Last year, despite the new look cars with increased aero promising spectacular racing, Suzuka was mostly empty. It used to be oversubscribed by a factor of 10. Ross Brawn, MD of FOM’s sporting operations opined, “We need a local driver…”
While there is no denying that the presence of a local driver could aid a race promoter’s cause, a home-grown hero is hardly a guarantee of sell-outs. As Germany proves during “even” years, when the country that invented the motor car (and every form of internal combustion engine currently in use) gets to stage its Grosser Preis at the legendary Hockenheimring.
The track is situated a little over an hour’s drive from both reigning champion’s Mercedes-Benz HQ in Stuttgart and its AMG subsidiary in Affalterbach (and three hours from BMW’s Munich base). Germany is able to punt two German drivers, one of whom is a four-time champion – the other a Le Mans winner – the circuit battles to half-fill its stands, even on alternate years.
Local Hero: A guarantee for success?
The Canadian Grand Prix perennially manages to fill its stands. This despite the fact that until 2016 fans had no driver to wave Maple Leaf flags at. Thousands of Mexicans packed Austin in homage to Sergio Perez. They remained firmly south of the border once the country joined the calendar. Hovering in the middle is Spain, which experiences booms or (almost) busts. It depends upon the odds facing Fernando Alonso each May, while Carlos Sainz Jr hardly rates a look-in.
Spa-Francorchamps this year and last was a sea of orange in honour of Max Verstappen. The Dutch are ardent patriots who follow national heroes in whatever sport they excel. True local hero Stoffel Vandoorne, though, hardly caused a spike in ticket sales.
Silverstone manages to attract record crowds mainly through the lure of Lewis Hamilton – and Jenson Button before him. But the fact is that Britons love motor racing, particularly F1. They would likely flock to the first venue to stage a world championship grand prix even in the absence of a home-grown champion. Crowds would be down, yes, but not desperately so.
By contrast, Finland delivered three world champions (and five F1 winners), yet the closest the Nordic country comes to a grand prix is its annual Rally Finland. The rally is euphemistically dubbed the “Gravel Grand Prix” on account of the WRC event’s spectacularly high speeds. Occasionally Finnish folk mention a street race – usually for categories other than F1 – but then, just as quickly, such talk fades.
The push towards F1 street races:
All of which brings Brawn’s comments and the recent dismissals of city centre grands prix by both the Amsterdam and Rotterdam councils of an F1 street race in either city into sharp focus – notwithstanding Verstappen’s popularity.
If anything, an Amsterdam spokesperson tweeted, any Dutch grand prix should be held at Zandvoort. Whether the circuit in the dunes, which is conducting a feasibility study into a possible F1 return, is able to get its F1 act together, is another question.
Simultaneously, though, Copenhagen’s city fathers are said to be seriously considering a street grand prix off the back of Kevin Magnussen’s popularity. That question marks continue to hang over the Dane’s continued tenure at Haas F1, despite internal assurances that all is well, does not seem to overly concern the locals.
Who knows, the race may sink or prove to be a roaring success – whether or not KMag has a long and ultimately successful F1 career. Over the past decade the split is 50/50: of 10 newcomers to the calendar in that period, five have flunked. This applies equally to F1 street races and permanent venues.
One street race in particular (Singapore) proved an outstanding success despite having no local driver to fete; another, namely Valencia, failed spectacularly, double-champion Alonso’s then-successes notwithstanding. In a further twist, New Jersey’s much-vaunted harbour event was canned after being confirmed by the FIA.
F1 Street races: The reality
One of the fallacies about F1 street races is that they are cheaper to stage than events on permanent F1-compliant circuits. The reality is far from it. Upon renewing its race hosting contract, Singapore proudly told the media that it was reducing its annual operating budget by 10%. It worked around from S$150m to S$135m (£85m/£78m) while anticipating race day crowds of 90,000.
Consider now that Silverstone roughly breaks even with race day crowds of 120,000. Each ticket costs an average of £250 – that pans out at an income of around £24m. Add in bits and bobs of income from concessions and parking, and the race budget, including all promoter fees adds up to £30m. Wherein lies the difference? In the costs incurred by Singapore in building its temporary circuit each year.
Melbourne has chalked up losses of around AU$50m (£30m) per annum despite crowds of 100,000+ and ticket prices roughly in line with those of Silverstone. Again the difference lies in build costs, which are lower than in Singapore given that the hosting venue is a park on the fringes of the city. The Australians are adamant that the exposure global received by Melbourne is worth the bottom-line cost.
A venue whose administration badly burnt its fingers is Valencia. The track sunk over £300m into its F1 street races over five years. The council was forced to pull the plug after failing to attract 50,000 punters to its 2012 race. This despite slashing ticket prices by up to 50%.
Folk argue that Singapore’s success is largely down to its night-time setting, but would an 8pm start have saved Valencia? Hardly. In desperation the promoters moved the date from the heat of August to June’s more moderate climate, yet still crowd numbers tanked. This despite a Mediterranean location, surplus of hotels in the area, and affordable flights links to most major European cities. Some venues have it; others simply do not.
The long-standing Circuit de Catalunya event continues to more or less pay its way while Valencia’s street race, situated 300 miles away, collapsed after five years. In Asia, Singapore’s race survives while the established Sepang event, last year hosted its final F1 race. As stated, there is no logical rhyme or reason.
Street races: a flawed philosophy
Why did F1 suddenly embrace street races in the first place? Some suggest Monaco’s blue riband status was the reason. But Monaco has been a fixture on the F1 calendar since the inception of the world championship in 1950. The trend towards F1 street races started during the mid-noughties.
The answer lies in MotoGP’s popularity. No sooner had Bernie Ecclestone acquired F1’s commercial rights than he’d embarked on sprucing up its venues. The first event signed after he took charge for his own account was Sepang. The Herman Tilke-designed super-stadium in 1999 hosted the first Malaysian Grand Prix, for which the country paid eye-watering hosting fees.
As F1 expanded, so further stadium-type venues were designed either in their totality, or with assistance from Tilke. These tracks have his hallmarks – wide corner entries/exits combined with massive run-off areas. Don’t blame Tilke exclusively, these characteristics are demanded by circuit owners. Why? For Circuit owners, primary income is from track days or vehicles launches. Activities whose commercial success depend upon safety and cost-effectiveness. Track days make money, F1 blows it.
It is not coincidental that these circuit characteristics are as perfect for amateur track days as they are for MotoGP. And no sooner had circuits signed up to the two-wheeler category than they put pressure on F1 to reduce its fees using MotoGP’s business model as lever.
MotoGP moved its own Malaysian Grand Prix from bumpy Shah Alam. MotoGP repeated the tactic with Indianapolis. It did in Turkey, Austin and Spielberg, and planned to do in India before Buddh Circuit collapsed.
The World Endurance Championship soon followed suit. The super-stadiums and their top-drawer hospitality units situated in emerging economies suited the manufacturer’s marketing programmes to a T. Brands such as Audi, Porsche, Toyota and Peugeot could suddenly compete in sophisticated arenas in Asia without committing to F1.
Ecclestone soon realised that F1 street races are totally unsuited to both MotoGP and WEC. Consider it the increased dangers on street circuits or the tedious procession that would result from WEC cars following nose-to-tail for six hours in street races. So he hit on the idea of taking F1 to semi- or full-on F1 street races events, for better or for worse.
From 2006 onwards F1 suddenly embraced the likes of Valencia, Mokpo (combining part permanent streets cutting through a non-existent Korean vacation estate), Abu Dhabi (originally a part street/part permanent design), New Jersey (aborted), Sochi (combining Olympic village streets with purpose-built track), Cape Town (still-born concept using the city’s World Cup Stadium), and Baku.
Any wonder Amsterdam and Rotterdam cried off, even if F1’s new long-term focus is on creating inner-city Super Bowl events in major destinations? After all, last year Baku’s international airport handled 2m passengers while Amsterdam’s Schipol processed 25 times as many. Does the established Dutch city really need a costly, loss-making Super Bowl to attract visitors, Max Verstappen or not?
Whatever MotoGP’s or WEC’s impact on F1 venues, though, some anomalies remain baffling. Turkey’s F1 grand prix was a goner within seven years despite being held on superb circuit with some breath-taking corners and FOM taking over race promotion. On the other hand, Austin’s race, staged 15 miles from the city, pulls 100k crowds despite little US commercial interest in F1.
All of which proves that there simply is no magic bullet. Research can inform decisions, surveys are able to pinpoint areas of interest and commercial agendas can drive demand. Ultimately the success of whatever venue F1 heads to next will be as much about suck-it-and-see stuff as scientific studies.
Hanoi anyone? Yes, the city looms large on F1’s Superbowl hit-list, yet Vietnam has no local F1 driver, no compliant circuit and plans to ban inner-city motoring by 2030.
Seems a perfect candidate, then…