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Formula 1 Bahrain GP

Why classic F1 tracks like Spa and Silverstone should not be at risk

OPINION: As Formula 1’s latest season gets under way, it may still turn out to be its longest-ever. But recent comments from CEO Stefano Domenicali suggest major calendar change is coming, with famous venues not guaranteed places. Here’s why that would be a mistake, especially when there’s a neat solution for F1’s business minded owner

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Formula 1’s nomadic nature makes it special. It also means it is challenging, as travelling the globe during a pandemic has demonstrated. And it creates a true world championship where other sports spout this claim erroneously.

In 2022, the F1 circus is currently scheduled to visit 22 venues. That equals the record set in 2021, which was only supposed to last a year before F1 hit a new high of 23 before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine meant Sochi’s contract was cancelled. It could still get there, with speculation mounting that Qatar’s Losail track could return for a second race ahead of this year’s football world cup – an actual ball-based global competition, take note NFL…

There are more races coming. Shanghai will return eventually. Las Vegas is set to be announced as a third US race any time soon. Qatar will definitely be part of the calendar from 2023-32, while Zhou Guanyu’s F1 entry, and early success, could well spark a second Chinese race.

So, with Sochi (which was set to be replaced itself by St Petersburg’s Igora Drive circuit) gone, adding those events brings F1 to a 26-race total. That is beyond the 25 figure regularly cited as the limit for the overall health of paddock personnel – already pretty endangered by the current stretching required by 22 events – and interest saturation. It’s also beyond the 24-race limit in the current Concorde Agreement, but F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali has suggested that right there’s enough interest to fill a 30-race calendar if it were doable. That’s nearly NASCAR season-length territory.

Although Domenicali isn’t saying there will be a 30-race calendar any time soon, such a long calendar would suit the F1 organisation for one reason, the same explanation behind what seems to be a near relentless calendar expansion in recent years.

F1 owner Liberty Media wants to squeeze every last bit of profit it can from its legendary acquisition. And it has just been through two terrible years for the world economy overall, with mass-gathering events among the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic’s disruption.

But it was rather worrying to hear Domenicali say to select media – including Motorsport.com’s Italian website – at last weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix that “some of the current grands prix will no longer be part of the calendar”. Not that these will be dropped for a shorter calendar. No, Domenicali says they will be replaced by “new grands prix”. We can imagine those listed above will be among the candidates.

The RAF aerobatic display team, the Red Arrows, perform for the crowds in their BAE Systems Hawk T.Mk.1A's

The RAF aerobatic display team, the Red Arrows, perform for the crowds in their BAE Systems Hawk T.Mk.1A's

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

A desire for higher profits and eyeing change are not bad things – far from it. But Domenicali also suggested that some ‘classic’ tracks cannot be guaranteed their places are safe.

“We know we have to balance the arrival of new races with historic grands prix, and tracks that must continue to be part of our calendar,” he said. “The arrival of offers from new promoters has an advantage for the F1 platform, and that is to force the organisers of traditional grands prix to raise their level of quality, in terms of what they offer the public, and infrastructure and management of the event. It's not enough to have a pedigree any more. You also have to demonstrate that you are keeping up."

This is both confusing and concerning.

Take the results of F1’s 2021 Global Fan Survey – commissioned by Motorsport Network in partnership with the championship and Nielsen Sports. Among the findings were the Monaco, Monza, Silverstone and Spa races being listed as ‘untouchable’ by F1’s most dedicated fans. These are all ‘classic’ F1 venues, which in the case of three of them can trace their motor racing history back to before the Second World War.

The idea that some of these races may need to increase their “quality” in certain areas is intriguing. We can only take our educated guesses at the deeper meaning here, but such a statement stands at odds at what we can see in many of these cases.

The reason behind what seems to be a near relentless calendar expansion is clear. F1 owner Liberty Media wants to squeeze every last bit of profit it can from its legendary acquisition

On the infrastructure side, Silverstone is simply the only UK venue that can cope with the logistical weight F1 carts around. It’s twin-paddock arrangement considerably eases the presence of the various support series – a factor weighted highly among survey voters in what they want from a grand prix.

It offers so much to fans too. Autosport generally tries to run every circuit we visit – to gain greater insight into the various driving challenges, escape the press room hubbub and make a passing attempt to keep our fitness levels near acceptable status. It’s a privilege and running around Silverstone in 2021 revealed a massive festival scene built to surround the infield paddock.

There wasn’t a corner or straight not accompanied by a fanzone, food stall or accommodation, all slotted in alongside the gigantic grandstands. It’s a similar story at Spa, where masses of Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton fans can be swapped for the legions of Max Verstappen’s Orange Army crossing from neighbouring Netherlands (Verstappen is also half-Belgian).

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Photo by: Erik Junius

PLUS: Why Mercedes was right to temper expectations and how it might recover

The survey revealed that ‘good vantage points’ was the top importance when deciding which race fans would visit. Spa, with is undulating and sweeping track has these in abundance. Plus, at 4.35 miles, there’s simply more circuit to see. Silverstone’s former airfield status means it suffers here: it’s hard to see more than one corner or straight at certain points.

But the joy of walking around its entire length over the course of Friday practice day cannot be understated. A similar wander can be done at Spa too, with added atmosphere from the Ardennes forest it sits in.

The second most important factor for fans is tricky for the ‘untouchable’ tracks – and even a couple of the ‘popular perennials’ at the next level: Melbourne, Interlagos, Montreal, Suzuka and Austin. This is ‘ease of travel to track’, and purpose-built venues, even those on the outskirts of cities such as Sao Paulo, are always going to suffer when city-based public transport trumps long drives.

Melbourne and Montreal do not have this issue. And it’s also worth pointing out here that the traffic and chaotic road layout made even shuttle bus entry very lengthy for the first race in Jeddah. That track is set to host its second grand prix this weekend, the fifth consecutive race in the Middle East bridging the 2021 and 2022 campaigns.

Classic tracks therefore must put improving road and parking access at a premium, as well as invest heavily in mass public transport availability. This will ‘naturally’ vary from venue to venue, but its significance to fans cannot be understated.

But city-based races such as Jeddah and Baku (which it must be said scores highly in the survey results, part of the three ‘New Favourites’ with Singapore and Abu Dhabi) have their own problem. And it won’t please fans.

Moving around cities may be easier than a long drive to a purpose-built track, but getting a good vantage point at those that have circuits is pretty hard. Circuit infrastructure inevitably must be slotted in alongside normal life and so walking around a full perimeter is going to be challenging. And seeing the cars through the necessary catch fences and above safety barriers is simultaneously difficult.

Azerbaijan F1 Baku circuit

Azerbaijan F1 Baku circuit

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Plus, from certain viewpoints – particularly onboard the cars – city-based tracks do look very similar because of those safety features. This has been a problem in Formula E, although there the need for short, stop-start layouts to work the EV technology has created a certain identikit look (although not a problem for venues such as Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport).

City-based races also run the risk of enraging local populations – as FE has discovered in London, Santiago and Bern. In the latter two, protests were held during their 2017 and 2018 events. It’s hard to imagine local compliance being an issue, say, in downtown Doha – where F1 is thought likely to go for its guaranteed return to Qatar from 2023 onwards.

Such races are more likely to become permanent features on the calendar, but primarily because they don’t have to have to worry about bringing in huge spectator numbers to fulfil F1’s race-hosting fees thanks to state backing. Although, as the organisers of last weekend’s Bahrain race were keen to highlight, the championship’s ultra-close 2021 campaign, the Netflix effect and many people being keen to end their pandemic isolation with visits to in-person events, all combined to create what it claimed was a record race day crowd.

Despite having no chance to boost their own coffers, some of these classic tracks helped F1 keep going in 2020’s awfulness

Lots of new F1 venues do have big image problems, with the awful human rights record in parts of the Middle East always worth bearing in mind, particularly with so many races taking place there right now, as well as the region’s prominence in the latest series of Drive to Survive. This is nothing new to F1, which raced in apartheid South Africa and went behind the Iron Curtain in Hungary.

Although a case can be made to not race in any country on the current calendar, when it comes to another key factor F1 should consider for where it visits, that doesn’t apply to all. And that’s what tracks the drivers enjoy. In that consideration, Spa, Silverstone and Monaco will regularly come out on top – such is their respective driving challenge and legendary status. The power of the opinion of stars such as Hamilton, Verstappen and Sebastian Vettel shouldn’t be forgotten.

Purpose-built tracks are also things to marvel. While no more of an engineering accomplishment to be feted than those created in cities, it’s just a pleasure to wander around a venue such as Barcelona and consider that a dedicated motorsport haven was created up the road from one of the world’s best cities. There’s a similar wonder feeling at Silverstone, Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, Monza and Austin too.

Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521

Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

Spa has its own standout feature – being able to drive parts of the old track and consider the spectacle of Juan Manuel Fangio, Alberto Ascari, Jim Clark, Bruce McLaren, Jackie Stewart et al blasting through the farmhouse-straddling Masta Kink in fearsome machinery. Being a part of history, as well as writing their own, matters to drivers and this special status matters to fans too.

Plus, despite having no chance to boost their own coffers, some of these classic tracks helped F1 keep going in 2020’s awfulness, when completing the season to satisfy lucrative TV contracts was of such high importance.

We don’t live in a perfect world and accepting losing things we love is an important part of life. But perhaps there is a way to keep many of the traditional tracks F1 fans treasure and still satisfy F1’s understandable drive to get more cash.

Given money talks, why not create an in-season new competition, with a prize on offer for the driver to who takes the most points in the British, Monaco, US, Belgian, French, Italian and Spanish (in place of Switzerland) races? That would mirror the early years of the world championship nicely and could be sold to a sponsor. It’s not even a new idea, FE introduced a European cities trophy in 2019.

It might not generate the same level of cash as a new race from an oil-rich or authoritarian nation seeking to sportwash its image, but F1 would do well to remember the importance of its fans valuing its story. Some immensely dislike Drive to Survive fabricating drama among the drivers and some would really miss Spa, Silverstone or Monaco falling off the calendar.

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin AMR21

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin AMR21

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

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