Advantage Verstappen? How F1’s revised schedule might impact the 2020 championship

Three months after the Australian Grand Prix was cancelled, Formula One is finally ready to start the 2020 season.

The coronavirus pandemic has completely changed F1’s short- and long-term future, with a raft of rule changes agreed in F1’s elongated off-season, including the decision to delay the big rule change to 2022.

Now we get down to the actual business of the championship, which will start at the Austrian Grand Prix on July 5, followed by a race at the same venue seven days later. The full 2020 schedule has yet to be confirmed.

Here’s a look at what impact the revised schedule will have and why the incomplete calendar makes the season so hard to predict.

Over to you, Max

The most obvious takeaway from the revised calendar is that the season starts with a double-header at a circuit that has become something of a bogey circuit for Mercedes in the past two seasons from a results perspective, while Red Bull has excelled. Max Verstappen has won the past two races at the circuit owned by Red Bull. Last year he claimed his maiden pole position at the third race on the new calendar, the Hungarian Grand Prix.

There needs to be a caveat here, of course.

The common consensus after preseason was that Mercedes remains the team to beat and there is no reason to have reevaluated that opinion in the four months since. Its failures to win the Austrian Grand Prix in 2018 and 2019 were down to separate issues, and the circuit suits its 2020 car. But the fact it arrives back there with that recent history leaves the question of another difficult weekend wide open.

While we’ve come to expect Mercedes dominance, it’s also become a regular occurrence to lament the timing of any resurgence in form by Red Bull, which usually shows glimpses of title-winning form at certain events through the year. Usually Red Bull has had to wait a handful of races until its first proper chance at a race win and by then Mercedes and Ferrari are too far ahead in the championship for it to spark a legitimate title challenge.

Max Verstappen could apply the pressure on Lewis Hamilton immediately in 2020. Lars Baron/Getty Images

Since the introduction of the V6 turbos in 2014, Red Bull has claimed a win in the opening four flyaway races only once (Daniel Ricciardo’s 2018 Chinese Grand Prix win). This year the former world champions have a legitimate chance to win a race at the very first opportunity. Ferrari came close to winning in Austria last year too, let’s not forget, with Verstappen barging past Charles Leclerc on the final lap, so it would be wrong to completely discount the Italian team from this discussion.

From a championship perspective, a non-Mercedes win would be huge. We’ve never seen a fully fired-up Verstappen who believes he is a genuine championship contender. There is also evidence from previous seasons that suggests Mercedes is not always the best at dealing with high-pressure situations. Failing to win one or both of the opening races would put Mercedes on the back foot immediately.

Sebastian Vettel’s wins at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in 2017 and 2018 created a surge of excitement about the campaign that followed, and this would be a perfect way to mark the start of what is likely to be F1’s strangest season.

A wasted opportunity to shake things up

The coronavirus pandemic gave F1 the chance to experiment with its tired race weekend format, but it opted to keep things the same, with three practice sessions before qualifying and the race in a schedule covering Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

The biggest decision from a race point of view was on reverse grids at two of the European races — the idea was to revamp the procedure for the second race taking place in Austria and Great Britain, with the race grid determined in reverse order of the championship to pique interest for each event one week after a grand prix at the same venue. Mercedes blocked that from happening.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff reasoned that F1 doesn’t need gimmicks to make things more exciting, but it was hard not to feel frustrated by the decision. It is a short-sighted mindset given that returning sports have been enjoying a much wider reach than they have previously, with fewer overlapping global events to saturate the market.

Ultimately, the smaller teams are the ones who lose the most from the decision not to feature reverse grids at some point.

Everyone knows this is an extraordinary year and an extraordinary race season — it is hard to imagine when F1 might have a better opportunity for this kind of experiment. Those unprecedented second races had the chance to be something radically different but instead will be exactly the same in format as what happened seven days earlier. This feels like a missed opportunity, especially with the second race at Silverstone named in tribute of F1’s 70th anniversary.

Plenty of encouraging and necessary changes have been made behind the scenes over the past three months, but the blocking of reverse grids was a reminder F1 is sometimes still too hung up on the traditions of those 70 years to do the right thing for the product.

A big missing ingredient

The absence of a live crowd for the foreseeable future is going to take some getting used to, even if the fans in the stands are less important to the broadcast of an F1 race than to events taking place in stadiums surrounded by fans on every side.

It will look strange not seeing the huge swaths of orange in Austria, the Lewis Hamilton fans at Silverstone or the tifosi at Monza, and it remains to be seen whether F1 will try to do anything to distract from empty grandstands at those events. Right now there’s no guarantee when fans will be back to F1 races as normal.

But the lack of spectators has at least helped the calendar come together in its current form. The Hungarian Grand Prix has always preferred to be kept at least a month away from the Austrian Grand Prix so that event doesn’t hurt its ticket sales.

According to Hungarian GP race organiser Ariane Frank Meulenbelt, the lack of fans freed Hungary up to be wherever F1 needed it to be in the calendar.

“When we knew we weren’t going to have large number of fans at our event, the scheduling of it next to the Austrian Grand Prix becomes less of an issue,” Meulenbelt told ESPN.

“We normally try to avoid having them next to each other to give fans a chance to come to both, and we try and keep it separated by one date. This no longer becomes an issue when you don’t have any fans coming. It made us more flexible from a logistical point of view, and it quickly became clear that us following the Austrian GP made a lot of sense for Formula One.”

That logic might explain the reports of Canada, Mexico and the U.S. forming a triple-header later in the year. Canada has traditionally taken place in the middle of the European season, at the other end of the schedule from the Mexico-U.S. races.

To be confirmed…

F1 hopes to have 15-18 races this year, but that second half of the schedule has yet to be formalised on paper.

It seems likely we will have double-headers in Abu Dhabi, China and Bahrain, with the latter exploring whether it can run a second race on an alternative layout of the Sakhir circuit. F1 is also exploring one-off options at the likes of Italy’s Mugello — the Italian circuit got the seal of approval from Vettel after Ferrari’s recent test there — and Portugal’s Portimao.

A race around a new layout and first-time events at circuits would add more layers to what is already a difficult season to predict. And it is likely we are still going to be kept guessing about what the business end of the championship will look like.

While it is understood F1 hopes to have more races officially placed on the schedule before the Austrian Grand Prix, it is unlikely we will have the finalised 2020 calendar by Sunday. F1 is reacting to an ever-changing global picture, and the only thing that has been certain during the pandemic is how impossible it has been to predict short- or long-term events with any clarity.

Uncertainty on how the coronavirus pandemic might unfold in the second half of the year will be a lingering concern as we get through the season. The situation in North America is especially worrisome — Canada hopes for an Oct. 11 race, although a question mark hangs next to that race and the two others hosted on the continent, the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, and the Mexican Grand Prix in Mexico City.

The ordering of the final races could of course have a say in how any championship fight unfolds, and having fewer events than originally planned will place a higher price on mistakes made during the year.

Speaking on F1’s official podcast, McLaren CEO Zak Brown said there remain doubts over how many races the championship will actually consist of this year.

“I think the caution is we’re going racing, but I don’t think there’s a guarantee that we’re going to get in as many races as we hope,” he said. “I think we will, but I don’t think that just because we’re going to race one that life’s back to normal, so I think we have to be very careful, very diligent, follow the rules, be very conservative.

“Obviously we’re all excited to go back racing. I think sport is a great healer around the world, and TV ratings and the following will be very strong — you can only watch so many replays of sport!

“I think we need to keep our head down and make sure we do get through this year. We will have all survived if we’ve done a great job over this last three or four months, but we’ve still got a ways to go.”

That uncertainty means teams are unlikely to know exactly what the end of the championship will look like. While that’s hardly ideal for those in charge of logistics and actually bringing the finalised calendar together, it creates a fascinating and unprecedented situation in terms of a championship in that we might never properly know how long is left in the championship.

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