Is F1 on the right track?

Ian PageOn Tuesday 11th July 2017, Silverstone owners triggered a break clause in the track’s contract to stop hosting the race after 2019, throwing the future of the British Grand Prix into doubt.  Sources report that it will cost the track £17 million this year, and that would rise to £26 million at the end of the current deal and that is simply not viable.

This has no doubt sent shockwaves through the motorsport community as despite there being other tracks in the UK – including Brands Hatch, Donnington Park, Thruxton, and Oulton to name a few – Silverstone is the only track capable of hosting an F1 event. It is very much the beating heart of British Motorsport ever since it held the first world championship race in 1950, with the majority of the current 10 teams based in and around the track.  Britain has been on the F1 calendar every year since the championship began.

Silverstone isn’t the first of what people may refer to as “historic tracks”, falling victim to rising costs and the attraction of rich commercially attractive destinations that were a product of the Ecclestone era.

The German Grand Prix has yo-yoed on and off the calendar with no event in 2015 as costs spiralled with neither Hockenheim nor Nurburgring able to reach an agreement.  The same has happened again in 2017.

Back in 2014, Ecclestone warned that Italy’s historic track and a true F1 icon, Monza, was on a three year countdown to being dropped as it was a “commercial disaster” but organisers managed to strike an 11th hour deal to host the event for a further three years back in January of this year.

Austria’s Grand Prix has only survived thanks to Red Bull now fully funding it.

When Liberty Media took over the reins in January of this year, it declared that “Europe was F1’s core market… Where most of its TV audience is, and they want the races there to be the centrepiece of the ‘new F1’, one that has a visible link to a heritage it treasures.”

But with Silverstone falling off the cash-cliff, will F1 recover from the Bernie days and will Liberty have enough to cope with the hangover?

Ecclestone’s approach had been to take the sport to any part of the world that wants it and has a large enough wallet to meet his demands.  As ever with Bernie, the aim was to find an event commercially beneficial to Formula One Management rather than the wider impact on the sport itself.

Recent additions to the F1 calendar include Russia, who pays $50 million a year, and Azerbaijan, who pays $75 million a year. Not to forget Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, all have rich oil reserves and/or not so-squeaky-clean governments to thank for stumping up the cash.

How can the Silverstone’s or Monza’s be expected to compete? The British Racing Drivers Club may have plenty of stars on their books but sadly, they don’t sit on a huge reserve of oil or gas…

Liberty want to change all that and although they want to expand F1, they want new races in the right place at the right time and not at the expense of history, but will they be able to fend off the effects of Ecclestone’s approach and save the classics?

McLaren boss Zak Brown told the media that Liberty should buy Silverstone off the BRDC to ensure its future, but this has the potential to set an awkward precedent. If Liberty buys Silverstone, would it be expected to do that for other struggling tracks?  What does Britain have that Germany doesn’t, or Italy, or France?  Much like parents who have to spend equally amounts on their kids at birthdays and Christmas to avoid arguments about favouritism, if Liberty does it for one, does it have to do it for all? Could it do it for all?  I’m sure they have enough things to look into as it is.

There is of course a chance to re-negotiate now and maybe the powers to be in British motorsport have seen an opportunity to better their position with the more sympathetic Liberty, and one would hope the new era would look to strike a deal that is fair for both itself and the BDRC – not to mention the wider F1 world.

The French Grand Prix makes a welcome return in 2018 at the Circuit Paul Ricard, and maybe an approach for Liberty would be to look to reinstate past destinations and tracks?  If Silverstone or Germany can’t be saved, maybe they can be replaced by bring back another country or another track in a country already on the calendar, thus softening the blow?

Ecclestone has a different view of course; speaking earlier this week, he expressed doubt that Silverstone would be lost. “It’s a good event. And it probably falls into line much more with the way Liberty want to see Formula One go, in that direction”, he was quoted as saying.

Ecclestone also said Silverstone pays less than most other circuits on the calendar and in fact have a very good deal.  In response to Liberty buying Silverstone, Ecclestone was quoted as saying “It’s like all these people with ideas who don’t really know what they are talking about.” He also stated that he had made an offer to take it over the past. “The BRDC. Just too much confusion,” he said when asked what had stopped him. “They wanted all sorts of things. Anyway, it couldn’t happen.”

In a recent global fan survey, 63% of responses came from European audiences – compared to 70% from previous years, with a 25% increase from the Americas.  It is clear that there are benefits to pushing F1 out to the wider world and that these figures can’t be ignored.

We all hope a solution can be found to secure Silverstone and Britain on the calendar for years to come, balancing the new with the old will remain on Liberty’s A-list.

I hope that F1 doesn’t forget its roots.

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