Formula 1's scheduling woes

by Nigel Roebuck on 12th December 2012

Following the FIA World Motor Sport Council meeting in December, a press release offered renewed confirmation that the people who run Formula 1 have an unawareness of – or perhaps contempt for – the rest of the motor sport world, and those who support it.

Even as one who has worked this beat for more than 40 years, and is therefore accustomed to its excesses, I confess I was amazed by the first item on the bulletin, which blithely declared that ‘The date for the 2013 Grand Prix of Germany has been moved to 7 July, and 21 July has been reserved for another F1 European event, subject to the approval of the relevant ASNs [national sporting authorities]’.

The German Grand Prix – venue still to be announced, dependent on which one can drag together enough dollars to put the thing on – was originally scheduled for July 14, two weeks after Silverstone. Now, though, it becomes the second half of one of those double-headers – so beloved by the commercial rights holders (CVC/Ecclestone), so detested by everyone else – enabling a further race to be run later in the month, the weekend before the Hungarian Grand Prix.

This situation has arisen following the announcement – in mid-October – of the postponement until 2014 of the proposed race in New Jersey. Originally it was thought that a replacement was unlikely, but then rumours began to circulate that Bernie was indeed seeking to cram in another one – and in Europe what’s more, which rather goes against current trends.

A resurrection of the French Grand Prix was initially the favoured choice, but the country’s socialist government has neither the inclination nor the wherewithal to bother with such trifles, so then the focus moved to Turkey, dropped from the F1 schedule in 2012 because there was no local interest, and the race lost a fortune. Not surprisingly there seems to be little enthusiasm for throwing good money after bad, however, so lately Austria has come increasingly into the picture.

Dietrich Mateschitz – as the owner of two teams (effectively a fifth of the grid) – is a mighty powerful man in F1, and one with Bernie’s ear. As well as everything else, he now owns Austria’s only major circuit, which began life as the Österreichring, was emasculated into the A1-Ring, and now, in its latest, renovated, guise, rejoices in the name of the Red Bull Ring. As and when we all ascend to Heaven, it will be no surprise to find there is a title sponsor.

After the removal of New Jersey from the 2013 calendar, most expected that the year would go ahead with only 19 Grands Prix. Given that the race was due to be run the weekend after Montreal, after all, it would obviously be near-impossible to give that date to any replacement race in Europe.

Ah, but think of the money – and CVC never does anything else. A race lost is a twentieth of the annual haul, after all, so something had to be done. We all remember, do we not, the unseemly attempts in 2011 to shovel the Bahrain Grand Prix (cancelled in the spring for reasons of civil unrest) back into the schedule. The FIA announced that Bahrain – among the richest races in F1 – would be run on October 30, the date originally given to the inaugural Indian Grand Prix. And what would happen to the New Delhi race? Oh, don’t worry, we’ll put it to the end of the year, run it on December 4 or 11 or something…

At that the F1 team principals dug in their heels. Finishing the season as late as that was absurd, they rightly said, and they’d no interest in it. Only then was Bahrain forgotten, and the calendar allowed to remain untouched.

Now we’ve got more of the same. Having lost a race last year, the money men clearly have no intention of enduring a similar hardship in 2013, and this time it’s the European portion of the season that is to be disrupted. In idle moments I’ve been picturing the discussions that may have gone on…

‘What have we got in the middle of the year, right after Montreal?’

‘Well, there’s Silverstone on June 30, Nürburgring/Hockenheim on July 14, Budapest on July 28 – then the summer break until Spa on August 25…’

‘What about July 7? Anything happening that weekend?’

‘Well, yes, quite a lot actually. For a start, there’s the Goodwood Festival of Speed…’

‘Who cares?’

‘Well, Lord March, probably – to say nothing of the 170,000 who buy tickets… Plus, they always have modern F1 cars there, and quite a few of the drivers…’

‘Yeah, well, if they want them there next year, they’ll have to change their bloody date, won’t they?’

‘Well, it’s not that easy for them – there are so many Grands Prix around that time, plus Le Mans…’

‘What?’

‘Le Mans – it’s a big sports car race in France, and a huge number of Brits go over for it…’

‘Do they? Do we get a cut?’

‘Well, er, no – it’s not Formula 1, you see. Anyway, of course Goodwood don’t want to clash with Le Mans, either…’

‘All right, so they’ll have to work out another weekend, won’t they? Can’t waste time on their problems. We’ll give July 7 to the German Grand Prix, then. Anything else on that weekend?’

‘Er, yes, ‘fraid so – the MotoGP race at Saschenring. In Germany…’

‘What! Thought that was supposed to be July 14…’

‘Well, yes, it was originally – but they changed the date to July 7, so it wouldn’t clash with our F1 race…’

‘Can’t help that – they’ll have to change it back again…’

‘Well, it might be difficult for them to do that – on July 21 they’re supposed to be at Laguna Seca. That’s in California…’

‘Too bad. They’ll have to cope – it’s only a matter of logistics…’

‘Thing is, though, if they won’t change their date, the two German Grands Prix – for cars and bikes – will be run the same day. Could be bad news for the crowds – and the TV figures…’

‘Yeah, well, it’s not the end of the world – won’t affect the race fee. Nothing else scheduled for July 7, is there?’

‘Er, well, now you mention it, there's a DTM race that day…’

‘What?’

‘DTM – it’s a touring car championship: hugely popular, gets great crowds. Mercedes, Audi and BMW do it – and that weekend is their signature event of the year, at the Norisring. In Germany…’

‘Don’t know what you’re talking about. Anyway, apart from Goodwood and MotoGP and this DTM thing, there’s nothing else happening on July 7?’

‘No…’

‘Right, then, July 7 it is for the German Grand Prix. Now all we have to do is work out where the bloody race is going to be…’

Forgive my moment of levity, but sometimes if you don’t laugh you cry, and I’m struggling to believe that in mid-December this supposedly ultra-professional, multi-multi-million-dollar, business doesn’t have a firm calendar in place for the coming season.

The big success story of the one just gone was undoubtedly the revived US Grand Prix at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas, but many were surprised that it was scheduled for the same day as the final, title-deciding NASCAR Sprint Cup race of the year. This seemed to have little effect on the size of the crowd, but the following day’s national newspapers carried very little coverage of the Grand Prix, their racing focus perhaps unsurprisingly on Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson.

To general amazement, however, it turns out that in 2013 the two events are set to clash once more – and on top of that a major college football game, expected to pull 100,000 fans, is also scheduled for Austin that weekend. Not surprisingly, the COTA organisers have requested an alternate date for their Grand Prix, and one hopes it will be granted.

For so many years we have written and read of F1’s struggle to get a proper toehold in the American market, and Austin offers a better opportunity to do this than anything since the days of Watkins Glen and Long Beach. If the calendar can be manipulated to fit in a race, as yet unspecified, in the summer, surely the same can done for a highly prestigious and important one in the autumn.

In the end, though, there are simply too many Grands Prix, are there not? Were the calendar less crowded, not only would the races have more import, it would necessarily be far easier to cope with scheduling problems – and to get a firm World Championship schedule out on time.

During an interview I did with Bernie in the mid-‘90s, he said this: “The constructors are adamant that we shouldn’t have more than 16 races, and they’re right – I would never, ever,  ever put more than 16 races on the calendar…”

Mind you, he then added this: “The world changes so bloody fast that long term planning is nonsense – and anyone who says otherwise is an idiot…”

Indeed the world does change bloody fast. Who, after all, could at one time have envisaged that ‘Formula 1’ could be ‘owned’ at all – let alone by a private equity company?

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