Home Featured The long-term headache junior single-seater racing faces from COVID-19

The long-term headache junior single-seater racing faces from COVID-19

by Craig Woollard

Photo: Super Formula

An entire generation of up-and-coming motorsport stars currently find their careers put effectively on hold due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. A change in sport policy is needed to follow governments’ responses

Motorsport as we know it is on pause – and it’s a totally scary prospect for those who eat, sleep and function because of it. And for drivers aiming for a career racing in the top echelons, the future is arguably more uncertain than the disrupted present.

The future is bleak for a number of teams which function on a cash model where money arrives ‘just in time’, operating tightly with whatever sponsorship money can be scrambled while towered by multinational-backed paddock neighbours. If teams do go under during this extended winter period – and it can’t be ruled out – then this could be just one factor that will cause utter anarchy with the FIA superlicence points system that decides which drivers fulfil their Formula 1 dream.

As is stands, drivers are entitled to points based on their results in series over the previous three calendar years, requiring 40 points from qualifying series to do so. So, if, for example, Williams reserve driver Jack Aitken wants to move into a race seat in 2021, he would need to finish fifth in the Formula 2 standings to do so.

However, there are caveats over how series qualify for points. Series must run at least five events on three different circuits, and at least 12 drivers per race and at least 16 competing across the season to qualify for 100% of the advertised points.

‘But only the Bahrain round is off and that has only been postponed,’ a hypothetical comment can be placed in reply to that. Such a statement is true, but it seems incredibly unlikely that the new season-opener at Zandvoort can go ahead at the current rate of spread. Financially troubled Barcelona? Don’t count on it. Monaco? Looking unlikely in several ways. Baku? Many are reporting that they cannot get visas to the country.

That provisionally leaves a calendar of seven rounds with no rearrangements. OK, that is more than sufficient to qualify for superlicence points – assuming more than half of the teams don’t go under in that period or have the staff available. It’s an idea that sounds totally grim, but the harsh reality is that we are in what is likely to be motorsport’s most challenging period.

A lot of team members in junior single-seaters are freelancers, meaning they often work for multiple outfits to ensure they’re in work week-in, week-out. Most of those too work in that field primarily through passion, rather than through an expectation of earning vast amounts or even making their way up to F1 like the drivers plan to. With event cancellations aplenty, they may need to look toward more ‘standard’ jobs to maintain a monthly income as freelancers do not have the privileges of holiday pay, sick pay or redundancy. As the motorsport industry inevitably contracts, there could be a huge leakage of talent which may not return. But better a brief departure of talent over the loss of lives.

Even if F2 qualifies for full superlicence points in 2020, not every series may be so lucky. Some are operating on the fringes of the numbers required. Take Super Formula: it has 20 top class drivers, including Red Bull junior Juri Vips, but currently only five races. At present it would be lucky to run all of those without the additional havoc caused by Japan’s typhoon season.

Numerous series have already cancelled or ‘postponed’ rounds for later in the year. Delaying rounds is where things start to get very messy. Several teams operate in F2, Formula 3 and Formula 4 (as well as IndyCar for Carlin and SF for Motopark), and will have already scheduled and budgeted where personnel will be on weekends when there are clashes between series. Naturally, as series prop rounds up later in the year that should have been run in March, April or May, there will be new and unforeseeable clashes. These teams’ staffing complications won’t be taken into consideration by the circuits, organisers and shareholders attempting to reschedule events, unless the impact is so severe that many are totally incapable of turning up.

Photo: ACI Sport

Unworkable clashes are not new to junior single-seaters: the ADAC and Italian F4 championships already had to resolve a frankly avoidable error of penning their season finales for the same weekend when the same drivers and teams contest both.

But to have a situation where a multi-category team is stretched to staff all its operations in a way that just isn’t sustainable, and where freelance hires have already committed to a rival, could leave some teams running short. That could ultimately impact drivers’ results and therefore superlicence points, and potentially harm attracting drivers in the future.

The knock-on effect on superlicence point scoring won’t necessarily be obvious in 2021, but for ’22 or ’23. That is if motor racing has returned to ‘normal’ by then. That would pose the question of whether it would make sense to simply annul 2020 from the records or not – but, of course, it’s not as simple as that.

Eligible championships that failed the superlicence requirements previously mentioned, such as the Asian F3 Winter Series and FREC, were still able to give 75% of their advertised points until the FIA changed the rules last December.

The new ruling states: “Where fewer than 16 drivers start the first race of a competition in a championship, the number of points awarded to drivers for that championship shall be reduced.

“The reduction shall be proportional to the deficit in the number of drivers below the minimum number of 16 and will be calculated incrementally with respect to this deficit on a basis of a 10% reduction per driver below the minimum (e.g. 100% points where 16 or more drivers start, 90% points where 15 drivers start, 80% where 14 drivers start, etc.).

F3 Asia

“Where fewer than 16 drivers start the first race of more than one competition in a championship, the competition with the lowest number of drivers starting the first race shall be decisive for the above purposes.”

Given the current rate of cancellations, travel bans and reduction in interest – especially as ‘replacement’ Esports events pick up larger broadcast audiences than real junior single-seater series would for drivers and their sponsors – it could mean those that do turn up to and win the races that go ahead in higher formulae could claim less superlicence points than lower series.

What would all this mean for series that overlap between ’19 and ’20? What about series that have already started and finished in this calendar year such as the Toyota Racing Series? It would be harsh on new Red Bull junior Igor Fraga if his incredible performance to win that title goes unrewarded in superlicence points to be fair on the series impacted by COVID-19.

Thinking longer-term, the prospect of series that normally run during a single year adopting a format that overlaps into ’21 becomes realistic. What does that mean if we have a series that has both a ’20-’21 and a ’21 calendar? What happens if racing is disrupted well into ’21 as well?

It is far too early to come to conclusions about what happens. It’s too early to press on the FIA to address this matter right now. The livelihoods of team members, drivers, fans and members of the media – including a lot of freelancers who have no or little fallback – is far more important right now than figuring out how some numbers work in uncertain times.

Whatever happens, when things get going it is going to come thick and fast and run like mad for quite a lengthy period of time. Seasons will be truncated and drivers may have heavily-altered programmes to what they’ve already announced. Hopefully by then the wait will be worth it, and we’ll have an answer as to whether the FIA will see COVID-19 as a mitigating circumstance for drivers with F1 aspirations.

For more on COVID-19’s motorsport impact, check out Formula Scout’s latest podcast on your streaming platform of choice.