Race calendar keeps F1 fans guessing
LONDON (Reuters) - For a sport timed down to the thousandth of a second and measured in millimetres, Formula One seems to be finding it surprisingly difficult to get to grips with a calendar.
With little more than two months to go before the Australian season-opener in Melbourne on March 17, the sport has yet to confirm how many races there will be in 2013 and where two of them will be held.
The fans can expect to see fewer teams on the grid, with HRT seemingly defunct but still supposedly seeking a buyer, but they are also still waiting for a definitive driver line-up with vacancies remaining at Caterham and Force India.
The first official test of the new campaign kicks off at the Jerez circuit in southern Spain on February 5 with McLaren currently set to be the first out of the box with plans to launch their car on January 31.
Most, but maybe not all, teams will have their new cars ready to hit the track as soon as the off-season testing ban is lifted - by which time they should also have a clearer picture of what the future holds.
July is the month of uncertainty as things stand, with the German Grand Prix - triple world champion Sebastian Vettel's home race - scheduled for the seventh at a venue to be decided.
This year should be the Nuerburgring's turn to host the race under an alternation agreement but the circuit's financial problems could mean it stays at Hockenheim, the country's other Formula One track.
Either way, time is running out with local promoters usually seeking to maximise their chances of breaking even by putting tickets on sale for the race almost as soon as the previous one has finished.
"If the issue over whether there will be a Formula One race at Nuerburgring in 2013 is sorted out by year-end, that would still be early enough," Nuerburgring GmbH managing director Thomas Schmidt said in November last year.
Subsequent reports in Germany have spoken of further meetings scheduled for this month with commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone. Formula One packages for the German round have been conspicuously absent on the usual ticket websites.
The 20-round calendar also has an empty slot for July 21 - reserved for another unnamed European event that Ecclestone has identified as being Turkey.
However, the impetus to bring that country's Istanbul Park circuit back into the championship stalled when the country's government baulked at subsidising a race attended by few locals.
Ecclestone told Reuters last month that he was waiting for a response from the Turkish authorities but the season was likely to be 19 races.
Bahrain, which was the big uncertainty last year due to violent civil unrest, remains on the calendar with an April 21 date as the fourth round of the season.
The situation in the Gulf kingdom remains tense however with police and anti-government demonstrators still clashing almost daily.
The country's highest court on Monday upheld prison sentences against 13 leaders of a 2011 uprising in a ruling that could stir up further unrest.
The official starting list for 2013 that was issued in December had 11 teams, one down on last year, who have paid their entry fees.
While most of the empty spaces for drivers' names have now been filled, Force India have a coveted vacancy with Germany's Adrian Sutil and Frenchman Jules Bianchi the recognised frontrunners.
Sutil has the experience, as a former driver for the Mercedes-powered team, and some financial clout but Bianchi is their reserve as well as being a member of Ferrari's young driver academy.
If, as some reports suggest, Force India are considering switching to Ferrari engines in 2014 then Bianchi would likely sweeten the deal.
Russian Vitaly Petrov, who raced for Caterham last year, appears likely to retain that seat but he, like the fans holding off on their travel plans, would like a little more certainty.
(editing by Mark Meadows)
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