Formula One's calendar problems

By on Saturday, January 28, 2012

World Copyright:Charles Coates/LAT Photographic

The F1 calendar has changed dramatically over the past decade, with Bahrain, China, Turkey, Valencia, Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Korea and India joining. Some of these are successful, but others aren't. This also has a knock-on effect on other tracks, as we investigate...

The Formula One calendar, even ten years ago, used to be a simple affair. You’d start off in Australia, spend much of the season in Europe – via a trip to Canada – and after a few flyaway races the season would end at Suzuka in October.

Fast forward to 2012 and you have an increasingly complex calendar that is ever-changing, while the logistics of said calendar defy belief in a sport that is supposed to be cutting costs in every way possible – why Malaysia/Singapore and Abu Dhabi/Bahrain aren’t back to back I’ll never know…

Races such as Singapore have elongated the season. Photo credit: Pirelli & C. S.p.A.

We all know what has happened over the past decade. Favourite European races such as Austria, Imola and France (the latter not so favoured) have dropped off of the schedule, while new races – predominantly in Asia – have been added to the calendar, pushing the end of the season to the last weekend in November. It makes the end of the season seem punishingly drawn out - just ten years ago Monza used to be the third last race, now there’s about seven or eight left when the circus departs Europe for the final time. Nevertheless, more races means a greater TV audience, even if some of the new venues are Tilkedromes that are usually disliked by the hardcore fans.

But now, F1 is beginning to have a problem with where to hold the races. Bernie Ecclestone has long desired a twenty race calendar – he even mentioned a twenty-five race season in a typical Bernie comment that was taken too seriously by many – but will that even happen? And if it does, where?

Nearly every race is surrounded by some sort of problem, albeit varying in seriousness. Nevertheless, every season stories crop up of several countries or states’ governments ‘exploring the viability of holding a race’. Read: Is it making enough money to justify the costs. Increasingly, the answer to that question is ‘No’, as existing events are buckling under increasing costs while newer circuits – that have contracts with a higher sanctioning fee – are realising that they cannot afford the race either. Then you add on to the fact that several governments are coming under increasing pressure from environmentalists who naturally target Formula One as the sport that is single-handedly killing polar bears.

Bahrain: Will it happen?

The first event under pressure is of course Bahrain. Much has been said of whether the sport should return to the Gulf state, although 1996 world champion Damon Hill recently said that a visit there confirmed to him that everything was alright again, commenting that ‘this time, Formula 1 can go to Bahrain with a clear conscience’. Yet on an almost daily basis Reuters is reporting of crackdowns in the state. There is conflicting information coming out of the country, but earlier this month human rights groups urged Formula One to avoid Bahrain for a second consecutive season. The circuit workers were welcomed back, but many didn’t return because of the manner in which they were dismissed. Add to that the fact that a fortnight’s time marks the anniversary of the uprising, meaning that violence may well be sparked again. Teams and drivers have remained staunchly silent on the matter, although they will need serious reassurance before they send equipment to the state, especially after the fiasco in 2011. If the event is postponed, will we see a repeat of the attempted reshuffle and if we do, where will Bahrain slot in? Time will tell whether the Bahrain Grand Prix will take place this year and many pro-Bahrain supporters frequently cite the example of human rights abuses in China to aid their cause. Nevertheless, leading journalists have voiced their concerns of travelling to the race, as a few of them were present at the eventually-cancelled standalone GP2 event in late February 2011 when it all kicked off.

Korean GP: Middle of nowhere, financial mess, sparse crowd. What next?

War may still be on-going in Korea, but that isn’t the issue with the race that debuted in 2010. The race posted huge losses in its first year and the grandstands didn’t look much fuller in 2011. Then you consider it is in the middle of nowhere and almost nothing changed in a whole year – except for the original promoter being relieved of his duties. The circuit was meant to be based around a city, yet the marshlands remain. The circuit is making huge financial losses and is universally disliked by the F1 circus – Williams mechanics reported finding leftover food from the 2010 event when they arrived last year – meaning that it cannot last much longer unless something miraculous happens.

Korea and India were two races whose completion was worryingly close to when the grand prix was due to take place. The Circuit of the Americas in Texas is seemingly looking to make it a hat-trick. Fewer pictures are being released by COTA and Tavo Hellmund almost held Bernie Ecclestone to ransom at the end of 2011 – a very dangerous game to play. Forgetting about the precarious construction situation – the race take places in November – the funding for the event is still not certain. COTA may well get the circuit finished in time, but the introduction of a race with the backdrop of New York City in 2013 is a far greater attraction. This could significantly harm COTA in the long term.

Turkey. Joined in 2005, but already gone. Copyright: Charles Coates/LAT Photographic

The Turkish Grand Prix has finally paid the price for the population of a small village turning up annually, albeit not helped by terrible timing of the event, yet the Chinese Grand Prix is also teetering dangerously. New events don’t help themselves by building grandstands to accommodate 200,000 spectators as it only goes and highlights the emptiness when a fairly decent number – say 70,000 – turn up. The circuit has negotiated a reduced fee to host the race until 2017, but there are losses. If they continue, then 2017 can’t come soon enough for the organisers, even if the last few races in Shanghai have been surprisingly entertaining.

The race around Albert Park has also been frequently questioned, although those issues seem to have eased somewhat over the last year. Back in Europe though, other circuits have problems.

Hungary, a fixture on the F1 calendar since 1986, is under a new government that has overseen radical changes over the course of eighteen months or so. Hungary’s currency, the Florin, has dropped significantly against the Dollar. A higher sanctioning fee and uncertainty over crowd numbers mean that questions are being raised regarding the viability of the event.

Spain is also struggling to maintain two races a season, particularly when said races are on the same stretch of coastline and held seven weeks apart. The economic crisis has struck Spain particularly harshly, with youth unemployment rocketing to almost 50%. Thus Barcelona and Valencia have both raised the idea of alternating the race, although longer term there must be even greater doubts, when you consider how sparse the attendance was before the arrival of Senor Alonso.

Spa. F1's best track, but for how much longer? Photo credit: Red Bull GEPA

Over in Northern Europe, Silverstone – after years of political wrangling – is safe until 2026. However, Spa, Hockenheim and the Nurburgring are all in hot water. Spa has come under pressure from environmentalists to cut the race, while financially the circuit is making losses. France’s Prime Minister – Francois Fillon – is a motorsport enthusiast and keen to bring the French Grand Prix back. A proposed deal was supposed to be signed at last year’s Belgian Grand Prix, but that didn’t happen. It was supposed to be announced at the start of this month, but nothing happened. Add to that the downgrading of France’s economy, plus the election in April and a race-sharing deal is far from certain. If you believe the mutterings, Spa’s future on the calendar hinges on alternating with Paul Ricard. Keep an eye on that one through the year.

The situation in Germany is more complex and has been deteriorating as seasons progress, despite the presence of Sebastian Vettel, Michael Schumacher and others. Hockenheim and Nurburgring continue to rotate, but both are making losses and looking to make redundancies. Perhaps the fate of these circuits – who have operated under a race sharing deal since 2007 – should act as a warning to Spain’s duo of disliked tracks. On current evidence though, the warning is that you’re damned if you do and equally damned if you don’t.

Yet despite all of these problems (there’s also Canada, which was temporarily lost in 2009), Bernie Ecclestone claims that he receives five applications to host races every week. As well as Russia hosting a race from 2014, there’s also Argentina, South Africa, Mexico, Chile, the Netherlands, a second race in India, Qatar, Dubai amongst many others who have lobbied for a race.

The new pit and paddock complex has secured Silverstone's future. Photo credit: AP Photo/Alastair Grant

So all that will happen is that the races will happen in cycles. In a few years’ time, there will be one (or no) Spanish race, no Korea and potentially nothing in the Benelux region as F1 continues the trend of migrating away from Europe, something that is not universally well received by the European based teams. Non-Europeans will of course mention that it is a world championship, and rightly so. Nevertheless, the sport is still intrinsically European and mechanics, engineers, journalists and those who work in the sport don't appreciate huge schleps to the other side of the world - only to be greeted by forty three locals - not to mention the fact that the increasing number of races in the far East places a greater cost on the F1 circus than a predominantly European calendar. Plus, if you converse with F1 fans, you'll discover that the majority appreciate new culture in Formula One, but lament the loss of circuits such as the A1 Ring, Imola and despair at the knowledge that Spa is teetering on the edge.

Still, other races will pay a gigantic fee to host a financially crippling event for a few years before they too buckle when reality hits home, thus leaving us with world class facilities unused by motorsport’s elite. There’s no doubt the current situation is leaving CVC with a healthy bank balance, but at what cost to the future of motorsport in several countries and the future of Formula One itself?


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