m done. Get realistic and cancel the season; we all know this has to be done. In the big scheme of things F1 is simply entertainment; there will be more important things to do than fly 20 cars, hundreds of people, and hundred of tons of equipment all over the world.

    3. I think that realistically staging the events in Abu Dhabi and Bahrain without any fans will save the government money – since they won’t have to hand out so many seat filling tickets to non paying visitors @jerejj, @jimmi-cynic, I think those would be a core of a racing season.
      And then a couple of events ran in places like Paul Ricard (hugely remote, but depends on the time of year) and say Spielberg (i think RB would be up to funding that one if it’s 1/8th of the calendar), If we get lucky, we can have a race in Monza for Italy to signal that they are getting on top of Covid-19 (in late September?).

      Maybe Suzuka will be able to go ahead too – Japan might be keen to get at least that one on the calendar, and since it’s Honda paying, they might be keen to promote that they are still in business (provided they still are by then). By now, we need 3-4 more to get a World Championship. I think that China might be very keen to host that race too – highlighting how well they have managed to overcome it (regardless of actual fact). The cost probably won’t be a huge concern by then for them either.

      Yeah, Liberty will have to put in the money. But without it, don’t they risk the investment made so far if they don’t manage to get a championship going this year at all?

      1. Oh, right I think Putin will want to showcase how they completely manage Covid-19 (no, no, don’t look at the huge surge in pneumonia cases) too, pushing to keep Sochi. And since no one goes there anyway, it will just save on Security to have it without viewers, as well as saving on ticket handouts to people to fill those grandstands.

    4. I understand UFC and NRL are contemplating hiring a private island to continue their sports (the first to hold the fights there, the second to quarantine the players there).
      Maybe F1 can do the same: Notre Dame Island, Philip Island, or the Isle of Man.

      1. 10000 people live on Phillip Is. It’s only separated from the mainland by a bridge. A sensational venue for any motorsport but unfortunately not very isolated. Lots of penguins too :)

        1. 10000 people live on Phillip Is.

          Should be enough to man the marshalling posts, run de foodtrucks, audition for the XXXX Angels, and feed the penguins ;)
          @glennb

    5. And there lies their problem. Liberty have shareholders who won’t be at all inclined to have them paying out funds that potentially may get no return.

      Going to be quite a big battle internally there, and no doubt being US based they will come under pressure to “get started” because the country is simply not geared for business stagnation. Problem is for them that their actual business activity relies on every country that they race in and not their own so getting racing started is not something they actually have much control over.

    6. …the Canadian Grand Prix on June 14th.

      I don’t understand why people still think it is okay for F1 to fly to some location, do all their F1 stuff, and then fly back to the UK or wherever. There’s risk of taking the infection there and again risk of bringing it back.
      Currently Canada have approximately 442 infections per million people, which is several orders worse than the Australian GP was when that race was cancelled.

    7. The article makes the assumption that F1 teams will agree to travel to these suggested venues. If people are furloughed to receive their wages from the government, they cannot legally do their normal jobs.

      There was a Gatwick based British Airways Boeing 747 pilot in the press yesterday who is currently driving a Tesco delivery van. At the moment the Tesco van is probably more useful.

    8. The least costly option is Silverstone, only the 2 Italian and 1 Swiss team will need travel expenses ( trucks, not planes), TV would not only cover costs but likely a small profit even if Silverstone required a track hire fee. Of course the profit would be multiplied if multiple races were run, but of course we don’t know what the insurance details are for Liberty F1, who may well be hoping that the whole season will now be cancelled.

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