Is it fair to say a lot of classic Formula 1 tracks that Bernie Ecclestone has walked away from would be perfect for a breakaway series? Silverstone, Montréal, Indianapolis, Imola, etc. Bernie has left classic tracks for monetary reasons and the new ones are empty on race weekend. I see this is a great boon for FOTA if they walk.
It would indeed be fair to say that many of the tracks from which Bernie has walked away would be perfect for a FOTA breakaway series. That said, the likelihood is that that is not going to happen now: the FOTA teams appear to have reached a more satisfactory financial agreement with CVC Capital Partners (which continues to employ Ecclestone to do the deals with circuits and TV companies), and, with Max Mosley’s departure from the FIA presidency now confirmed, it seems certain that all the teams will compete in the 2010 FIA Formula 1 World Championship.
All that said, I shall be very surprised if the shape of the World Championship does not significantly change – perhaps not immediately, but certainly over the coming years. FOTA was formed because the F1 team principals were dissatisfied with the governance of the sport, and felt that they should have a bigger say in how it was run. If one of their prime concerns was the autocratic behaviour of Mosley, another was that the World Championship schedule was emphatically not the one they – or, perhaps even more importantly – their sponsors would have chosen.
Over the past few years the schedule has become absurdly skewed towards Asia, while at the same time the entire continent of North America – the biggest single market for most of the companies which sponsor F1 teams – has disappeared from the schedule.
Primarily this has occurred because the tariff for a Grand Prix has gone ever upwards, and only countries seeking the new-found prestige of staging a round of the World Championship have had access to the government money required to meet the bill. Thus, ‘traditional’ circuits like Imola and Montréal have disappeared from the schedule, while such as Shanghai and Istanbul have come. Not surprisingly, in these places where F1 has never been part of the culture (and where admission prices are ludicrously high), there has inevitably been remarkably little interest from the locals. Hence the tiny crowds.
CVC’s desire to make money for its investors has been the driving force behind this trend, but I suspect that recent events have given the company a taste of reality. When the breakaway series looked a certainty, McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh told me that FOTA wanted Montréal back in the schedule immediately, and also wanted at least one race in the USA. A return to Indianapolis (priced out of it since 2007) is a possibility, and Chris Pook is known to be trying to put a race together ‘somewhere in California’.
Five years ago, when this move towards the Middle and Far East was underway, I talked at Magny-Cours to Jacques Regis, the president of the FFSA, and have never forgotten the conversation. It was all very well, he said, to take F1 to new countries, so as to have a true World Championship and all that stuff, but the fact was that, culturally, its heartland had always been Europe, and would remain so.
Chopping European races from the World Championship, to make way for ‘new markets’, was not without risk, for if F1 did not flourish in Outer Mongolia, or wherever – and already there was evidence that it had failed to catch on in some countries relatively new to Grand Prix racing – then what? If the original, highly lucrative contracts with these places were not renewed, where would F1 then seek to pitch its tent? Some of the circuits previously discarded might no longer be in a position to host a Grand Prix…
Prescient remarks I thought at the time, and I think so still. With any luck, in the coming years we might finish up with a World Championship the teams – and the fans – actually want. Here’s hoping…