Which track should fill the final 2021 slot?

There is one free slot left on the 2021 Formula 1 calendar and a number of tracks that could potentially fill it. Which one should get the nod?

The reason for the empty space in the proposed 23-race schedule is the cancellation of the inaugural Vietnamese Grand Prix, which is thought to be due to the arrest of Hanoi People’s Committee chairman Nguyen Duc Chung who was an important figure in bringing F1 to the country.

Given the nature of the Hanoi track – do we really need another street circuit? – and with the strength of the contenders that could potentially replace it, it’s fair to say not a huge amount of tears are being shed.

The sport has made it clear that, if possible, a replacement will indeed be selected, so let’s take a look at the various options.

Istanbul Park

Istanbul Park Grade 1 safety licence.

When the Turkish Grand Prix disappeared from the calendar after the 2011 season, F1 fans around the world let out a collective groan of despair. When it was announced it would be returning this season, excitement could not have been much higher.

The return of the circuit widely considered to be the best built this century certainly delivered, although not in the way most were expecting. We did not get to see the 2020 cars take the iconic Turn 8 flat out because a combination of resurfacing and rain caused the track to be about as grippy as ice, but we did get a thrilling weekend nonetheless.

The entire race weekend was perhaps the biggest challenge many drivers had faced in their careers, with completing a lap, let alone a fast one, a genuine achievement. This led to Lance Stroll taking pole position and leading for much of the race before Lewis Hamilton prevailed to win title number seven.

It may have been the conditions that made the race so exciting, but there is little doubt the circuit would produce excellent racing regardless. With some of the best track sections in the sport and opportunities to overtake, it’s one of the few that is almost universally loved by the fans and drivers alike – when the surface is driveable that is.

What’s more, organisers seem keen for the Turkish Grand Prix to become a regular fixture on the schedule again. This may well be the favourite, both in terms of likelihood and popularity.

Imola

Imola-PA

Imola is a genuine classic, but when it was added to the 2020 calendar there were concerns that its somewhat narrow nature would lead to few overtaking opportunities in modern cars and thus a boring race.

It certainly was not boring, with intriguing battles both in the pits and on-track throwing up tense battles both at the front and in the midfield. It then became thrilling when, with 12 laps to go, Max Verstappen retired and brought out the Safety Car, leading to a breathtaking finale.

After the race, drivers were largely complimentary about the track, praising it for its high-speed nature. Overtaking was admittedly difficult, but seeing them really have to work to get past each other and not just cruise through with DRS was a welcome change.

That being said, without the VSC and SC that created a bit of much-needed chaos, it could have easily been a rather dreary 63 laps. Relying on incidents for excitement is not ideal. Even so, there is something appealing about having a bit of a throwback track on the calendar, as Verstappen said when asked to pick his favourite of the 2020 stand-ins.

“I would go for Imola. It’s a bit more old-school, you are running with some corners all the way up to the gravel so if you would go too wide you’re off,” he said.

Portimao

Carlos Sainz in his McLaren during FP1 for the Portuguese Grand Prix

At the start of 2020, Portimao had never hosted a Formula 1 Grand Prix. In the aftermath of the debut race there, there have been numerous calls for it to do so again in 2021, and it’s easy to see why.

The track is nicknamed The Rollercoaster for the monumental elevation changes, and watching the drivers tackle them was a sight to see even if it did make our stomachs do a few somersaults.

After a crazy start to the race in which Carlos Sainz stormed into the lead, things did get a little boring, but we still got to see some of the best wheel-to-wheel racing of the season with drivers able to run alongside each other for a good portion of the lap.

There were admittedly some issues, with the length of the home straight making DRS overtakes that bit too easy, and some of the excitement being due to an unusually slippery surface.

Many have referred to it as Catalunya on steroids, and it would almost certainly be a better option than the race in Barcelona, but is it good enough to warrant a place over the other tracks on this list?

Sepang 

Sepang boss open to F1 return.

Originally, the three aforementioned circuits were said to be the main contenders being considered as potential replacements for the Vietnamese Grand Prix. Soon afterwards though, another circuit was also named, one that caused a lot of excitement…Sepang.

The Malaysian Grand Prix took place every year from 1999 to 2017 and gave us some excellent races. Given this, there was widespread disappointment when it ceased to be on the calendar due to dwindling crowds.

However, the boss of the Sepang circuit stated an interest in hosting a 2020 race and has said the same about it being added to the 2021 schedule. Few interested in the sport would not want to see this happen.

As well as being a great track, it’s also in an ideal location geographically to replace the race in Hanoi. Being located so near to the Vietnamese capital, it would cause minimal logistical disruption and would extend the early Asian leg of the season.

The only downside is that adding it to the calendar could be a bigger risk than choosing a European circuit, given the COVID-19 pandemic. The sport will want to avoid last-minute cancellations again.

Mugello

Mugello Tuscan GP restart crash

Mugello has not been mentioned as a track that is being considered and is, therefore, a less likely option than the above four. Nevertheless, as the 2020 calendar proved, never say never.

The Tuscan track is one of the most physically challenging circuits around, thanks largely due to the high-speed sweeping sections of the first sector. Given this, expectations were high ahead of the first F1 race there and it did not disappoint.

It was as gruelling as expected for the drivers throughout the weekend and fears that it would be too much of an ask for them to overtake during the race quickly disappeared, even if DRS made it a bit too simple for them.

However, the track itself was not the reason the race was so exciting. No, that was due to two major incidents, one at the start of the race and the other at the end of the subsequent Safety Car period.

Mugello certainly deserves a spot in F1 in the future, but with just one free in 2021, given its history, Imola is likely to be given the nod if the sport chooses to head to Italy for it.

Nurburgring

Lewis Hamilton during the Eifel Grand Prix at the Nurburgring

Speaking of history, few tracks come close to the Nurburgring in that aspect, and that is not the only reason the German track would be a popular addition to the calendar.

With the exception of less than ideal weather that prevented any action from taking place on Friday, its return to the sport was a successful one, producing some exciting battles, even if there was never anything close to a fight for the win.

The biggest appeal of the circuit is, of course, its history though. It is one of F1’s most iconic venues, being a part of the sport since its very beginning.

However, while the current layout is passable, it’s not the Nordschleife, and unless the decision is taken to return there – which simply won’t happen – it’s probably not the best option on this list, even if having a season without a German Grand Prix just doesn’t feel right.

Verdict

Istanbul-Park-PA

To be honest, it’s a travesty that only one of these tracks can be a part of next season’s calendar. A strong case could be made for all of them being better options than the likes of the ones in France, Spain and Russia, to name a few.

Perhaps more will end up taking place if we get some late cancellations, but if only one can join the 2021 schedule it should be the Turkish Grand Prix.

It’s far from an easy choice. Returning to Sepang, in particular, is an appealing thought, and there would be few complains if that were to happen.

Istanbul Park, though, is one of the best circuits in the world and is just far too good not to consistently be on the schedule. It wasn’t for eight seasons, and that was eight seasons too many.

Thankfully, it’s looking more and more likely to be the one chosen to fill the 23rd slot, with it being handed a three-year FIA safety licence and the CEO of the company that manages the track stating that talks are going well.

It will be great for the sport should F1 return to Istanbul, but given how good they all are, we would be happy with any of the above. It’s just a shame there can only be one.

Finley Crebolder

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