What will the impact of the COVID-19 health crisis be on Formula 1? As Motor Sport has argued before, it is not too glib to suggest that in the medium term, the crisis affords F1 an opportunity for renewal. In the short term , however, one thing is clear: in the new world order, money will be tight.
F1 is already in the final throes of negotiating a cost cap that will reduce expenditure significantly, at least for the top teams, as we report on p82. The cap can be seen as belated recognition that F1 has become too bloated and, although it was underway before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it has become even more urgent in the current climate.
In April, Liberty, F1’s commercial rights owner, restructured its finances to create liquidity to support several F1 teams that rely on race revenue to keep going. In the absence of racing, there was a risk the unnamed teams would go bust, so Liberty stepped in to bridge the gap by freeing up $1.5bn (not all of which will go to the teams).
But it won’t only be the teams seeking funding, Liberty will be under pressure to increase revenues, and one key source is race hosting fees. The problem here is that Liberty needs to raise hosting fees just as many traditional circuits are negotiating hard to reduce them.
Both Spa and Silverstone have recently won discounts on the amount they pay to stage grands prix, and with upcoming races predicted to take place without spectators, it’s easy to see others following suit.
In hard times, the lure of taking racing to controversial countries with big wallets could be hard to resist. While the talk now is of avoiding the collapse of teams and ensuring that races remain viable without spectators, important questions need to be answered. Where will the money come from – and who might prey on a weakened F1?
After Liberty announced the cash injection for F1 teams, it emerged that it had sold a $500m stake in its live events business, Live Nation, to the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia. The two developments are unrelated, but it is no secret Saudi has been courting F1 for several years. In January, Saudi Arabia announced plans for a new track, the Qiddiya circuit, to be ready from 2023. And reports suggest F1 has been in talks over staging a grand prix there in a deal worth around £50m.
Then last month, F1 signed a major sponsorship agreement thought to be worth in the region of $40m per season with Saudi’s state-owned oil and chemicals company Saudi Aramco.
Under the terms of the deal, Saudi Aramco was set to get trackside branding at most races this year plus title rights to the 2020 US, Spanish and Hungarian races , should they take place. Will it also lobby for an even earlier Saudi GP? Perhaps one as early as next year, based on mooted street circuit in Jeddah, while Qiddiya is completed?
Saudi Arabia already hosts Formula E and is keen to increase its international profile by hosting more events – such as the recent boxing bout between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr. But it is important to ask whether welcoming Saudi Arabia to F1 would be in the sport’s long-term interests.
While F1 is looking to dust off its image, is it wise to host a grand prix in a country accused of murdering critical journalists and whose human rights record is described by Amnesty International as “heinous”?
The last time I wrote of the stain of ‘sportswashing’ on the reputation of F1 – before the Azerbaijan GP in Baku – some readers responded by insisting that Motor Sport should stay out of questions of social justice.
But this isn’t just an ethical question for F1, it is also existential. If F1 continues to be open to the highest bidder, then the temptation will be to expand into new areas at a time when sport should be doing the opposite. In what looks like becoming a more local, less consumerist post-pandemic era, it should be racing at circuits and countries that have a history and a fan base, not in half-empty stadiums, in countries with no racing tradition. It should capitalise on its unique heritage to create a spectacle that attracts new fans and sustains existing ones.
In a post COVID-19 world, can F1 resist the temptation of making up lost funds with more races in big paying countries such as Russia, China, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia?
As we close for press, Silverstone has announced it will host two grands prix this summer on consecutive weekends, if there’s an exemption from the planned 14-day quarantine requirement for international arrivals to Britain. We understand that negotiations are ongoing and, if successful, will confirm the importance of Britain’s motor racing industry to the wider economy and national morale.
Which leaves the question of what the second grand prix, on the first August weekend, should be called? After the response to June’s Stirling Moss commemorative issue, we would like to join those suggesting it is named The Stirling Moss Trophy. If the greatest driver never to win the World Championship had a round of the 2020 series named in his honour, it would be a fitting coda to a remarkable life