F1's fast farewell to Europe
Globalisation and the pursuit of money have seen a continental drift in grand prix racing
Sunday 12 May 2013
Traditionally the Formula One season's first race in Europe is a notional chance for a fresh start for those teams whose performance has disappointed in the opening races in other parts of the globe. Often though, the fresh start turns out to be a false dawn.
Once upon a time most grands prix were held in Europe. In the first season of the FIA Formula One World Championship, in 1950, six of the seven races were held on European soil. The Indianapolis 500 was only included on the calendar as a token "flyaway" race, in which none of the grand prix set chose to compete.
Europe's influence on grand prix racing back then was enormous, with races in Britain, France, Monaco, Germany, Italy, Belgium and Spain later joined by others in Holland, Austria, Portugal and Hungary. Many of the world's greatest tracks were European: the old Nurburgring in Germany, Spa- Francorchamps in Belgium, the Osterreichring in Austria, Zandvoort in Holland and Clermont-Ferrand in France.
Over the years America, Canada, Mexico and South Africa were added as venues, followed by Argentina, Brazil and Japan to create a genuine world championship.
While 85.7 per cent of the races in 1950 were European, by 1995 that was down to 64.7 per cent, and most teams reckoned that was about right. But today, Europe's influence on grand prix racing is under threat. The French Grand Prix, first held in 1906 was last run in 2008, victim of Europe's financial vicissitudes.
In a game of politics between ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone and the British Racing Drivers' Club who run Silverstone, the traditional home of the British GP, even that august event appeared to be under threat until Damon Hill was instrumental in forging a 17-year deal with Ecclestone which has safeguarded its future until 2022.
Germany wavers between Hockenheim and Nurburgring as promoters share the burden, with each reaping the rewards every other year. But now even the country which bred Michael Schumacher and his spiritual successor Sebastian Vettel is struggling to stay in the game. The benefits of global expansion have hit the traditions of the sport hard. So what happened?
It's the old story: money. Representing the commercial-rights interests of F1's majority stakeholders, CVC Capital Partners, Ecclestone has taken F1 far and wide. The new phase began with Malaysia in 1999, followed by China and Bahrain in 2004, Singapore in 2008, Abu Dhabi in 2009, Korea in 2010 and India in 2011. Russia is due to join in 2014.
Creating a circuit costs around $300 million (£195m). Ecclestone favours seven-year deals at $40m for the first year with a 10 per cent annual escalator: around $379m for the duration. That means a total financial commitment of close to $700m.
Somehow the BRDC sourced the wherewithal to revamp Silverstone, while India's Buddh International Circuit and the new Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas were also privately financed. But the trend is for the governments of far-flung climes anxious to stamp their sporting identity on the world to stump up the ante. Which makes it doubly tough for European venues, and equally ironic that America, for so long shunned by F1 after the fiasco at Indianapolis in 2005, looks set to become the next major power, with a possible three races by 2016 as New Jersey and Long Beach prepare to join the party.
As Ukip hit the fast lane in their attempts to leave Europe, Formula One seems to be trying to beat them to it.
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