As a result, debates, arguments and sheer dismay have ensued over the current state of the sport, with the financial crisis threatening to cut the grid to a mere privileged few.
Away from this though, the sport’s global expansion only continues, with today’s news being that Qatar is very close to signing a deal to get on the calendar in the next two seasons.
Should all things go to plan, the schedule for the 2016 season could swell to an unprecedented 22 races with the addition of the Grand Prix of Europe in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan? Qatar? These are not nations that boast a great motorsport heritage, nor is a grand prix likely to stir the population to come out in their hundreds of thousands for a race weekend. It won’t be a sell out like Silverstone or Montreal. So why go there?
As with many things in Formula 1, the answer is money. Each track that hosts a grand prix pays a sanction fee to the F1 Group, with the plan being to recover it through ticket sales and the like. Monaco is the only event that does not pay due to its status and importance, but others vary. The Italian Grand Prix at Monza is thought to pay something around the $10m mark per year, whilst other races such as Abu Dhabi and Singapore pay up to five times that amount.
These are huge figures, and perhaps explain why some grands prix have fallen off the calendar in recent years. Financially, it simply is not viable. This is why the German Grand Prix is currently at risk, with both Hockenheim and the Nurburgring struggling to balance the books. The very reason they agreed to alternate the hosting of the race was so that they only made a loss every other year.
There are certain events that arguably ‘should’ be on the calendar: Monaco, Great Britain, Italy and Belgium are just four examples. After all, these are nations that have played huge parts in the history of the sport and have some of the most iconic circuits. Some are no longer on the calendar – Imola, host of the San Marino Grand Prix, for one – and there is often a public outcry as to why.
The newer events that have graced F1 in the past two decades simply have a bigger purse to secure a grand prix. Oil-rich nations such as Bahrain and Abu Dhabi have joined the fray as a result, and even if a loss is made, it can simply be written off. It’s a luxury that many of the European tracks do not enjoy.
Financial backing is key here. The Singapore Grand Prix is one of the most glamorous and spectacular races in F1, taking place at night under floodlights and providing some of the most exhilarating racing of the year. However, it is not a profit-making event. The government is happy to write a check to balance the book though, for it puts the nation of the map and is a great source of tourism. The wider benefits make up for the financial loss.
Bigger sanction fees may mean that we see more races in Qatar and Singapore than San Marino and France, yet it does have a positive impact on the teams’ fortunes. A portion money that is received by F1 Group is pumped back into the sport in the prize money that teams are given. Theoretically, the more that race promoters offer in sanction fees, the more the teams will receive in prize money.
So interestingly, the sport may actually be helping the smaller teams out by agreeing to hold races in nations such as these. At a time of financial panic and uncertainty, it’s not all bad agreeing to let Qatar on the calendar.
The big issue is that it does rob the sport of some of its more iconic venues. If a ‘dream calendar’ were to be put together, it is more likely that races such as the French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours, the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola and most certainly the German Grand Prix at either Hockenheim or the Nurburgring would appear than Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain. It’s simply a question of finances.
There is a risk of this becoming the only driving force behind holding races though. Over the past ten years, we have seen the sport shift from being largely Euro-centric to one that has a very international calendar. Will we get to a stage when there are only three or four European races on the calendar? Monaco, Great Britain, Spain and Hungary? Who knows…
The United States is a market that Bernie Ecclestone is increasingly trying to crack. Arguably, he has done exactly that with the US GP at the wonderful Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. However, his bid for a second grand prix in New Jersey appears to be dead in the water, with the big problem being that the local government will not get involved. It becomes a loss-making project, and therefore unviable. It’s a big hurdle to get over for prospective host nations.
So in a strange way, the financial crisis currently gripping F1 and the decision to host grands prix in far-flung nations such as Qatar are in fact connected. Bigger sanction fees should theoretically aid these issues.
However, racing fans know what they want: Spa, Monza, Silverstone, the Nurburgring, Imola, Magny-Cours. All of these are at risk or have been scrapped. No sanction fee will be big enough to make up for such losses in the wider F1 picture.
And if we go for the best of both worlds, we’ll end up with an exhaustive calendar. 20 races is already too many to some, so 22 will push this further.
F1’s global expansion knows no bounds. However, it wouldn’t hurt for it to remember its roots from time to time.