Classic tracks: F1 needs a rethink

Over the course of the past decade, the Formula 1 season has grown ever-longer, with the 2016 season set to feature no less than 21 races, a feat thought impossible by many individuals within the F1 paddock just a few years ago.

As the number of races has increased, so too has the number of circuits capable of hosting F1 races, with the sport making larger and larger strides to becoming a truly global spectacle rather than a series of events mostly confined to the continent of Europe.

Even the United States of America, often thought to be indifferent to the F1 circus due to the popularity of NASCAR, has embraced Formula 1’s return. Indeed, Formula 1 has expanded to such an extent that roughly half of a given season’s grands prix now occur outside of Europe.

It is encouraging to see Formula 1 take motorsport to a wide variety of locations. After all, Formula 1 is both a sport and a business, and growth, both from a sporting and business viewpoint is a key objective, as investors and stakeholders are able to benefit from a spectacle that reaches a larger and more diverse audience.

What is less encouraging, however, is the effect that Formula 1’s constant expansion has had on some of the sport’s classic circuits. It is unthinkable that Germany, a country where Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel are national heroes and with two excellent historic circuits in the form of Hockenheim and the Nurburgring, did not host a grand prix in 2015, while countries with a relatively modest motorsport history did.

France has yet to host a Grand Prix since 2008, despite the presence of Romain Grosjean on the grid, Renault as an engine supplier (and soon to return as a full-time manufacturer) and both Magny-Cours and Paul Ricard available to go racing on.

Bernie Ecclestone has long had a disdain for Silverstone, and it is no secret that both Spa and Monza are constantly fighting to keep their spots on the calendar.

How anyone could have watched the drivers zooming through Eau Rouge or witnessed the delirious delight of the tifosi at Monza as Sebastian Vettel secured a podium and contemplated not coming back next year defies explanation. Yet this is precisely what is happening.

Some of the greatest racing circuits ever built are being swept under the carpet in favour of circuits in relatively obscure locations that all seem to have a rather generic feel to them.

The whole exercise would have been far more justifiable if Formula 1’s visits to flashy, new circuits in obscure locations had been more successful. Instead, Formula 1 seems to be embarking on a merry-go-round approach of racing anywhere and everywhere and seeing how things go.

While Malaysia and China, to name two, have earned their spots on the calendar, Formula 1’s attempts to go racing in India, Turkey and South Korea have been short-lived and ultimately unsuccessful, with none of the three circuits that have just been mentioned lasting more than a handful of seasons.

Istanbul Park, in particular, despite being widely praised for its challenging and unique Turn 8 (which requires the driver to successfully hit no less than four apexes in quick succession) has failed to survive and now forms part of a business that sells cars.

It is understandable that some F1 circuits will fall by the wayside. After all, nobody has any illusion about how expensive the sport is, and this includes the hosting fees that circuits are required to pay in order to bring the F1 circus to town.

Classic circuits are not immune to this.

What is less understandable is the rather blasé manner in which the sport reacted to the difficulty the German Grand Prix faced this year. Rather than placing the history and intrinsic value of the race at the top of their priorities, F1’s powers-that-be shrugged their shoulders and seemed unperturbed by the loss of a race that many fans look forward to every year.

Classic circuits, like Interlagos and Spa, have something unique about them: the aura of times gone by. Who could forget Mika Hakkinen’s audacious overtake of Michael Schumacher down the Kemmel Straight at Spa in 2000, or Lewis Hamilton’s last-gasp triumph at Interlagos in 2008?

A circuit like the Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi, which constantly comes in for criticism from fans in particular, is unable to emulate that aura, no matter how many bright lights or impressive hotels it boasts. Drivers, by definition, have a desire to test their skills on the same circuits as the likes of Senna, Lauda and Stewart. Fans are eager to see them do so.

If Formula 1 is to reverse the worrying trend of losing historic circuits, a change in thinking will be needed. At present, not only are hosting fees high, they also have a tendency to rise by a healthy margin every year over the course of the circuit’s contract.

This implies that a grand prix needs to be profitable for the promoters from the off and continue to grow rapidly in terms of revenue on an annual basis in order to meet the rising costs. In the case of classic circuits, this will need to change.

While it is true that historic circuits pay a slightly lower fee than newer circuits, this discount does not seem to be substantial enough to alleviate the pressure faced on a seemingly annual basis by Spa, Monza and even Silverstone.

Just as the older Formula 1 teams (such as Ferrari and Williams, for example) receive an annual payment from the sport for their presence on the grid, so too funds should be made available in order to secure the long-term sustainability and survival of the sport’s oldest and most iconic circuits.

In short, the presence of these races on the calendar needs to be considered a higher priority than the amount of money that can be wrung out of them before they go bust.

For an operation that seeks to maximise profits, the strategy above may seem counterintuitive. However, F1 needs to focus on ensuring that the product that it offers is of a high quality, which would allow the commercial success of that product to follow as a natural outcome.

Humans have an intrinsic fascination with fast cars. However, it is critical that those fast cars are raced on circuits that push them to their limits and that require both car and driver to be on the edge of their abilities, rather than making them tiptoe around enormous parking lots surrounded by glamourous facilities that happen to have a circuit thrown into the mix.

In a nutshell, F1 should focus on preserving the breakneck speeds of Monza, the “woohoo” thrill of Eau Rouge at Spa and the nostalgic “this is where it all began” aura of Silverstone. These races are to be cherished, not squeezed for every last cent.

As long as Formula 1 ensures that its classic races remain on the calendar, and possibly even bring back some of the more historic races (as, in fairness, we saw in Mexico this year, a circuit whose return was universally embraced) it can happily continue to take motorsport to new and exotic places.

If, however, this expansion causes the sport to lose its focus on what makes it attractive to the general public, i.e. high-quality, memorable racing on awe-inspiring circuits, Formula 1 may soon have to cope with grandstands that are a little more bare than it had hoped.

Adriaan Slabbert