Formula One unveils massive 23-race calendar for 2021

Formula One unveiled a 23-race calendar for 2021 on Tuesday, its biggest ever, but the Vietnamese Grand Prix has been dropped. The season will start in Australia on March 21 and will include the first ever race in Saudi Arabia on November 28 before the season ends a week later in Abu Dhabi. Vietnam was to hold a street race on April 25 but doubts about the event arose after Nguyen Duc Chung, who was Hanoi's mayor and a major supporter of the event, was arrested on corruption charges in August. In the calendar unveiled on Tuesday, the race slot was left vacant.

F1's 2020 season was heavily disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic but is eventually being run over 17 races, with reigning champion Lewis Hamilton on course to win the title for the seventh time. Spectators have been barred from most races this year but organisers said they expect fans to return next year. "The plans for 2021 have involved extensive dialogue with all promoters and their local and national authorities at a time of ongoing fluidity related to the global pandemic," F1 said in a statement.

"As we have said before, we expect fans to return for the 2021 season and for the calendar to look similar to the originally planned 2020 season." Saudi Arabia said last week it was holding a race for the first time, an announcement that is likely to spark fresh accusations from human rights groups that the kingdom is using high-profile sports events to "wash" its human rights record. The Netherlands, home to the popular Red Bull driver Max Verstappen, gets a race a year earlier than originally planned with a September 5 slot in the coastal town of Zandvoort.

It will be the first Dutch grand prix since 1985. Vietnam signed up for Formula One hoping the glamour of the sport could reflect the country's economic lift-off and reshape Hanoi's staid image, much as it has done for Singapore which will again host a race next year. The communist nation inked a 10-year deal with Formula One in 2018 with state media saying hosting the race would cost the country $60 million per year. The fee has been picked up in full by the country's largest private conglomerate, VinGroup, which had been hoping to dazzle with a night race.

But its 2020 race was cancelled due to concerns that teams and fans coming from overseas could spark a new outbreak of Covid-19 and the corruption scandal surrounding Nguyen Duc Chung now threatens the future of the event. "Without Chung, the future of the race is gloomy. It might not happen," a source close to the race told AFP on condition of anonymity.

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