Behind the challenge of bringing F1 back to Mexico after 23 years

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Lewis Hamilton may have wrapped up the 2015 Formula 1 drivers’ championship in Austin last weekend, but his success will not dampen any of the remaining three races this season – especially not the Mexican Grand Prix, taking place this weekend in Mexico City.

Having last been held in 1992, the Mexican Grand Prix returns in 2015 at the historic Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez at a real high point for motor racing in the country. Sergio Perez continues to impress on track, Esteban Gutierrez is on the verge of a return to F1, and with a race of its own once again, the outlook is very bright.

Last week, we caught up with Federico Gonzalez, managing director of CIE, the promoters of the Mexican Grand Prix, ahead of what promises to be a memorable and iconic return for F1 this weekend.

It must be a real honor to bring F1 back to Mexico. Why do you think that 2015 is the right time for F1 to come back to the nation?

Federico Gonzalez: I think that it was for a very good coincidence for four things to happen. One is that the federal government of Mexico understood that this is a great platform to promote Mexico and Mexico City. They think also that it is a very good platform to promote the city, the excitement and gastronomy and all those things and modernity that happens in Mexico City.

And also, the commercial companies that have been investing in Mexican talent like Checo [Perez] and Esteban and all the work that they’ve been doing. And also that we brought experience to this adventure, being a promoter and have the platform of being a concert promoter for 25 years. So I think those four things together made possible the return of Formula 1 to Mexico City after 23 years.

Was it crucial that the race came back to the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez due to its history with F1 or were there any other options: building a new circuit for example, or doing a street race, was that considered?

FG: I think we always thought about the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez. The track, the space, the location of the track, almost inside the city, makes it very interesting not only for us but also for the public and for the rest of the people that are coming. We never thought of going some place else.

It has some advantages and some disadvantages because it’s difficult… since it’s a public park, and we have too many neighbours around, it makes it difficult in terms of production. But I think it’s the right place. And also because of the history of this track, I think it makes a lot of sense and have a sense of pride for all the Mexican fans of F1.

Definitely. How do you think the changes to the track are going to impact the racing? We’ve seen there is a big change to the old Peraltada corner, and it’s going to become one of the fastest laps on the calendar which should make it really exciting for the drivers.

FG: I think what Tilke did with the track and with the new design, it changed just a couple of things. One is the esses, the famous esses, have been softened. Then the entry of the Forosol [stadium section] and get rid of the famous Peraltada.

After building this place in this part of Forosol, I understand that the curve at Peraltada didn’t have a view, so it couldn’t be taken anymore – so we decided to put it inside the stadium and it makes for a very good experience. I think it’s going to be the most iconic image in the world, having 28-30,000 people right in front of the track, the cars going into the Forosol, I think that’s going to be fantastic.

Do you think that the Forosol will be something special for the drivers as well? When Checo is driving through there in the race, he’ll see 30,000 Mexican fans cheering his name, waving Mexican flags, that will be quite amazing I would have thought.

FG: I think that is going to be really iconic for Checo. I think he’s going to be a real rock star! Checo, although he is very famous and national hero, I think it’s going to be a very nice situation for him and for the people coming to that space.

What are some of the biggest challenges that you as a promoter have faced when getting a new race onto the calendar? We’ve seen so many races struggle in recent years – Korea, India for example – but Mexico seems to be a bit different where you’re going to a country that already has this huge fanbase and knows F1, but just didn’t have a race.

FG: I think as a promoter, one of the biggest challenges was the time. We really did have a very short time to build and to organise this big venture. We thought that it was going to be big, but honestly we thought it wasn’t going to so big.

It’s really with a lot of things and details, and organization. There are a lot of people and organizations involved, and also in Mexico there are a lot of people involved with a lot of organisation from the government and from private entities and from our neighbours inside this park.

From the point of the ticket sales and the international matter, I think Austin is going to become different. I think definitely this year, a lot of Mexicans are coming to Mexico City. I don’t know if they’re still going to go to Austin, or if they’re going to go to both races. Time will tell if we’re going to compete directly with Austin. I think Mexicans are going to stay here. Some Mexicans I know are going to also go to Austin, and are going to come here too.

I think the north of the country may go to Austin, and I think this one offers a completely different experience because the track is so inside the city. If you may agree, it’s kind of like a street circuit because it’s so inside the city. 20 minutes or 30 minutes by the subway – we have three subway stations in the facility – it’s very simple to go to the very nice area of Mexico City.

You could be there in 25 minutes, and you have the pyramids, and Xochimilco and Teotihuacan and the museums and the gastronomic offerings – I think that is going to be something iconic.

I think we’re not competing in terms of experience, because we have a completely different and much better offer in terms of what we have to offer in the city and in the race. That’s what we believe.

How much of an impact have Sergio Perez and Esteban Gutierrez had in making the race a reality? You said that Checo will be treated like a rock star – how big a role have they played in actually getting an F1 race back in Mexico?

FG: I think it’s very important and I think it’s the cherry on top for Claro and Telmex and these companies that have been investing in Mexican talent to have a circuit in Mexico. For us, it will be definitely a different grand prix in Mexico without Mexicans and with Mexicans. That’s for sure. So I think it’s great. Having Checo on the podium in Russia couldn’t be better – it’s like we’re planning everything!

How important is calendar placement and when the race actually takes place when negotiating a grand prix? We’ve seen for 2016 some races moving around – Mexico’s keeping a similar slot. Was it important for you to get an end of season slot, not only to give you time to get everything ready, but also because the championship may be decided in Mexico and it’s more exciting towards the end of the season?

FG: I agree with you, at the end of the season, it gets more interesting. The championship may be decided in Austin or may be decided in Mexico City [it was, of course, decided in Austin]. Hopefully it will be decided in Mexico City so it will be even more interesting coming to attend this race. For us, not only for that, but also because it’s a long weekend. November 1 is a big holiday in Mexico, it’s ‘The Day of the Dead’, which is a very huge thing in Mexico. It’s a long weekend, so this weekend makes sense in so many ways that we get that date.

Much has been made recently of F1’s quality. We’ve seen comments from some other circuit promoters and runners saying that it’s not as good as it used to be, there’s a lack of engine noise, overtaking and on-track action. When you were negotiating and pushing to get Mexico back on the calendar, were there any concerns about F1’s quality as a sport?

FG: I think what’s happening for us, not having the grand prix in Mexico for 23 years, we see it as great. Having it live is all about perspective. If you haven’t had the grand prix for 23 years, the moment you have it, you don’t see a lot of details! Right now we are happy with what we have, and of course we’ll get more greedy in the future once we’ve had it for five or ten years.

But it would definitely be better to have more noise on the cars. Yes, I have heard a lot of comments around that, but for the first one, we’re fine. We’re happy with what we’re getting.

You mentioned about being more greedy as the race grows – we’ve had talk of Formula E and IndyCar coming to Mexico City and coming to the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez. Is that something that CIE is involved with and promoting or are they separate projects to what you guys are doing?

FG: Those are going to be separate projects. We’re going to be helping them, but what we thought is that we already have a lot of risk and investment in the track. So if we invite in different promoters than us, we get people with different ideas and different points and sponsors.

We’re opening this possibility to whoever wants to use the facility, we’ll help them to use it. Right now, CIE is not directly involved, but we’re going to help whomever comes. When these dates are confirmed, we’re going to help and support in the organisation however we can.

How is the government helping with the grand prix? We know other races do enjoy support via subsidies and investment from the local government. Is that something that has played a role in making the Mexican Grand Prix happen?

FG: There’s a lot of organization in terms of helping with a lot of logistics outside the Autodromo – the transportation, the logistics. The federal government is helping just to bring those and at the airport and at customs. There’s a lot things that when you come to this type of organisation, you always need help from everyone who could give you help.

So the local government is supporting – you’ll see it. Outside of the race and the track, it’s all a government facility. So whatever you see, good and bad, it’s going to be their responsibility. Whatever you see inside is going to be our responsibility, good and bad. We’ve been working very close with both local and federal government.

As you mentioned before, we’ve got a sell-out crowd on the cards which is a real rarity in F1. We’ve seen this year a lot of races suffering from low attendances, so to get a sell-out was incredible. How much of a challenge has this been, or has it been easier because it is the first race in 23 years and we’ve got two Mexican drivers doing well?

FG: I think it definitely helped, after 23 years of absence, having such a big fanbase, and having a Mexican driver – it made it easy in some ways. I think the prices helped to get the experience right, so I think what is going to be difficult is going to be the third, fourth, fifth year and coming years.

Because what we don’t know, to be completely honest with you, is the hardcore fanbase. We don’t know that yet. I don’t know if there’s a hardcore fanbase of 40,000, 50,000, or only 10,000. So we have to create the experience and we have to keep building so that the people who come keeping coming and have a great experience not only at the race – which we don’t control.

We would love to have Checo winning and being on the podium – but the rest of the things we control, we’re putting a lot of effort and a lot of work in having them come back and have that Formula 1 experience. The challenge is for the coming years.