…or how the schedule might look if it were driven by sport rather than commerce
By Nigel Roebuck
Many years ago I asked Frank Williams if he still considered Formula 1 a sport, and he paused before replying. “Mmm, I’d say yes it is — between the hours of two and four on a Sunday afternoon. All the rest of the time, quite honestly, it’s just commerce…”
This was some time before Max Mosley had gone to the FIA, so therefore long before Bernie Ecclestone was able to acquire the commercial rights from the governing body. At the time this news was received with some incredulity in the F1 paddock: for all his contributions to the sport (not least in the matter of safety), still, in the eyes of many, Mosley will stand forever condemned as the FIA president who sold off the family jewels to Ecclestone not only for a preposterous 100 years, but also at a bargain-basement price. The not unreasonable assumption was that the commercial rights would be ‘sold on’ sooner rather than later — and there was great concern about where that might be.
As ever Max blithely swatted away all criticism: not to worry, he said, steps had been taken to ensure that Bernie couldn’t sell the rights to some party whose motivation might be other than the good of the sport. An asset stripper, for example.
‘The Don King clause’ Mosley called it, this a reference to the notorious boxing promoter, and it gave the FIA the right to veto any sale of the commercial rights it considered ‘inappropriate’. To many of us it has never been clear quite why this was not invoked before Ecclestone did the deal with CVC Capital Partners. For going on seven years F1 has been ‘owned’ by a venture capital company, and in the fullness of time CVC will doubtless leave F1 greatly enriched; less certain is what it will leave in its wake.
What, after all, is of interest to a venture capital outfit save keeping its investors happy? CVC’s current portfolio lists no fewer than 60 companies — ‘Formula 1’ is situated alphabetically between ‘Flint Group’, a German printing inks company, and `Fraikin’, a French truck rental outfit — but not all its investments have proved wise: last October, for example, CVC ceded control of Nine Entertainment, an Australian broadcasting/publishing conglomerate (previously owned by the Packer family), and dropped a couple of billion dollars in the process. Sums like that take a bit of making up.
F1 is doing its bit, though. In 2006, when Bernie and CVC did their deal, there were 18 races on the Grand Prix calendar, and a majority of them — 10— were in Europe. In 2013 there will probably be only seven, and ever increasingly the schedule is based on who can pay how much: if that means tossing aside the traditional heartland of F1, well, feel the width…
Thus, in recent years there has been a spawning of new, invariably soulless, `autodromes’, where absurdly elaborate paddock buildings afford a perfect view of largely empty grandstands. Not all, I should perhaps make clear, have been built in countries controlled by despotic regimes.
As 2013 beckoned, I found myself quietly day-dreaming about an alternative World Championship, one that would have little appeal for CVC but might find greater favour with F1 fans such as myself. Just for a little New Year fun, I started jotting down lists — dropping some places, bringing back others…
Back in the mid-90s there were 16 Grands Prix each season, and this was reckoned to be the ideal number — indeed it was then that Bernie told me he would never, ever , put on more than that: “I couldn’t if I wanted to — the teams would never stand for it…” At the same time, though, he added that long term planning was a nonsense, and then he muttered darkly that it wouldn’t be long before Europe was ‘Third World’. At that time there were 11 races in Europe: I should have paid more attention, should I not?
As I considered a 2013 World Championship I would prefer to see, it was important first to establish its parameters. Tempting as it was on aesthetic — and sometimes sentimental — grounds, I concluded there was little point in including circuits (save Monaco, of course) that would be rejected out of hand on safety grounds. It was necessary to retain a kernel of reality, after all, and I decided, too, to keep a certain amount of faith with the world aspect of the championship.
Years ago Flavio Briatore told me he would like to get rid of ‘all this bloody testing, which costs millions, and gives the public nothing’, and instead put on more races. I could see his point about testing (although I think the subsequent blanket ban was a step too far), but I had my doubts about more Grands Prix, not least because of the toll this would take on those who work in the business. Not too many, I reminded him, have access to a private jet.
As well as that, it’s my feeling that a season of too many races has a dilutionary effect, detracting from — rather than adding to — the grandeur of the most important motor racing series on earth. Ideally, I’d stick with 16, as Bernie suggested in the ’90s, rather than the 20 he aims to schedule these days, but let’s meet him halfway, and go for 18.
Round 1: Austin, USA
In recent years not a few ‘new’ F1 venues have found favour only with those made vastly richer by their inclusion in the championship, but a striking exception was Austin’s Circuit of the Americas, which everyone loved on sight. I can think of nowhere better to kick off a Grand Prix season.
Every January I go to Daytona for the 24 Hours, and invariably it is a highlight of my season, for the atmosphere is pleasingly relaxed — I always find it initially unsettling not to have to ‘swipe’ my press credential every few yards — and the Florida sun invariably shines. The weekend feels, as Chip Ganassi put it, ‘like a harbinger of spring’, and after the long break everyone is glad to see each other again. Austin, I feel, would set the F1 season’s tone in the same way.
Round 2: Interlagos, Brazil
For countless years — until 2003 — the Brazilian Grand Prix was always run early in the season, and I’m going to move it back there. Although, through his endless years of dispute with Silverstone, Bernie somehow contrived to turn a blind eye to Interlagos’s primitive infrastructure, the circuit itself is a classic and must remain on the calendar, not least because the locals’ enthusiasm for F1 has always been extreme. As in 2012, the race could be run the weekend after Texas.
Round 3: Abu Dhabi
Now we are into April, but before starting the European season let us take care of the Middle East aspect of contemporary F1 by visiting Abu Dhabi. It’s hardly a memorable circuit, and hotel prices oblige ordinary mortals to stay in another country (Dubai), but it does have the surpassing virtue of not being Bahrain, which — even without its recent problems of civil unrest — has only ever appealed to the A-list.
Round 4:Imola, San Marino
It is at this point that CVC and I begin firmly to part company, where sentiment gets the better of It is at this point that CVC and I gelt. In today’s financial climate it begin firmly to part company, would be impossible, I know, for Imola to scrape together even the deposit for a 2013 race fee, yet back the place comes in my World Championship, because I always thought it the perfect venue for the start of the European campaign. No one ever needs an excuse to go to Italy, after all, and Imola in the spring was always beguiling. There have been changes to the circuit since F1’s last visit seven years ago, but the essentials remain, including the flat-out blast towards Tosa.
Round 5: Barcelona, Spain
After a succession of dreary processional races, Valencia unaccountably gave us one of the best Grands Prix of last season, but its race has never made any financial sense and is unlikely to feature on the championship calendar again. In Barcelona, too, they are up against it — the days of sell-out crowds evaporated after the darling bankers pitched the world into fiscal chaos — but a Grand Prix in Spain should figure on the schedule, not least because adoration of Fernando Alonso will always guarantee a decent turn-out.
Round 6: Monaco
At this stage I am keeping very much with the traditional pattern of the season, which means that after Barcelona comes Monaco. After experiencing the circuit for the first time, Phil Hill commented that, “If it were anywhere but in Monaco, it would be considered out of the question — but I guess it’s a little different, being where it is…” That was in 1959, and although there are guardrails where once there were straw bales, and more chicanes have been inserted, the place is essentially as it was, because that’s the way the roads in the Principality go.
Logistically, Monaco is a pain if you have a job to do, but if you can overlook the place’s preening self-importance, and accept that overtaking is nigh impossible, still the race should stay — a glorious anachronism, as well as an unequalled opportunity to watch the Grand Prix car at close quarters. The way to keep sane is to stay in a hotel down the coast, en France, away from the hysteria and the over-booked restaurants.
Round 7: Montréal, Canada
A couple of weeks later we are in Montreal for one my favourite races of the year. By the standards of today, the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is unforgiving, by which I mean that, rather as at Monaco, if you make a mistake you will hit something. The drivers love it, though, and the race is invariably unpredictable and packed with incident As well as that, Canadians have long adored F1 and the intoxicating city really gets behind its Grand Prix. Not to be missed, this one.
Round 8: New Jersey or Indianapolis, USA
For 2013 the hope had been that a week after Montreal we would find ourselves at a street circuit in New Jersey, right across the water from Manhattan’s mesmeric skyline. Unfortunately the race has been postponed a year, but if it all eventually comes together, assuredly it would find a slot in my championship. Bernie has dreamed of a ‘New York Grand Prix’ for as long as I can remember, and this is as close as ever he will get.
Should the project ultimately flounder, still it would make sense to ‘twin’ Montreal with another race in North America, in which case I suggest a return to Indianapolis. I know the infield section of the F1 track was uninspiring, but what made the race important was that it was at the Speedway, in a town historically imbued with racing. By 500 standards the crowd might have been paltry; in F1 terms, it was colossal. As well as that, there was always the opportunity to visit the museum, of which I never tire – and to catch a sprint car race, one of my great passions.
Round 9: Magny-cours, France
Back to Europe. It has always seemed absurd to me that there should be no Grand Prix in France – where the whole thing started, after all – and in my ideal calendar it would return. Many were lukewarm about Magny-Cours, but I was fond of it, not least because I enjoyed the drive there, and we would stay at a wonderful ‘secret’ hotel, some distance from the circuit, buried deep in the countryside. As for the circuit itself, it might not bear comparison with French masterpieces of the past, like Rouen Les Essarts or Clermont-Ferrand, but it’s better than many other contemporary tracks. In the regime of the wretched Francois Hollande, government patronage is unlikely to come the way of a French Grand Prix any time soon, but I’m not CVC and I’d have the race back.
Round 10: Silverstone, Great Britain
In my youth I would daydream about running the British Grand Prix at Oulton Park, which I thought incomparably the best circuit in the land. Now Oulton is festooned with chicanes, sadly, and is anyway nowhere near ‘F1 spec’, as is always said of Brands Hatch, smart as the place is these days. No one took Bernie seriously when he said he was taking the race to Donington Park, and quite obviously Silverstone is the only British venue capable of staging a Grand Prix in the 21st century. I can’t claim to have unbridled enthusiasm for the ‘new’ Silverstone — as at so many circuits, I think the money has been spent on the wrong things — but the track, for all its revisions, remains one of the best, and Becketts will for ever be Becketts. Just pray to God it doesn’t rain.
Round 11: Hockenheim, Germany
As I write, the venue for the German GP has yet to be decided, because they’re short of money at Hockenheim and very short of it at the Niirburgring. That said, Germany has always been an F1 staple and its race must remain, although it has to be faced — even in the Vettel era — that the days of massive crowds are gone. Personally, I was affronted that a rather nondescript thread of tarmac built alongside the wondrous Nordschleife should be referred to as ‘The Niirburgring’, and the financially ruinous attempts to turn the area into some sort of theme park heightened my distaste. Shortening Hockenheim — robbing it of those long, narrow, straights to and from the Ostkurve — has removed. its individuality, but still I find it the better of the German venues.
Round 12: Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium
Now comes the summer break, which some think too long, but which allows families to become reacquainted — and also guarantees that at Spa everyone is glad to be back in a paddock again. everyone a As at so many circuits where the government doesn’t sign the cheque, Spa has an uncertain future, but such is the grandeur of the circuit that it should surely never — in any circumstances — be allowed to disappear from the World Championship.
Round 13: Monza, Italy
If you have any feel for the history of motor racing, indeed, this is a high point in the season, for Spa is followed, in early September, by Monza. I’ve always said that if I were restricted to a single race a year, it would be this one, where you unfailingly feel you are somewhere important, at a Grand Prix. Yes, there are greater circuits (although the Lesmos remain breathtaking), but the ambience of Monza — particularly in early autumn sunlight — is unequalled, and the same is true o Hotel de la Ville, my favourite hostelry anywhere.
Round 14: Singapore
Now to Asia. Singapore’s novelty night race has quickly become something of a cult event and pulls an immense crowd. It’s an unusually long race, something of an endurance test for the drivers, and the circuit layout militates against overtaking, but it belongs in the championship and also keeps the money men smiling.
Round 15: Sepang, Malaysia
I would ‘twin’ Singapore with humidity here is even more of a problem, it is one of Hermann Sepang, because although Tilke’s better circuits and over time local enthusiasm has gradually increased.
Round 16: New Delhi, India
Bureaucratic hassles of one kind or another are a feature of the Indian Grand Prix that F1 personnel could do without, but I’m including it in my championship as a ‘New World’ race because it’s not a dead venue like Shanghai or Yeongam — and anyway I like Narain Karthikeyan!
Round 17: Suzuka, Japan
How do we bring the season to a close? In times gone by, the year would end with Grands Prix in Japan and Australia, and that’s a tradition I would like to revive. A few years ago Bernie was financially tempted towards Toyota-owned Fuji, where a couple of races were run, but the Japanese Grand Prix has only one true home. Ask an F1 driver to name his favourite circuit and chances are that he will go for Spa — or Suzuka. The place might be fairly inaccessible, but the narrow old track has an aura all its own and must remain a fixture in the World Championship.
Round 18: Adelaide, Australia
We finish in Oz. It was in 1985 that F1 first made the long trek down there and I can still remember the euphoria of the weekend, which was not dissimilar from the prevailing atmosphere in Austin last autumn. In the Texas paddock a friend said the feel of the place made him think affectionately of Adelaide, and he could have paid the Circuit of the Americas no greater compliment.
In 1996 — money again — the Australian Grand Prix transferred to Melbourne, another place everyone likes, but Adelaide was different again. Major sporting events are commonplace in Melbourne, and the F1 race is just another such, whereas Adelaide has a test cricket ground, but that’s about it. A smaller city by far, more friendly and intimate — and one that was absolutely thrilled to bring F1 to Australia. In Grand Prix week the place literally became the race, which was always a sell-out. Throw in that ‘end of term’ feeling that inevitably accompanies the final race of the year, and you had as close to a perfect race weekend as ever you will find. Austin and Adelaide.. .the ideal bookends of a more appealing Grand Prix season. For NSR, anyway, if not for CVC.