The expense of hosting a Grand Prix


It seems that attempts to save the Canadian Grand Prix have failed, at least in terms of 2009, and thus we have a World Championship calendar without a single race in North America, for Indianapolis, of course, disappeared a year ago. The manufacturers and sponsors are incensed by this, and I don’t blame them, but, according to the race organisers in Montréal, Bernie Ecclestone’s financial demands are now beyond them, simple as that. Tony George said exactly the same thing.

Actually, I’m saying ‘Ecclestone’s financial demands’, but in reality what we’re talking about these days is CVC, the private equity company to whom he sold the commercial rights to F1 a while ago. Bernie still does the deals with race organisers and TV companies, but these days is merely an employee, albeit an extraordinarily well rewarded one.

Looking at the changing shape of the World Championship, it’s pretty clear that now, even more than before, a country’s inclusion is dependent on its ability to pay, period. Talk all you will about ‘the emergence of Asia’ and all the rest of it; more than ever it’s clear that it doesn’t really matter a toss where the race is, so long as there’s an eye-watering cheque to go with it.

In one part of the world, we have races in Australia, Malaysia, Japan, Singapore and China, with Grands Prix also imminent in India and South Korea. In the Americas, meantime, we have… Brazil, and that’s it. All looks a touched skewed, doesn’t it? And we haven’t even mentioned Europe, traditionally the cultural home of F1.

The 2009 World Championship was originally supposed to feature 19 races, but some time ago it was announced that the French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours (due to be the last there, anyway) had been cancelled, thanks to the credit crunch, and now Canada is off, too. Thus we are down to 17 races, one fewer than this year.

At one time, when Bernie personally owned the commercial rights to F1, it was in his gift – should he choose to do so – once in a while to cut a race organiser some slack, to compromise, but since selling out to CVC things are a little different, for the company borrowed hugely to finance the buyout, and the interest payments alone on those loans are staggering. F1, essentially, is in debt – and in a big way. Hence it takes its show to where the money is.

It’s one thing, however, to lose places like Magny-Cours and, in 2010, Silverstone. What must be infinitely more disturbing to Ecclestone – and, particularly, CVC – is that now the authorities in Shanghai are saying it is by no means certain that the Chinese Grand Prix contract will be renewed after its expiry in 2010.

Were it a normal commercial enterprise, there would be no question of the Shanghai race’s remaining on the calendar, for, as in Malaysia, there is remarkably little interest in F1 in China, as the pitiful race attendances have long demonstrated. The stands might look reasonably full: not too many of the people in them have paid to come in.

Commercially, therefore, it’s a lost cause, but it had always been believed that this didn’t matter, because China was awash with cash, and government money would be endlessly available to maintain the prestige of having a Grand Prix.

Changing times, perhaps. Qiu Weichang, of the Shanghai Administration of Sports, said recently that ‘an assessment’ was being carried out. “We want to create a win-win situation,” he said, “for our side and for Bernie Ecclestone, and the F1 organisers as well. We would, of course, at least like to break even…”

Reasonable enough. But if Shanghai disappears, unlamented by most, into the World Championship ether, all manner of places are available to replace it – and places, what’s more, that come complete with fans, in countries where F1 has a traditional following. Places like Imola and… Silverstone. For that to happen, though, the tab for a Grand Prix will need to come down dramatically. Perhaps, in the fullness of time, it will have to…

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