Why F1’s decision to postpone Chinese GP isn’t straightforward

The Chinese Grand Prix is currently at risk of being postponed as a result of the Coronavirus epidemic, but the decision to cancel isn’t so straightforward.

Earlier in the week, Shanghai authorities issued a statement recommending that all sporting events be suspended “until the epidemic is over”, and while many events have already been cancelled, such as the Formula E Chinese E-Prix and the World Indoor Athletics Championship that was due to take place from March 13, Formula 1 organisers have so far made no official announcement about their plans.

At this stage, the exact reasons why F1 hasn’t made a final decision on the race is unknown to those outside the meeting rooms, but there is definitely more to it than meets the eye.

F1 does not want to put anybody at risk of the Coronavirus, but they will also be thinking about how they can minimise the impact that would be caused if the race were to be cancelled.

If they were to announce now that the race will not go ahead as planned, it might put an end to other strategies at play that could prevent the race being lost altogether from this season’s calendar.

Organisers had tried to see if Russia would be open to swapping their race date, which was a sensible proposal but Sochi organisers had no interest.

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The race in Shanghai is the fourth of the season, with the Vietnamese Grand Prix due to hold it’s inaugural race just before on April 5. After China, the F1 circus is due to head to Zandvoort for the Dutch Grand Prix, and so Russia provides a great fit as teams would be travelling over Sochi in any event.

Now, Russia’s refusal to swap dates has made it harder for F1 bosses to find a solution. They also offered the idea of holding the race in December, but the teams were not happy with this proposal either.

And this is exactly why Formula 1 cannot announce the cancellation of the race. If they do so now, then they will have no way of bargaining with other circuits for a date swap.

If there is still a race on the calendar, talks can still take place, but once it has been cancelled, that’s it. No race, nothing to fill the gap and the calendar is back down to 21 races for the season.

While that looks like Formula 1 is only looking at maintaining a record 22 races, that isn’t really the case. China is big business for the series and is an area where Liberty Media has previously said they want to make more of an impact.

There have always been too many criticisms that the stadiums in China are never full, but there was a 10.34% increase on attendance figures last season compared with the previous year, making it the second highest improver of the season.

If the race were to be lost altogether for 2020, then Formula 1 would lose its momentum and of course, income.

But if the Chinese Grand Prix were to be moved, where could go and who could it swap with other than Russia?

That is the hard question. The F1 calendar is so packed this year that it would be hard to fit it anywhere else other than at the end of the season or by doing a swap.

Team bosses will not have their year extended, which means the only realistic way the race could be saved was if a swap could take place with another circuit.

Although Russia have ruled themselves out, there is one venue that could potentially come into play, and that is Azerbaijan.

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Just like Russia, Azerbaijan could be an easy diversion as the country borders Europe and the Middle East. It’s also a climate that would also be suitable for the time of year, with average temperatures around 16c in April.

It would also be a reasonable diversion going in the other direction, were the two races to make a direct swap.

The race in Baku is due to be held after Monaco and before the Canadian Grand Prix, and while the  journey from China to Canada doesn’t look great on a map, it is actually shorter than the trip from Baku.

Therefore, on the face of it, Baku looks like the best bet if a race swap is going to happen, but as ever, it isn’t that straightforward.

Baku doesn’t have a purpose-built circuit. It is a road race, around the historic city of Baku and it is questionable if they could even be ready on time were they happy to go ahead and hold the Grand Prix in April.

There would be permits to sort, tickets to change for hundreds of thousands of spectators, and the preparations would be reduced from four months to one and a half.

But if the Baku organisers and F1 bosses could pull it off, it could be the perfect way to resolve their current problem of what to do with the race in China, although there are still no guarantees that a race could be held in China at all this year.

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Nobody knows how long it is going to take before the Coronavirus is contained, and that is another major factor the FIA and F1 bosses need to consider. Even if they do go to the lengths of getting it slotted elsewhere into the calendar, they cannot be certain that the race will go ahead.

Even if they can go ahead, team personnel will still be questioning how safe it is for them to attend, and who can blame them?

Naturally, F1 bosses are looking at ways to avoid the cancellation of the race, for they have contracts in place, and look set to lose millions of pounds in race fees and advertising, in addition to the potential partial loss of the fanbase they have built up in China.

But they are also responsible for the health and safety of all team personnel, marshals, stewards, media outlets who would be in attendance, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of fans that attend across the race weekend.

There are so many variables and obstacles for the FIA and F1 bosses to consider, in order to treat the matter as delicately as possible, avoiding criticism, whilst also minimising their own losses, and that makes it a difficult decision to cancel the race without exploring all potential avenues.

And while that can be frustrating for the average fan wanting to know if there is a race going ahead or not, time must be taken to ensure the correct decision is made, for everyone.