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The 24 Hours of Le Mans is moving from its traditional June date to August 21-22 for 2021.
The postponement sent waves of concern through Formula 1, whose teams have continued concerns about travel restrictions between Britain and the continent.
The ACO, organizer for Le Mans, has concluded that delaying the Le Mans 24 Hours until August means that things could improve later in the summer.
The news that the 24 Hours of Le Mans has been officially postponed and will now move from its planned June 12-13 date to the weekend of August 21-22, has revived doubts about whether Formula 1 will be able to deliver its 23-race calendar in 2021.
Formula 1 CEO Stefano Domenicali said recently that he felt the calendar was “realistic” but admitted that it was “challenging."
“We need to be fluid in our approach,” Domenicali said. “But we are in contact with all the race organizers and they are totally committed to the races. Of course, we cannot control everything. We can only control our side, the protocols that we want to respect. This year is a more complex situation because last year there was no limitation from country to country. Things are evolving every day. But it is the wish and the hope that we can deliver what we want to achieve because it is essential that F1 is strong.”
F1 teams have continued concerns about travel restrictions between Britain and the continent.
“We built the new car in the U.K., but we couldn’t fire it up because that requires Ferrari engineers from Italy and to visit the U.K. they would need to quarantine in both areas," Haas F1 team principal Guenther Steiner said. "So we are going to do it in Bahrain. With a completely new car you cannot take that risk.”
For the race promoters, however, life is even more complicated.
In mid-February, the French Ministry of Culture announced that it intends to allow events in France in the summer of 2021, but on very strict terms. The key restriction is that the organizers of events, whether indoors or outdoors, can only allow 5,000 spectators, with suitable social distancing measures. And these events will only be allowed to happen if the crowd is seated.
The Ministry added that the rules may be changed and that there may be further reductions if the pandemic gets worse or, conversely, the maximum number of people allowed could rise if the situation improves. If the pandemic develops in a negative way other protocols might need to be adopted.
There are many other problems to be considered at the moment. All travel is restricted in France, except internally, but there is a nightly curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. There are severe restrictions on people traveling to France from outside the European Union (and that now includes Britain). One is not allowed to do it for holidays, family visits or even to stay in a second home. There are just a few exemptions for vital travel, but that does not include spectating at motor races.
Le Mans, not unlike Formula 1, is heavily dependent on international spectators, including those from the U.K.
Travel from European Union countries is also complicated with a negative COVID test no older than 72 hours required, and one must also make a sworn statement that one does not have any COVID-19 symptoms. At the moment. the bars, restaurants, cafes, gyms, pools, theatres, cinemas, museums and tourist attractions in France all remain closed. A number of cities have weekend lockdowns to try to stop visitors. And more are expected in the days ahead.
The ACO has concluded that delaying the Le Mans 24 Hours until August means that things could improve later in the summer and the race could then become more financially viable, particularly as the vaccination program is expanding rapidly. There is talk of a Europe-wide vaccine “passport” that could help to restart tourism. This would be a digital pass of some kind which would prove that a person had been vaccinated or had tested negative.
The ACO decision is an interesting one and one must look at the Grands Prix of Monaco and France in light of the decision.
Monaco is due to take place at the end of May and the Automobile Club de Monaco is selling tickets for the May 23 race.
“The Automobile Club de Monaco remains vigilant and informed of the development in the international health situation,” the club says. “All precautionary measures will be applied and taken to ensure better safety for our spectators and guests.”
The big problem for Monaco is that in order to get there, one has to travel through France, as the storybook principality is surrounded by French territory, unless one arrives by boat from Italy. The majority of spectators travel into Monaco every day but stay in hotels in France. The problem is not so much the Monagasque border but rather the French border elsewhere. If you cannot get into France, you cannot get into Monaco.
The French Grand Prix, which is currently scheduled to take place on June 27 at Paul Ricard Circuit, is also facing trouble because it is largely funded by public money and cannot take place with only 5,000 paying spectators. The French government has a fund to help out events in this situation but it is only $30 million and it is unlikely that the French GP would be given anywhere near enough money to cover its needs. Tickets are on sale for the race and for a planned historic event scheduled for June 11-13, but it remains to be seen whether these can go ahead.
Moving the Le Mans 24 Hours is a relatively easy thing to do, as it is the 800-pound gorilla of endurance racing. Everything else will move to give it the space it needs. The French GP does not have that much clout.
The F1 calendar in the autumn is already very tightly-packed and France will struggle to find a space—unless other races have to pull out.