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Formula 1 returns to social distancing, face masks, and empty grandstands

Valtteri Bottas of Finland and Mercedes GP celebrates in parc ferme during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Austria at Red Bull Ring on July 04, 2020 in Spielberg, Austria. (Photo by Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)

Formula 1 motor-racing returned at the weekend after its Covid-19 suspension with a Grand Prix behind closed doors at Austria’s Red Bull Ring.

Meticulous safety measures were in place at the Red Bull Ring, including requirements that everyone with access to the track submitted to Covid-19 testing and regular temperature checks. All drivers, teams and personnel have so far tested negative for the virus.

The procedures will be in place at the venue throughout this week, and drivers, teams and personnel will be re-tested ahead of the season’s second grand prix at the same venue this weekend.

With no spectators allowed, local revenue from merchandise, tickets, corporate hospitality and food and beverage sales this year will be effectively zero. Last year’s Austrian Grand Prix attendance was 203,000 over three days, according to figures from Formula1.com.

Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas, who won Sunday’s race, said: “No doubt we’re lacking a bit of atmosphere – but it is what it is. Better to be racing like this than not racing at all.”

Before the race, led by Lewis Hamilton the majority of drivers showed their support for the recent global racial equality protests and ‘took a knee’ prior to the Austrian national anthem being played. Six drivers – Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, Kimi Raikkonen, Carlos Sainz, Daniil Kvyat and Antonio Giovinazzi – remained standing but showed their support for the movement by wearing  t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan ‘End Racism’. Hamilton has previously criticised F1 for not doing enough to tackle inequality and said that being silent on the issue was tantamount to being complicit in racism.

The Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, which comprises all 20 drivers, said drivers would be free to express their support in their own way before the race.

The road back to the delayed and reduced 2020 season, which should have started with the Australian GP in Melbourne on March 15, has been a costly one for many of the assets stakeholders.

In June F1 posted an 84-per-cent year-on-year drop in net profit in the first quarter, at $39m (€34.5m), down from $246m a year ago. F1 reported an operating loss of $137m, compared to $47m in the same period last year.

In April, Liberty Media announced that it had reattributed its stake in Live Nation Entertainment from the sport to its SiriusXM tracking stock in a move that saw $1.5bn in net asset value go in each direction. The move ensured F1 received a net cash payment of $1.4bn as it sought to deal with the challenges created for the championship by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Long standing F1 team Williams, is considering a partial or full sale of its F1 motor-racing team. Williams made the announcement after posting its financial results for 2019. The Williams Grand Prix Holdings (WGPH) group posted a loss of £13m ($16.2m/€14.3m) for the year, compared to a profit of £12.9m in 2018.

Williams cited the team’s “poor on-track performance” as a driver for the results, with the outfit having finished bottom of the constructors’ championship in both 2018 and 2019. Group revenue also declined to £160.2m in 2019 from £176.5m in 2018.

British technology company McLaren Group, which includes the eponymous F1 team, recently sealed a £150m (€164.2m/$184.3m) financing facility with the National Bank of Bahrain (NBB).

McLaren has been badly affected by Covid-19, with sales of its supercars falling significantly during a factory shutdown and the company announcing 1,200 redundancies last month.

Bahrain sovereign wealth fund Mumtalakat Holding is the majority shareholder in McLaren Group, with a 56-per-cent stake. Mumtalakat also has a 44.1-per-cent interest in NBB.

But despite the Covid-19 induced disruption there has also been some positive news for the series. Italian pay-television broadcaster Sky Italia finalised its renewal of F1 broadcast rights for the 2021 and 2022 seasons. The rights extension was announced by the broadcaster last month. Sky Italia’s existing contract runs from 2018 to 2020.

The renewal comes with sister pay-television broadcaster Sky Deutschland having completed an exclusive multi-year F1 rights deal in German, that agreement also comes into effect in 2021.

The F1 Virtual Grand Prix series, created following the suspension of the F1 season due to the Covid-19 pandemic, attracted 30 million views across TV and digital platforms.

The series, recorded 21.8 million viewers on digital platforms alone, including the official F1 YouTube, Twitch and Facebook channels, as well as Weibo and Huya in China.