Thought leadership series
F1 is ready to start but we’re bound to hit a glitch – Brown
McLaren team principal Zak Brown believes that a championship of 14 or 15 races at 10 venues is realistic to start the 2020 Formula 1 season.
But he argues that the sport needs to do a better job of planning contingencies, like a further outbreak of coronavirus among team members, than it did at the aborted Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.
Speaking exclusively to Motorsport.com for the #thinkingforward series of interviews with the sport’s leaders, Brown said that starting the series in early July with two races in Austria and two at Silverstone, in controlled environments, will help to build confidence and momentum to carry on with a meaningful calendar of races through to mid-December.
“Eight (grands prix) is enough (to qualify as a world championship) and I'm optimistic we'll get in more than eight,” he said. “Formula 1 is looking at a schedule of 16 to 18, kind of 15 circuits, 18 races. I'm a little bit more pessimistic than that, I would place my bet on 14-15 races at 10 circuits.
“I think we will do a couple races in Austria, a couple races at Silverstone. If we start running into issues with travelling, then I think you could see doubling up some other races. I don't think that's the intention, but I'm going to assume that we're going to hit a glitch, somewhere along the way.
“Even though Austria is ready and maybe Silverstone is ready behind closed doors, we don't know if the second wave will come. If we want to go to Asia, or America; I think it's going to be when we get on planes and have to fly overseas where I think the risk will start to potentially get greater.
"There's a conversation about more races in Europe. The schedule was only ever 16 races for a long time. So, to me, 14-15 races, is going to be a very complete championship.”
Brown believes that the isolated circumstances of the Red Bull Ring in Austria make it the ideal place to resume racing, as it has an Air Force base next to the circuit where charter planes can land and a controlled, low population environment nearby.
Austria has already relaxed many aspects of its lockdown with shops opening again in the country last week.
“I could see how these first four races can go off in a very tight manner,” he said. “And then if we can get those off successfully I think that will build some momentum and confidence, So I'm quite optimistic that's a good plan sitting here today.”
Brown is arguably the team boss who has had the most crisis management to deal with, as McLaren triggered the cancellation of the opening round in Melbourne after a team member tested positive for COVID-19.
He admits he has learned a lot from it; having the right team, clear decision making and clear communication being the most important elements. However, the chaotic scenes on the Thursday and Friday showed that the sport hadn’t fully thought through the possible scenarios.
“People are scared and people are looking for leadership,” he said. “They want to know, ‘What should I be doing?’ I think our team's done a really good job with that. So when we decided to withdraw from Australia, we'd made that decision coming into the weekend, so it wasn't a scenario [that we weren't prepared for]. Planning, trying to anticipate: if something happens, what are you going to do? Not have something happen, then ‘What should we do?’
“I think if you look at how Australia, the cancellation of the race, went down. Overall, it seemed like the key stakeholders weren’t very aligned around the plan going into it, it was kind of ‘Oh McLaren's withdrawn, what do we do?’ Where maybe the teams and everyone should have been more prepared for if a team withdraws, what do we do, and go into motion instead. The teams spent Thursday night until three o'clock in the morning being divided on what they should do. That's what happens if you come into something not well prepared with all the key stakeholders around you.”
Despite that, Brown believes that the way that the FIA and Liberty Media are managing the crisis overall means that F1 should emerge strongly for the future. Liberty has raised a $1.4 billion ‘rainy day’ fund in case of a prolonged period without racing or other economic risks and has provided support to teams.
“They continue to pay us. They've assisted some teams, I'm not exactly sure which teams, but I think that's good because all the teams might need eventually some help. I think they're doing everything they can to get us back to going racing, which protects us economically.
“I'm very impressed with Jean (Todt, FIA president). They're making good decisions, good recommendations and Jean, in particular, is pushing very hard on the budget cap. It's needed, and it was needed before this.
“As long as we all handle it (the crisis) well and lean into the problem and not run from the problem, then I think there's opportunity. I think it's danger if we put our head in the sand, if we just kind of assume everything will sort itself out. That's dangerous.”
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