OPINION: The delays to the 2021 national motorsport season resulting from the latest COVID peak is a wrench after a winter of necessary isolation, but waiting a little bit longer could have multiple positive benefits, as STEPHEN LICKORISH explains
For a year that seemed to carry a lot of hope, 2021 has not got off to the most encouraging of starts. After words like ‘cancelled’, ‘postponed’ and ‘revised’ became horribly common in our vocabulary during 2020, it’s worrying that they are starting to return in a motorsport context.
Really, it should be no surprise. The coronavirus pandemic is now at a vicious new peak in the UK, with the number of hospitalisations and deaths far surpassing the figures reached when the virus first took hold here last March and April. Yes, new cases are on the decline, but they are still at a very high level. Yes, vaccines are – at the moment – being rolled out at impressively quick speed, but it will still take many months for enough people to be immunised for that to have a significant impact.
Therefore it’s very clear that there are tough weeks and months to come. The current English national lockdown is due to last until at least mid-February, and the possibility of that being extended further is very real. Against that difficult backdrop, it’s no wonder ‘cancelled’, ‘postponed’ and ‘revised’ are making an unwelcome comeback.
Championship bosses and organising clubs took the approach that it was better to prepare for a normal 2021 and adapt, than not plan a full schedule and be caught out by a better-than-expected situation. And we are now in that ‘adapt’ phase.
First to do so was British Touring Car Championship organiser TOCA. It’s in a different position from much of national motorsport in the sense that its events are classed as ‘elite sport’. Even during this current terrible period for COVID-19 infections, elite sport has continued and it was therefore reasonable to expect, as many have pointed out, that the opener at Brands Hatch on the first weekend in April would have gone ahead.
Instead, the decision to delay the season by five weeks gives a better chance of fans being present. If not for the new opener at Thruxton (the result of a jumbled-up calendar, which has gone down a treat with many), there is at least the potential for a greater percentage of events to have many more people in attendance.
And that’s important. The crowd is an integral part of BTCC events. Being at meetings last year with empty stands and spectator banks was not the same, and drivers in all categories noticed it. It’s not just the public attendance that’s significant, but hospitality guests too. Given the crucial part this plays in some sponsorship deals – and not just in the BTCC – being able to have commercial partners in attendance is a huge benefit.
But rearranging the calendar was not easy, particularly from a TV perspective, and that’s why it was necessary that the decision to alter the schedule was taken now. It’s a similar situation with British GT, also pushed back to May, where organiser Stephane Ratel Organisation had to avoid clashes with its other European-based categories.
“A slightly later start also means people have got more opportunity to get budgets together, so there’s lots of benefits” James MacNaughton
The BTCC’s support series believe delaying was the right decision to make and the right time to take it, saying it brings several benefits.
“I think it makes a lot of sense,” says Porsche GB motorsport manager James MacNaughton, whose Sprint Challenge GB series is due to be at the Thruxton opener, while the Carrera Cup will kick off a week later at Snetterton. “By shifting some of the events to later in the year, it gives more opportunity – hopefully – for some of the public to attend and hopefully some kind of hospitality for more events than we would’ve had.
“I also really like the fact all the rounds are in a different order. Starting at Snetterton is very good because it’s got a long lap so those new to the championship won’t be troubled by the guys at the front of the field, like they would at Brands Indy. A slightly later start also means people have got more opportunity to get budgets together, so there’s lots of benefits.”
Those issues of spectators, hospitality and TV are not major factors for club racing organisers, however. But that has not stopped the cancellations from coming. The British Racing & Sports Car Club is one of two clubs that was due to get its 2021 season underway on 20-21 March. It had two events planned that weekend but, in the face of the present situation, has elected to cancel them and instead aims to start on the second weekend of April.
Club chairman Peter Daly explains there was a number of factors behind the decision, including terms surrounding cancellation with the venues themselves, but also says the threat of regional lockdowns played a part. He wants to avoid a situation where “some could race and some not, so it wouldn’t be fair”.
That’s an important point. We have seen throughout the pandemic that different areas have been worse affected at different points – we have also seen it with the differing speed of vaccine rollout across the country – and therefore the chance of regional lockdowns, especially in March, has to be high. There is no elite sport safety net for these club organisers, either. And it would therefore not be at all surprising if other clubs follow the BRSCC’s lead and cancel proposed March events.
The MG Car Club is also due to return to racing on that 20 March weekend, and says a decision on whether its Silverstone fixture will go ahead will be taken at the end of this month. It has had an encouraging amount of competitor interest, which bodes well from that viewpoint at least. But not all clubs feel now is the right time to be making these judgements, British Automobile Racing Club group CEO Ben Taylor saying “it’s way too early for us” to make a call on its opener at Silverstone on 27-28 March.
“We don’t see any benefit making a decision at this stage, because things can change,” he says. “We will take a look in the middle of February and see what the direction of travel looks like.”
Taylor lists three key elements of coronavirus restrictions that need to be eased to allow the meeting to go ahead.
“One is non-essential travel, the second is overnight accommodation and then there’s people being able to move from one part of the country to another,” he explains. “If those three criteria are relaxed come the end of March, then there’s no reason why we can’t race.”
The situation is far more dire for the British Rally Championship, which still has not held an event since last February. The cancellation of both rounds one and three from a wildly ambitious 2021 calendar, considering the added complexities of the nomadic discipline, are unlikely to be the last.
It can all be very depressing hearing talk of cancellations and postponements this early in the year, and the spectre of mutant variations of the virus wreaking fresh damage lingers. But waiting a few extra weeks for seasons to start is a small price to pay amid such a devastating pandemic.