Spa provides a poignant reminder that F1 must remember its roots

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At last month’s Hungarian Grand Prix, the FIA confirmed that Formula 1 would be returning to Mexico in 2015 for the first grand prix to be held at the Autodromo Hermonos Rodriguez since 1992.

The news was received very well indeed: it is a classic circuit; there are two Mexican drivers on the grid; there is a huge fanbase hungry for Formula 1. It has all of the requirements to not only host a grand prix, but be a successful event.

On the same day, Bernie Ecclestone confirmed that F1 would also be heading to Azerbaijan for the Grand Prix of Europe, set to take place in 2016. The former Soviet state has little motorsport heritage; the track will be a street circuit constructed around the nation’s capital, Baku.

The two events provide a perfect juxtaposition for the future direction of Formula 1: the old and the new. However, as we head to Spa-Francorchamps this weekend for the Belgian Grand Prix, we are reminded about the rich history of this glorious sport, and how we must keep it alive.

F1 going to Azerbaijan is not a bad thing. Races in nations that would not immediately spring to mind for F1 have been successful: Singapore, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi etc. Of course, there have been failures (Korea, India) but F1’s global outlook is a good thing. It has been Bernie’s perfect formula since the 1980s that has made the sport so big.

However, we sometimes get a bit nostalgic on weekends such as this. When you drive into Spa, the first corner you see is Eau Rouge. No other corner is as recognizable or famous in Formula 1, but of course, the argument is: “Well it’s not what it used to be!”. And indeed, it is not – but it might just get close to its glory days this year with the new cars. Eau Rouge will no longer be a flat corner (apparently this is easy). Of course, you’ve got Blanchimont and Pouhons and La Source and… the list goes on. It is an awesome circuit.

It is a track that has hosted many a classic grand prix over the years. At its most fearsome, the circuit was some 14km long, seeing drivers such as Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart and Juan Manuel Fangio dart through the Belgian countryside at terrifying speeds. Much like the old Nordschleife circuit in Germany, it had to be changed to meet modern safety standards, but it does retain some of the old characteristics. It is still a favorite for all of the drivers on the grid.

Despite this, the Belgian Grand Prix is not secure on the calendar, nor has it been since the turn of the century. In 2003, the race was cancelled due to the nation’s stance on tobacco laws when cigarette advertising essentially funded the sport. The circuit owners were told to improve the facilities for the 2007 race, meaning that 2006 was also a Spa-less year. The new facilities and final sector are certainly improvements on what we had before, but when it comes to race fees, there are bigger fish to fry.

Take Monza. The track has been synonymous with Formula 1 and Ferrari since the first world championship race back in 1950, hosting all but one Italian Grand Prix in that time. However, the sport has said that a move away could be on the cards, perhaps in favor of a Rome street race or Mugello.

The most recent concerns about Monza arose when pictures revealed that the gravel at the famous Parabolica corner had been replaced by a tarmac run-off area. The F1 community cried out, bemoaning the fact that yet another classic corner had been neutered. However, as safety standards need to be improve, changes must be made, even if it does come at the cost of making a corner that extra bit more challenging.

So how relevant are Spa and Monza in the future of Formula 1? Will both races still be on the calendar in years to come?

Quite simply, they really need to be. Whilst the sport’s global expansion and outlook has been generally positive, we must hold on to some of the most famous and historic races. F1 must remember its roots.

It’s for this reason that Spa-Francorchamps is such a favorite on the calendar. The entire F1 community is excited for the sport’s return after the summer break, but at the same point, it is excited for Spa. If the Bahrain Grand Prix was the first race back after the summer break, it’s unlikely that this weekend’s race would be so hotly anticipated.

Driving into the circuit this morning with some colleagues, it was clear that the tiny town surrounding the circuit does love F1. The banners are up, the appropriately-named Pit Lane Cafe is open, the smell of Belgian waffles is in the air…

And through the mist, you see Eau Rouge. The fearsome kink peeks through the trees; there in plain sight is the reason why this circuit is adored by the sport’s following.

As impressive as the Abu Dhabis and the Singapores of Formula 1 are, there’s nothing quite like the Spa and Monza double-header to bring us back down to earth and remind us of where we came from. The sport may be focusing on moving forwards and continuing to expand, but at the same time, it must keep the classics alive.

Following Spa and Monza, just two of the tracks left on the calendar this season – Suzuka and Interlagos – are ‘classics’. The others are all new-builds, typified by lots and lots of corners, long straights and hard stops. They are impressive, but lack the charm that only a circuit with history can boast.

Spa or Abu Dhabi? As grossly impressive as the latter is, I think I speak on behalf of the entire F1 community by saying that I would take Spa any day of the week. Long may it be a part of the F1 circus – it is a favorite act for many.

Street race in Vietnam could lead Formula One’s Asia expansion

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TOKYO (AP) — Formula One is expected to add more races in Asia, including a street circuit in the capital of Vietnam, a country with little auto racing history that is on the verge of getting a marquee event.

“We think Hanoi could come on in the next couple of years, and we’re working with the Hanoi government to that end,” Sean Bratches, Formula One’s managing director of commercial operations, told the Associated Press.

There is even speculation it could be on the schedule next season, which Bratches rebuffed.

Vietnam would join countries like Azerbaijan, Russia and Bahrain, which have Grand Prix races, little history in the sport, and authoritarian governments with deep pockets that serve F1 as it tries to expand into new markets.

“This (Hanoi) is a street race where we can go downtown, where we can activate a large fan base,” Bratches said. “And you have extraordinary iconography from a television standpoint.”

A second race in China is also likely and would join Shanghai on the F1 calendar. Bratches said deciding where to stage the GP will “be left to local Chinese partners” – Beijing is a strong candidate.

Bratches runs the commercial side of Formula One, which was acquired last year by U.S.-based Liberty Media from long-time operator Bernie Ecclestone.

Formula One’s long-term goal is to have 24-25 races – up from the present 21 – and arrange them in three geographical segments: Asia, Europe and the Americas. Bratches said the Europe-based races would stay in middle of the calendar, with Asia or the Americas opening or ending the season.

He said their positioning had not been decided, and getting this done will be slowed by current contracts that mandate specific places on the calendar for several races. This means eventually that all the races in Asia would be run together, as would races in Europe and the Americas.

The F1 schedule is now an inefficient jumble, allowing Bratches to take a good-natured poke at how the sport was run under Ecclestone.

“We’ve acquired an undermanaged asset that’s 67-years-old, but effectively a start-up,” Bratches said.

Early-season races in Australia and China this year were conducted either side of a trip to Bahrain in the Middle East. Late in the season Formula One returns to Asia with races in Japan and Singapore.

The Canadian GP this season is run in the middle of the European swing, separated by four months from the other races in the Americas – the United States, Mexico and Brazil. These three are followed by the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi, which means another trip across the globe.

“With the right economics, with the right structure and cadence of events across territories, 24 or 25 is probably where we’d like to be from a longer-term standpoint,” Bratches said.

Big changes are not likely to happen until the 2020 season ends. This is when many current rules and contracts expire as F1’s new owners try to redistribute some income to allow smaller teams to compete.

“There’s more interest than we have capacity in the schedule,” Bratches said, firing off Berlin, Paris or London as potentially attractive venues. “We want to be very selective.”

“Those cites from an economic impact standpoint would find us value, as do others around the world,” Bratches added. “It’s very important for us as we move forward to go to locations that are a credit to the Formula One brand.”

An expanded schedule would have to be approved by the teams, which will be stretched by the travel and the wear-and-tear on their crews. The burden will fall on the smaller teams, which have significantly smaller revenue compared with Ferrari, Mercedes or Red Bull.

Bratches also envisions another race in the U.S., joining the United States Grand Prix held annually in Austin, Texas. A street race in Miami is a strong candidate, as are possible venues like Las Vegas or New York.

“We see the United States and China as countries that could support two races,” he said.

Liberty Media has reported Formula One’s total annual revenue at $1.8 billion, generated by fees paid by promoters, broadcast rights, advertising and sponsorship. Race promotion fees also tend to be higher in Asia, which makes the area attractive – along with a largely untapped fan base.

In a four-year cycle, F1 generates more revenue than FIFA or the International Olympic Committee, which rely almost entirely on one-time showcase events.

Reports suggest Vietnamese promoters may pay between $50-60 million annually as a race fee, with those fees paid by the government. Bratches said 19 of 21 Formula One races are supported by government payments.

“The race promotion fee being derived from the government … is a model that has worked historically,” Bratches said.