The global coronavirus crisis has sent shockwaves through sport and Formula 1, like all other major organisations, is grappling with the question of how to move forward.
The season has been thrown into disarray. The first six races have been postponed – or cancelled completely in the case of the Monaco Grand Prix, the jewel in F1’s crown – and as coronavirus spreads, no-one is quite sure what happens next.
But tentative plans are already being discussed by the sport’s bosses, so let’s look at the situation in detail and analyse how F1 might get its show back on the road later this year.
Will there even be a 2020 F1 season?
Let’s start with the worst-case scenario: that F1 cannot happen this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
That might sound alarmist – and it is not something F1 is considering at this stage – but it has to be at least a possibility because it is impossible to predict how the global situation will develop.
Some countries – such as South Korea and Singapore – have had success in containing the virus; others have not. In some, outbreaks have barely started, but will inevitably spread, extending the timeline over which the world is dealing with the problem.
There remains a debate about the various approaches to slowing coronavirus down, and no certainty as to which countries will deal with it best.
The point is that an F1 season cannot start until the world has a grasp of the virus. The sport requires international travel, and it’s impossible to know at what point countries will start to ease restrictions on that.
So, realistically, there will be no F1 until there are clear signs the virus is suppressed. And that is likely to take months. The question is: how many?
When might the season start?
Over the past week, a working plan for a revamped 2020 season was circulating among F1’s teams in the immediate aftermath of the cancelled Australian Grand Prix.
The idea was to try to start the season with the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on 7 June, and then carry on from there, slotting in as many of the abandoned races as possible on the way.
If that proves possible, then the Dutch Grand Prix would move to be twinned with either the Hungarian or Belgian races which bookend August, and perhaps Spain could be crammed into the summer as well.
After that, once the long-haul races start, the hope would be to continue with Singapore, Russia, Japan, USA and Mexico on their existing dates. The season finale in Abu Dhabi – which contracts dictate must be the final race – would move back a week or two and Vietnam and Bahrain slipped into the space created. Brazil looks vulnerable, more on that in a moment.
In that scenario, the season could be in the region of 17 races long and it would look much like a normal – albeit delayed – championship.
But will the world be ready for Azerbaijan to host a race in early June? Or Canada a week later? Or France and Austria in late June and early July? And so on. No-one knows.
What if there are no races until the autumn?
It is entirely feasible that F1 will not even be able to start until the Singapore race in mid-September.
Even then, it would be possible to complete the criterion set out in the rules that a season must have at least eight races to count as a World Championship.
The sports bosses are keeping all options open, including extending the 2020 season into early 2021, and then starting the 2021 championship a little later than normal.
And one of the key takeaways from the series of decisions made in the past week is that the teams have waived their normal consultation rights over the calendar to allow F1 to do what is necessary to salvage the season.
Of course, teams will still be asked for their views, but there is an acceptance throughout the sport that, once the season starts, the schedule will be brutal – but that is just the way it has to be.
What races are likely to be left out?
A truncated season inevitably means some races that were initially on the 2020 calendar will have to be cancelled.
Monaco has already fallen on its sword, announcing shortly after it was postponed by F1 on Thursday that there would be no race this year because it would be impossible to find another date.
Even before the Australian Grand Prix was called off on 13 March, F1 already had a list of events that were deemed ‘expendable’ this season – and they were Bahrain, Brazil, Monaco and Spain.
The last three were on the list because they either pay no fees – in the case of Monaco, and Brazil under its existing contract – or a relatively small one, in the case of Spain.
Bahrain is one of the best-paying races, but the Crown Prince, the de facto boss of the race, is amenable to deal with and would be prepared to accept his race not happening this year on the basis that he would receive a quid pro quo further down the line.
Since then, things have moved on. And it is now likely that F1 will try to squeeze Bahrain in towards the end of the season on consecutive weekends with nearby Abu Dhabi.
As for which other races disappear, that depends entirely on logistics. An attempt will be made to organise the calendar by geography as much as possible. And if the championship cannot start until September, for example, the chances of European races surviving reduce because of the change of seasons.
China – in the context of it being where the coronavirus outbreak first emerged, the likelihood of the country not being keen on external visitors even once it is under control, and the general unpopularity of the race among F1 personnel – could well also miss out.
What will the financial impact be?
The coronavirus pandemic poses a serious threat to the financial stability of F1.
The vast majority of the sport’s $1.8bn (£1.5bn) income comes from two places: race-hosting fees and broadcast rights. Both will be reduced this year.
This explains why, for now, races are being postponed. And the reluctance to call off races in the first place. Because contracts dictate that if the race promoter cancels the race, they still pay their fee. If F1 does it, the sport loses the money.
Contracts with television companies complicate the matter further, in that there must be a minimum of 16 races to guarantee full payment of rights-holding fees.
But that does not mean TV money will disappear if there are fewer than 16 races, because payments are subject to a sliding scale as the number of grands prix drops below that.
It is inevitable that the sport will take a financial hit this year, which means teams will too, because they are paid via a complicated formula based on F1’s income.
The big, well-funded teams such as Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren and Renault should be able to absorb this without too much pain. But for those at the other end of the grid, such as Williams and Alfa Romeo (which is the Swiss privately owned Sauber team with a new name thanks to a cash injection from Fiat), this could be a difficult time.
F1 is aware of this and has already started conversations about how they can help if needed.
But there is also the wider question of the sport itself. The F1 Group is leveraged with a significant amount of debt. So how big a risk is the inevitable drop in income to the company that runs the sport?
What will be the impact on the history books?
This is a potentially historic F1 season, with Lewis Hamilton favourite to win a championship that would see him equal Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of seven drivers’ titles.
With a reduced number of races, some might question whether the championship – whoever wins it – means as much as it would have done had it run its planned course.
But that is to disregard F1 history. This would have been the first year F1 had held so many races – and making the season that long is controversial in itself. Many feel it should be shorter.
It is only in the past decade that we have crept up to 20 races and more. Back in the 2000s, it was more usual to have 17 or 18 races. In the 1990s, 16 or 17 was common.
The number has been going up throughout F1 history. In the 1950s, there were fewer than 10 grands prix in a season.
When the great Juan Manuel Fangio won the last of his five titles in 1957, there were only eight races – and no-one questions his right to be called a champion.
As long as F1 can hold eight races this year, there will be a world champion. All the rest will simply be how and why.