With Sunday’s Canadian Grand Prix, the final fly-away meeting of the spring, Formula 1 is about to enter its true European leg. But the sport’s popularity could now threaten some of those classic races in what used to be considered the heartland of F1.
Still following the money, F1 is signing more expensive and longer contracts with circuits. But since there are only a limited number of slots available in the calendar, something has to give up.
Last week, F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali traveled to meet organizers of a planned South African Grand Prix at the Kyalami circuit. No official word has been spoken but there is a clear expectation that South Africa will be added to the calendar in 2023. It will be a welcome return as F1 has not held a meeting in Africa since Kyalami hosted its last GP in 1993 and with drivers including Lewis Hamilton who expressed a strong belief that the sport should have a presence in Africa.
On Thursday, F1 announced it had signed a new deal to host the Australian GP in Melbourne until 2035, a 10-year extension to its current deal until 2025. It is the second-longest deal after F1’s recent deal with Bahrain , which is being extended to 2036 and is indicative of the type of deal F1 is now doing.
A deal with Saudi Arabia is worth £50million per meeting for more than a decade. Qatar will start their 10-year contract next season after paying similar money. Late last year, Abu Dhabi extended his contract through the end of the decade, while Miami’s debut this year was the first in a 10-year deal.
The surge in interest in Formula One has been welcomed by the sport’s owners, but it has come at a price. The maximum number of meetings that can be held under the commercial agreement with the teams is 25 and next year is expected to exceed that number. With 22 races this season – and Las Vegas, Qatar, South Africa and a return to China if Covid regulations allow, all planned for next year – at least one race will have to be missed. Obviously, F1 will not consider dropping these long-term big-money deals.
Monaco, France and now even the Belgian GP at Spa are vulnerable. Racing rotation – a track that hosts a Grand Prix every two years – is used.
The Belgian GP, which has represented 66 years of the F1 World Championship since its inception in 1950, may now have to accept that it cannot keep up with the financial demands of the sport. There are also concerns about the facilities and infrastructure at Spa, as demonstrated last year when the heavy rain that derailed the race left fans with their cars stranded in muddy fields surrounding the circuit.
Monaco have been optimistic it will remain a fixture on the calendar but even this race cannot consider its position sacrosanct. Since F1 owner Liberty Media expanded the sport, notably in North America, Monaco’s place as a glamor gathering selling the sport has waned and discussions with organizers drag on, a far cry from the preferential treatment the race received under the regime of Bernie Ecclestone.
Conversely, it is believed that the French GP at Paul Ricard could be open to a biennial event and it is believed that Spa and France will be sidelined next year. The fact that they can become regular meetings shows the clear ambitions of the booming sport.
Just a year ago, some team bosses expressed a desire to set the season at 20 races for fear of straining their staff, particularly with a relentless series of doubles and trebles. There are 13 races left after Canada and all are either double or triple headers.
There was also concern that the sheer volume of races was diluting its impact and value. Senior figures have expressed concern that it’s difficult to sell a Grand Prix as special when it’s getting close and fast.
Last year McLaren’s CEO, Zak Brown, advocated a core of 15 races, with an additional 10 coming in and out of the calendar; five in one year, five the next, in a 20-race season. His plan seems hopelessly out of line with what F1 is aiming for. While Domenicali has argued that 23 races is the optimum, plans for next year suggest F1 is heading towards a 24 or 25 race season.
Race hosting fees are one of the top three revenue streams, along with television rights and marketing, and given the precarious state of the global economy, tied fees are a stable revenue stream the sport is looking to capitalize on. Many of the European venues can retain their place on the calendar, but only as part of what is set to be an immense, grueling season.