F1 set for Saudi Arabia debut as part of 23-race season in 2021
Formula 1 is making plans for a 23-round season in 2021, including a first-ever grand prix in Saudi Arabia.
The series had planned to stage a record 22 races this year, but was forced to cut the number to 17, a majority in Europe, as the season started almost four months late, in July, and several events were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A draft plan of the 2021 schedule was presented to the teams at a meeting of the F1 Commission earlier this week with a clear intention to return to a normal calendar.
Formula 1 is keen to fulfil all race contracts next year and debut in Saudi Arabia, which indicates that owner Liberty Media has now struck a deal for a new race in the country.
It was reported in January that Liberty was close to finalising an agreement to add a grand prix in the kingdom as early as 2021, in a deal worth around $50 million a year.
It is believed that a street race could be held in Jeddah in 2021, while a permanent circuit is built for 2022.
The Saudi race is slated to form part of a double-header with Abu Dhabi at the end of next season.
Formula 1 has long been linked with Saudi Arabia, although a race there would be a controversial move given the country's human rights record and the fact that it is home to beoutQ, a pirate broadcaster that has been stealing coverage of the sport from Liberty's broadcast partners.
Ahead of the 2019 season, BeIN Media Group, the Qatar-based pay-TV broadcaster, opted not to renew its rights deal, which was valued at between $30 million to $40 million per year, citing the issue of piracy.
Despite its checkered international reputation, Saudi Arabia is becoming an increasingly popular destination for federations and event organisers in part because of the large hosting fees put up by the country's government.
Formula 1 already stages grands prix in Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia has a presence in international motor racing, having staged rounds of Formula E, the electric car racing series, for the past two years, and the Dakar Rally.
Earlier this month, Formula 1 chief executive Chase Carey said he was keen to ensure all races on the 2021 calendar go ahead as planned.
The season is scheduled to start in Australia on 21 March, followed by the Bahrain Grand Prix a week later.
An inaugural race in Vietnam will also feature on the calendar after this season’s planned race in Hanoi was called off.
A notable change in 2021 will see the returning Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort, also cancelled this year, shifted to an autumn date.
The race had been due to open the European season, at the start of May, this year, but is set to form part of a European triple-header with the Belgian Grand Prix and the Italian Grand Prix after the summer break in 2021.
Although the dates could potentially change, a second triple-header is being lined up with races in Singapore, Russia and Japan.
The original 2020 Formula 1 calendar had featured four triple-headers, but the number looks set to be halved next year after teams claimed this placed too much pressure on personnel.
In other changes, the Brazilian Grand Prix is set to move from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro, but this has yet to be finalised as a planned circuit in the city has yet to be constructed, and is being opposed on environmental grounds.
The current season continues with round 13, the specially-added Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola in Italy, this weekend.
Meanwhile, the Williams Formula 1 team has become the latest sports outfit to partner with new fan engagement platform IQONIQ.
IQONIQ becomes the UK-based team's global fan engagement partner in a multi-year deal.
The team said the partnership “marks the next step in Williams’ drive to provide greater access and value to its worldwide supporter base.”
The IQONIQ logo featured on the front-wing end plates of the Williams cars at last weekend's Portuguese Grand Prix and will be displayed on the pit crew helmets for the duration of the partnership.
Through the app, fans will have access to unique content, as well as experiences at the Williams Experience Centre in Grove in southern England.
The deal adds to IQONIQ’s growing sports portfolio, and makes Williams its second partner in Formula 1, after teaming up with McLaren in July.
The platform’s other partners include Spanish soccer’s LaLiga and clubs Valencia and Real Sociedad, England’s Crystal Palace, France’s Marseille and Monaco, Euroleague Basketball, the European Handball Federation, the Drone Champions League, and Beach Soccer Worldwide.
The IQONIQ app is due to launch this autumn.