Home Featured What do F1’s support series make of the 2021 calendar shake-up?

What do F1’s support series make of the 2021 calendar shake-up?

by Ida Wood

Photos: Formula Motorsport Limited

Formula 1’s main support series are heavily revising their calendars and weekend formats this year, all in the name of saving costs. What do those in the paddock expect from three-race rounds and new circuits?

A drop from 12 rounds to eight translates to the same amount of races but significantly less mileage for Formula 2 this year, while FIA Formula 3 Championship drivers get three extra races and will support different Formula 1 grands prix.

In 2020 there were 3395.77 kilometres of racing completed in F2, with the Styrian Grand Prix-supporting Red Bull Ring feature race running four laps short and Sochi’s sprint race result being taken after five of a scheduled 21 laps after an early red flag.

For 2021, rather than one longer feature race on a Saturday and a shorter reversed-grid sprint race on Sunday, there will now be two Saturday sprint races running to 45 minutes or 120 km, and a Sunday feature race that will be an hour or 170 km. The length of each will be decided on whichever comes first over a race duration.

Due to the lower average speed in Monaco, where a 45-minute race would run to around 100 km, that round and Sochi’s will have their race lengths determined at a later date. But if you take Monaco’s 2019 race lengths and the planned distance of last year’s Sochi races to add to the 2460 km ballpark figure the other six rounds would run to then you have a season with a projected combined count of 2983.28 km of racing.

That’s a massive 412.49 km loss over the pandemic-hit 2020 season, equating to the loss of a feature race and two sprints.

So with less racing taking place, what about practice and qualifying? There was 900 minutes of that on last year’s schedules, and now it’s only 600. In free practice terms, that’s three hours less of track time over a season where track evolution is going to be more pronounced than ever with half of the rounds held on street circuits. More than that, only four circuits have been raced on by more than half of the field before. After just three days of pre-season testing, track time will be crucial.

Even before the format shake-up, the restrictions on practice were an area highlighted by drivers when asked what they would improve about F2. “The biggest thing that needs to change, especially when changes to the cars are made, like with the [enlarged 18-inch wheel] rims, you need more than a 45-minute practice session,” Dan Ticktum, now driving for Carlin, said to Formula Scout last year.

“You turn up to tracks you haven’t been to before like Sochi, you’ve got 45 minutes to go to a track which that car and that tyre has never been on, I’ve never driven it, and you’ve got 45 minutes and one set of tyres. You’ve got three push laps, then about another probably four or five race run-style laps, and that’s it. Then BANG, qualifying. It’s a bit nuts, really.

“But it is what it is. Hopefully they give us an FP1 and an FP2 as well. So we get a couple of hours, and that would make more sense I think.”

At that Sochi weekend, similar sentiments were shared by F1-bound rivals Mick Schumacher and Yuki Tsunoda, and Ticktum’s 2021 team-mate Jehan Daruvala explained why an additional set of tyres for use in practice would be useful for the future.

“We go from a harder compound to a softer compound for qualifying,” he said.

“It changes things and makes it harder for everyone, but just to see how the car would be on the softer compound in practice, just maybe another set of soft tyres would be helpful.

“But also this way it makes it harder and difficult and inconsistent for everyone; it’s one of the most exciting series so I wouldn’t really change much to be honest.”

Once the decrease in track time became clear late last year, some drivers looked at racing in both F2 and F3 now that the two F1 support series would be running on different weekends and at different grands prix. Without any clues as to which circuits will be appearing on the 2022 calendar of either series, or to whether the split format will even continue, racing on 15 circuits only seems sensible, even if it raises questions about costs and the availability of seats at the higher levels of junior single-seaters.

Formula Scout recently asked ART Grand Prix’s Christian Lundgaard his thoughts on drivers taking up the opportunity to race in both series – something HWA Racelab’s Matteo Nannini has committed to, and one other driver may join him in doing.

“In the sense of learning more tracks, I think it’s good,” said Lundgaard. “If you have the budget for it, I think it would be good to do. But at the same time, driving two different cars is not the best way of doing it.

“And I think for me to do that for this year, I think would be a down-step for me to go back to F3, even if I were to continue to do F2. I think for me it’s definitely best to focus on one thing.”

F3 drivers will get to try out Zandvoort and Circuit of the Americas, as well as former F2 venue Paul Ricard, which are all circuits Lundgaard would likely be racing on in F1 if he makes it to the top level.

On the flip side of that coin, and a logical move during the pandemic, the split calendar means F2 drivers will be able to make F1 free practice appearances at the grands prix they won’t be racing at, therefore not putting the paddock bubble system at risk in the process.

The F3 races will run to 40 minutes this year, and that is estimated to mean 26-lap races at Zandvoort and 20 laps at COTA if cars match Indy Lights’ pace there from two years ago. In 2020, the F3 season had 1938.422 km of racing after one of the Red Bull Ring races was cut in half, and now drivers will get better value for money with somewhere over 2270 km of action.

However, the series is in slight limbo at the moment with its two pre-season tests postponed to yet-to-be decided dates because of Spanish travel restrictions.

Prema’s Oscar Piastri, who like Lundgaard is an Alpine F1 junior, is debuting in F2 this year as the reigning FIA F3 champion and finds the new weekend format being applied in both series “interesting” and “exciting”.

The first sprint race of each round will reverse the top 10 from qualifying to set its grid, while the grid for the second sprint race will be set by the results of the first but with the top 10 finishers reversed. In F3, the top 12 will be used instead of 10.

Each of the sprint races will be equal in points, and use the existing 15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1 format, while the feature race mirrors F1’s points format of rewarding the top 10 finishers using 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1. Pole will still earn four points, and the driver with the fastest lap within the top 10 finishers of each race will also earn two additional points.

“I think for qualifying it doesn’t change anything. Regardless of the way the reversed grids are going to work, you’re still going to want to be on pole position,” said Piastri.

“Obviously the feature race is still worth more points, and you get the four points for pole as well, and I think it’s interesting the way they’ve done this, especially with the first race. I think if you do qualify up the front, or especially on pole, keeping out of trouble for race one and trying to get the reversed pole for race two, so at least you’ve got two races done out the front, it’s going to be massively important. I think it’s an interesting format.

“Obviously, providing the people who qualify up the front stay out of trouble in that first race, I think it still works to the advantage of people that can qualify well. It should be pretty exciting.”

As a driver with two weekends of street circuit experience from four years in car racing, what does Piastri make of the calendar’s emphasis on temporary venues and how it will affect his learning as a rookie?

“For me I don’t think it changes a massive amount, to be honest,” Piastri replied to Formula Scout.

“Monaco I’ve raced at twice in Formula Renault before, so it’s not a new circuit for me. And also Baku, a lot of the guys that are getting their second year of F2 this year didn’t get to go there last year, so it’s going to be new for most of us on the grid.

“So in that regard, it’s not really a disadvantage for me I would say. Obviously I’ve got much less experience in the F2 car, but I’m quite a fan of street circuits, there’s no room for error, so I’m looking forward to it and I think it’s pretty cool to be racing on some of the best street circuits around.”

Rene Rosin, who is Piastri’s team manager at Prema, will have less on his plate each race weekend now that F2 and F3 aren’t running together. And because of that, he could potentially slash costs by having one set of personnel run the cars for both series through the year rather than needing to bring enough people to service two F2 cars and three F3 cars each weekend.

But rather than 12 events (nine of which featured the additional F3 personnel), he now has 15 to co-ordinate and manage.

“One of our costs control measures for 2021 is to limit the number of rounds which will automatically lessen the teams’ budget,” is F2 and F3 series chief Bruno Michel’s own explanation the calendar reduction.

“It is going to be different, but I am quite happy because we have had the same format for quite a while now and it is always good to have a change,” he added.

“It is not that the old format didn’t work, but for obvious reasons, especially economic ones, we had to make sure that we were making the right decisions to diminish the costs for the teams. Going to fewer events was an important part of that, but if we were going to fewer events, then we had to do more races at each event.

“It is going to be a bit of a headache for teams and engineers, that’s for sure. They will need to try and figure out the right strategies and that is something that will be good because it’s never good to always use the same systems.”

Flyaways made up two of last year’s nine trips (the result of back-to-back rounds at some circuits), but that increases to six for 2021 and includes North America.

If, as the FIA intends, the two-race F3 World Cup takes place in Macau in November then there will be a trip to East Asia too.

“There will more or less be one event per month and most of the teams are doing F2 and F3, so this is quite good for them. The calendar is quite well balanced with three rounds in Europe and five flyaways and I think that it’s going to work very well,” said Michel.

“The teams will have time after each race to dissect everything and work again to improve and get the best out of the cars in the following round. They will not have to work with the back-to-back-to-back races that we have had in the past, which I know drove them completely crazy. This will help to improve both reliability and safety.”

While European Union membership means travel will be simpler for the continental teams than it will be for their British counterparts, all teams will be presented with new administrative and financial challenges, and especially as travel restrictions are actually more complicated now than they were at the start of the pandemic and requiring more expensive COVID-19 tests.

Privately, teams that operate in both F2 and F3 have expressed doubt that costs will be cut as intended when these factors are included, especially with more street circuits and reversed-grid races predicted to increase the number of crashes and therefore the need for more spare parts; parts that aren’t falling in price given they’re manufactured only for these closed markets.

On the record, Rosin has said that it’s too early to make judgements on if the big changes will be a cost saver or not.

“First of all, I think it’s still a bit too early to quantify if there is really a cost reduction or not, because first of all starting with three races per event we need to be prepared and much more quickly in case of crash and damages,” Rosin said last month.

“In the past years it was not like that. And anyway, at the moment we don’t have yet all the information from the promoter about all the cost reduction in place, so we can quantify that through the season if any cost reduction will be there or not.”

Michel has also referenced his discussions with teams, saying their desires informed the big changes for 2021.

“It is important to say that all of the changes that have been made were done while talking with the teams,” Michel stated.

“We speak with them a lot. We knew that we had to cut costs quite heavily and we were working with the teams to this aim. They provided us with their figures so that we could understand exactly where we could really make a difference.

“Once we decided to add an additional race to each event, we worked on the format and spoke with the team principals to make sure that we had not missed anything. You always need to be careful about that.

“They were all very positive and that is the good thing about F2. Some teams were saying that it could make things more difficult because it will make each weekend heavier, but they were also quite excited with the new format. I have only had positive feedback from them.”

Everyone involved hopes the other cost-reduction elements will prove effective. Despite Michel’s confidence, there is plenty of caution in the paddock at a time when the pandemic is making it harder than ever to find the finance and sponsors needed to go racing.

Further reading
Delving into the data from F2 pre-season testing
Formula Scout’s 21 drivers to watch in 2021
The story behind Gianluca Petecof’s surprise F2 chance
Zhou: New F2 format “interesting” to watch, “more stressful” for drivers
Kanonloppet 1973: The last time F2 held a three-race weekend