The Le Mans 24 Hours has been officially postponed and will now move from the planned June 12-13 date to the weekend of August 21-22. The decision has been taken by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) because it wants to be in a position to get as many spectators as possible.
In mid-February the French Ministry of Culture announced that it intends to allow events in France in the summer of 2021, but on very strict terms. The key restriction is that the organisers of events, whether indoor or outdoor, can only allow 5,000 spectators, with suitable social distancing measures. And these events will only be allowed to happen if the crowd is seated. The Ministry added that the rules may be changed and that there may be further reductions if the pandemic gets worse or conversely the maximum number of people allowed could rise if the situation improves. If the pandemic develops in a negative way other protocols might need to be adopted.
There are many other problems to be considered at the moment. All travel is restricted in France, except internally, but there is a nightly curfew from 6pm to 6am. There are severe restrictions on people travelling to France from outside the European Union (and that now includes Britain). One is not allowed to do it for holidays, family visits or even to stay in a second home. There are just a few exemptions for vital travel, but that does not include spectating at motor races. Le Mans is heavily dependent on spectators from the UK. Travel from EU countries is also complicated with a negative PCR test no older than 72 hours required and one must also make a sworn statement that one does not have any COVID-19 symptoms. At the moment the bars, restaurants, cafes, gyms, pools, theatres, cinemas, museums and tourist attractions in France all remain closed. A number of cities have weekend lockdowns to try to stop visitors. And more are expected in the days ahead.
The ACO has concluded that delaying the Le Mans 24 Hours until August means that things could improve and the race could then become more financially viable, particularly as the vaccination programme is expanding rapidly and there is talk of a Europe-wide vaccine “passport” that could help to restart tourism. This would be a digital pass of some kind which would prove that a person had been vaccinated or had tested negative
The ACO decision is an interesting one and one must look at the Grands Prix of Monaco and France in the light of the decision. Monaco is due to take place at the end of May and while Monaco may not be worried about its race, they must take into account the fact that almost all the spectators would need to travel through France to get there – and that might not be easy. Many people would normally stay in France and travel into Monaco every day, but the problem is getting to France, rather than crossing the border. The French Grand Prix, which is currently scheduled to take place on June 27 at Paul Ricard, must also consider the situation in which it finds itself, as it cannot reasonably be held if only 5,000 spectators are allowed as this would mean a significant financial loss. Much of the funding of the race comes from public money.
Moving the Le Mans 24 Hours is easy enough because it is the biggest event in the World Endurance Championship and it can slot into a date during the F1 summer break. Moving the French GP is more complex. The F1 calendar is already tight in the latter part of the year and while the race is a big deal in France, it cannot simply switch to where it would like to be on the calendar, if there is a need to make a change.