Although, 10 or so years ago, Bernie Ecclestone said he would, “Never, ever, ever, put on more than 16 World Championship Grands Prix in a season”, that has been ignored for a long time now, and in 2009 there will be 19 races on the Formula 1 schedule, followed by 20 in 2010.
Nick Heidfeld recently said that he personally would like to see even more Grands Prix, and other F1 figures – including Flavio Briatore – have many times expressed similar opinions, Briatore suggesting that if the absurd amount of testing conducted in F1 were drastically reduced, this would create the time and space to put on more actual races. “What’s the point,” he said, “in spending this crazy amount of money on running cars round circuits, when no one is watching – and no one is paying to watch?” For good measure, Flav also suggested that a Grand Prix weekend should be just that: a two-day event. “Arrive on Friday, practise Saturday morning, qualify Saturday afternoon, race Sunday, go home. Where’s the problem?”
I have to confess that I can find little in the way of an argument against Briatore’s second point, and I also believe that the amount of testing should be massively curtailed, but I don’t go along with his contention that there should be more and more races, and for a variety of reasons. For one thing, I thought we were supposed to be into the era of trying to reduce dramatically the costs of F1, and while some would say, ‘Ah, but more races will mean more income for the teams’, any team owner will tell you it’s not quite as simple as that. For another, I think, if we have ever more races, we run the risk of ‘F1 fatigue’ among the TV viewers on which the sport so depends for income. And for a third, there is the simple matter of fatigue among the F1 personnel, most particularly the mechanics, who already live ‘on the road’ far too much for the taste of their families. It was for this last reason, in fact, that the ‘summer break’ – a three-week gap in the season in August, together with a ban on testing – was created some years ago, to allow folk (particularly those at the mercy of school holidays) to take a break. In the 2009 calendar this summer break has been done away with, and in response to that Ron Dennis last week announced that McLaren, for one, will begin ‘rotating’ their race team staff next season. “The break is absolutely essential for all the people who travel,” said Dennis. “They don’t spend the right amount of time with their families, and the break allowed them at least one week away from the factory or at a race. It’s a key ingredient to keeping people motivated, and we’ll have to accommodate the change by rotating them. They will not be expected to go right through the season.”
Dennis has always been known as an unusually thoughtful employer, but whether or not others will follow his lead remains open to question – not least because it hardly contributes to the supposedly all-important ‘cost cutting’. In NASCAR circles, where the calendar – at 36 races – is even more terrifying, it has long been the practice to ‘rotate’ personnel, this extending even to newspapers with their journalists. Now, though, even NASCAR teams are actively campaigning to have the schedule reduced, to 30 races. It should be borne in mind that all NASCAR races are run in the same country, the great majority of them in the Southern states. The F1 calendar, by contrast, calls for races all over the globe, and ‘long haul’ events are set to become increasingly the norm. Understanding why is hardly rocket science. The more races, the greater the income for F1’s commercial rights holder, which used to be Bernie Ecclestone, and is now CVC Capital Partners, which employs Bernie to continue doing the deals, and puts a, let’s say, healthy return on its investments a long way ahead of any other considerations. For them the more races the better, therefore, and if the bulk of them should be in countries where the government bankrolls the Grand Prix, so much the better. Ring any number in Silverstone, and they can tell you all about it.