The world championship visits its original street circuit this weekend for the sixth race of 2018. The Monaco Grand Prix is the third race of the year to take place on a temporary track, and more could follow in the 2019 F1 season as Liberty Media is actively courting Miami.
But with a host of similar street tracks under consideration for future races F1 risks failing to establish itself in new venues. @DieterRencken analyses the danger of turning away from permanent circuits.
In assessing bids from prospective host cities, International Olympic Committee evaluates the legacy the Games would leave long after athletes have departed and life returns to normal for citizens, many of whose lives would have been disrupted for considerable periods. A similar process is followed by FIFA in awarding the World Cup to a country/region. The IOC’s seven primary evaluation elements are:
Organised sports development
Economic value and brand equity
Social development through sport
Human skills, networks, and innovation
Culture and creative development
Formula 1 – now under the aegis of Liberty Media, owner of Formula One Management – prides itself on being up there with these global sporting spectacles and, in the eyes of some, above them on account of its continuous sporting block. Yet when it comes to evaluating prospective grands prix F1 seemingly concerns itself with just two elements: How much money it is able to squeeze out of prospective promoters, and how quickly.
Where permanent circuits are concerned, legacy programmes should be simple to implement: the circuits exist, therefore club and national motorsport events naturally follow suit, and track days and advanced driver courses are organised. In time, other sporting genres such as cycling and jogging – plus golf in some instances – invariably follows suit, as do music festivals and other large-crowd events.
Would national racing exist in Malaysia without the Sepang circuit? Ditto China with Shanghai’s mammoth facility, or India without the ill-fated Buddh Circuit? Probably yes, but there is no doubt that the venues left lasting impressions on hordes of youngsters, enthralled by the sights of grand prix cars racing on their “soil”; inspired by racing on the same patch of Tarmac as Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton, and others.
However street circuits – even those of a semi-permanent nature such as Melbourne Albert Park and Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, situated on Île Notre-Dame in the Saint Lawrence Seaway – by their nature leave no such legacies. How can they if the only circuit in town gets ripped down on Monday – at enormous cost, mind – and stored until next year.
Baku provides a perfect example: After one weekend per year, indulged in for not less than $100m per event for the benefit of 30,000 live punters and a TV audience, motorsport is all but forgotten in a country whose fortune rests largely on fossil fuels.
Thus F1’s sudden stampede to woo street circuits raises serious questions about the sport’s legacy in the hands of Liberty Media, particularly where minimal existing motorsport facilities currently exist, to wit a country such as Vietnam.
True in Germany, where there is talk of a street grand prix in Berlin, numerous permanent circuits exist, although a case could certainly be made that the money could be better spent on improving Hockenheim or, indeed, reducing hosting fees. As revealed here last week, F1 is likely to lose both venues unless the German Grand Prix is sustainable in the long run. Sustainability forms part of the IOC’s legacy programme.
Take Copenhagen: Denmark currently has one permanent circuit, the 2.3-kilometre Jyllandsringen, situated approximately three hours west of the capital – whether by road or ferry. Rather than construct a new, F1-compliant circuit on the outskirts of Copenhagen, the city’s fathers are discussing a street course in order to cash in on the appeal of Kevin Magnussen. When the Dane eventually retires, what then? All gone…
Apart from the aforementioned prospects, there is/has been talk of street races in Miami, Madrid, Cape Town, Beijing, Seoul and on the Chinese island of Hainan. That makes nine prospective events. Of course, not all will come off – talk is cheap, particularly in F1 – but let us assume half have reasonable chances of a success, and a third of the nine make the cut.
That adds three street races to the current roster, which already includes Melbourne, Baku, Monaco, Montreal, Singapore and Sochi, all held on non-permanent circuits, so nine in total (and counting). With the calendar seemingly stabilizing at 21-22 races in the foreseeable future, that would represent over 40 per cent of grands prix held on street circuits – well up from the 28 per cent.
Twenty years ago, before F1 struck its commercial rights deal and thus exchanged sustainability for its 100-year deal with Bernie Ecclestone for a meagre $300m, the street race complement was three – Melbourne, Monaco, and Montreal – in 16 races, or 18 per cent. Spot the trend? That trend is extremely disconcerting.
Fallacy one is that street circuits are cheaper to promote than grands prix on permanent circuits. Only the naïve have been duped to believe on the basis that the tarmac already exists. For proof look no further than Baku (see above); for substantiation check out the 2017 annual report (PDF link) tabled by the Australian Grand Prix Corporation, which routinely loses AU$60m (£35m) annually per event, and last time $100m all in and has nothing to show for it come the Monday after the event…
By contrast, Silverstone and Hockenheim just about break even, and commence track day activities the day after. However, let’s stay with Australia: Sydney’s 2000 Olympic Stadium is currently being upgraded to accommodate both rugby codes and cricket in addition to field and track activities, and will seat 75,000 under a retractable roof. That is the Olympic legacy.
Fallacy two is that street circuits offer better racing. Baku’s bumper-bashing bonanzas aside, its inaugural event was soporific in the extreme, matched in the boredom stakes by all editions of Valencia’s (thankfully) now-defunct race, and the sort of stuff served up by the Caesars Palace (Parking Lot) Grand Prix and, yes, Monaco on a dry Sunday.
Fallacy three is that street circuits attract bigger crowds and are more popular. Last time I looked Monaco battled to pull 45,000 spectators despite its allure, while Silverstone was filled to the rafters (120,000-plus) despite being situated well over two hours from London (in race day traffic). Baku and Sochi regularly have sparse stands, while in Valencia most fans seemed to be acquainted with each other, while Singapore has yet to sell out…
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Of course, there are exceptions, but the fact of the matter is that street circuits generally accommodate fewer fans, while viewing tends to be an issue, whereas permanent circuits offer wider vistas. Equally, for city inhabitants, street events are an absolute bane unless individuals are F1 fans, with traffic and businesses being disrupted, often for weeks/months on end. That is no legacy.
Fallacy four is that street circuits are sustainable: Look no further than Formula E for proof. In its first season the nascent electric racing category, which planned to race in inner cities, listed 10 venues for its 11 races. These were: Beijing, Putra Jaya, Punta del Este, Buenos Aires, Miami, Long Beach, Monaco, Berlin, Moscow and a double-header in London.
Fast-forward to 2018, and any resemblance between calendars is coincidental: Hong Kong, Marrakesh, Santiago, Punta del Este, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Zurich and New York. True, Berlin and Punta del Este are common to both, but the latter is a last-minute substitute for Sao Paulo, while the former has an on-off-on history. Indeed, the event is contested on the grounds of the disused Tempelhof airport, so is not a street race.
Over the past four seasons, the series has visited around 15 circuits in its quest for a 10-venue calendar and had unsuccessful dalliances with Montreal, Brussels, and Moscow. Montreal illustrates the risk of street races particularly well: The original contract was approved by then-mayor Denis Coderre, who subsequently failed to secure a second mandate. His successor Valérie Plante immediately cancelled the race.
The event was widely criticized for its use of public funds and for its location in downtown Montreal, where it forced closure of city streets for a 2.75-km circuit catering for 250 bhp cars. Imagine the disruption and noise created by the construction of a full-length circuit complying with F1 safety standards. In the event, Montreal’s Formula E race attracted 45,000 spectators, of which over half were ‘freebies’.
FIA President Jean Todt put it succinctly during a recent media briefing. “We must simply understand how difficult it is to hold a race in a city. At the end of the day you have potentially a hundred cities that could host, who are willing to host, and then you have to select from 10 to 15. And at the moment we have the best cities hosting a Formula E race,” he said.
“Switzerland did not organise one race since ’55, since the tragic accident at Le Mans. They are so attracted with Formula E that they decided [to promote a race in Zürich]. But saying that, it’s sometimes very much linked to political situations, The mayor is deciding, you will have always the greens who are unhappy. So it makes it difficult.”
If it is “difficult” for Formula E to strike deals with cities despite its environmentally “green” image, silent cars, NextGen appeal and single-day formats, imagine the challenges facing F1 given its higher speeds, noisier cars, four-day programmes and ‘Excess’-All-Areas image.
True, Switzerland waived its ban on motor racing, but would it have done so for F1, with its vastly higher speeds and noise levels? Already there are suggestions Zürich’s city fathers will also pull the race after the inaugural event. Saliently, despite its Spanish roots – Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag is a former Spanish MEP – has been unsuccessful in wooing an Iberian city.
However, as outlined previously, the Circuit de Catalunya’s contract expires after next year’s race, with the owners, a consortium that includes the local government administration, the promoters are currently in negotiations to extend the deal.
Rumours of an F1 street race in Madrid are gathering pace, primarily due to the Catalan crisis: where until recently the region was largely autonomous, since its ill-fated declaration of independence it falls squarely under the aegis of Madrid.
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So will F1 eventually decamp to Madrid? Already the mayor of Madrid, a committed socialist, has unveiled plans to ban cars from the city’s Gran Via – and diesel vehicles from the city centre – so is unlikely to enthusiastically embrace F1, particularly as her political ticket was the eradication of corruption, a dark cloud under which F1 still labours in political circles after recent scandals.
That said, let us play Devil’s Advocate: Liberty agrees terms with Madrid for a street race. The mayor is in favour and convinces the council: the deal is for five years. The lack of a grand prix at Circuit de Catalunya sees the circuit fall into a state of disrepair, and thus the circuit loses its F1 testing license – but continues with MotoGP, which is profitable on account of lower fees and larger crowds.
After five years Madrid experiences a change of mayor; the incoming administration is vehemently opposed to motorsport. Result: no Madrid round despite prior investments running to tens of millions to host the race; money that could have been better spent on upgrading Catalunya.
For precedents, look no further than Valencia, which blew tens of millions on its street race despite having an F1-compliant circuit within its borders, the ill-fated Mokpo (semi) street circuit in Korea, and Montreal’s Formula E event. Indeed, look at New Jersey, which thudded to a sudden halt despite having a calendar slot.
Now, though, F1 is punting Miami. Let us assume the city council grants approves the event, which is by no means a foregone conclusion given the antipathy of resident groups in areas through which the proposed layout threads. At this stage permission to negotiate with F1 has been granted to the city executive, no more – yet already changes have been forced upon the promoters’ planned track due to local political pressures.
The financial model – a risk-sharing deal between Formula One Management, promoter, and council – sets a precedent which other promoters would give their left arms to emulate, but is it sustainable? Above all, what legacy will the race leave, whether after one year, five years or ten? There are numerous circuits across the USA that could readily host a grand prix with few, if any, upgrades – so why F1’s fetish with street races?
Surely F1’s would be better served by its commercial rights holder if Liberty concentrated on ensuring the sustainability of its existing circuit base rather than taking the lead from Formula E on street races. Does Liberty wish to be remembered as the company that took F1’s money and ran, or as an ethical organisation that created a lasting legacy for the sport?
Follow Dieter on Twitter: @RacingLines
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