Formula 1 has always been a very European sport, but now races are all over the world. Are these new locations a threat to the ‘old’ European world of F1, or an opportunity?
It’s halfway through the season, the engineers have all had a nice time off and every F1 fan’s favourite race next up (Belgium for the uninitiated). So all is well with F1, right? Not so much.
The uproar that greeted the news in the UK that the BBC and Sky would be splitting the broadcast rights for next year, meaning only half the races will be on free to air TV, was one indication of the lingering dissatisfaction over how the sport is being run.
But broadcast rights are a recent development. One question, which has dogged F1 for years, is whether the raft of races in exotic new locations are a positive development for the sport. In recent years we have seen the addition of Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Singapore and Shanghai; this year Korea and India hold their first races. The new races, so sceptics argue, are all very well, but the real history of the sport lies in Europe – in Monza, Monaco and Spa, European races with glamour, history, and atmosphere a shiny new circuit in the desert cannot hope to match.
You have to admit they have a point. The newest circuits are exciting to go to, have great facilities and add to the overall spectacle of the sport but ask the fans to name some truly great race circuits and you’d be in for a long wait before Abu Dhabi is mentioned. That out of billions of people only one man, Hermann Tilke, is deemed qualified to design these new circuits also doesn’t seem right.
But I think this has more to do with nostalgia than geography. F1 might be traditionally Europe-focused (most teams and drivers are based in Europe) but Brazil, Australia and Japan all have a rich racing heritage and are about as far away from Europe as you can get. And if we look back to before the recent wave of new circuits joined the calendar, which classic circuits would we have back? Does anyone really miss going to Austria? Or France?
Look at the upsides. Next year we get 20 races to watch, even if thanks to the broadcasting rights deal most people in the UK will only get to see half of them. And as a fan I find it hard to complain about the calendar when we’ve just had some of the best seasons in memory in recent years.
F1 can’t be as a Euro-only sport just because that’s the way it’s always been. Ultimately F1, like any sport, is a business and I can’t begrudge the sport’s efforts to reach new fans. But the way power of the sport is concentrated has to be the ultimate fans’ concern.
When you have one person, Bernie Ecclestone, seemingly able to draw up the race calendar by decree, in the process threatening the future of firm favourites like Silverstone, or structure a broadcast deal maximising broadcast revenue which even the teams raise concerns over, you can’t argue that the sport is being run in the interest of the fans. It’s this which is the source of fans’ frustration – not that the new circuits are ‘foreign’ but the feeling that their connection with the sport is being lost.
Let’s be realistic. I’ll be willing to ignore this for as long as I can continue enjoying great races. But if India and Korea (scheduled back to back) this year produce a really poor show, or when it finally sinks in next year that terrestrial viewers are missing out, then patience will start running thin. If F1 was a democracy we would have seen change at the top long ago. What remains to be seen is how long it will take for calls for change at the top to really gain ground, especially with sponsors all too aware it’s the Europeans who are watching it on TV more than anyone else. The battle once they do will be almost as entertaining as the action on track.