Oith Sunday’s Canadian Grand Prix, the last air show of the spring, Formula 1 is about to enter its European stage proper. But the sport’s sheer popularity may now endanger some of those classic races in what was considered the heartland of F1.
As always after the money, F1 signs more expensive and longer agreements with the circuits. But given that there are a finite number of slots available on the schedule, something has to give.
Last week, F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali traveled to meet the organizers of a planned South African Grand Prix at the Kyalami circuit. No official word has yet been said, but South Africa is clearly expected to 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 riders including Lewis Hamilton expressing a strong belief that the sport should have a presence in Africa.
Then on Thursday F1 announced it had signed a new contract for the Australian GP to be held in Melbourne until 2035, a 10-year extension of its current contract until 2025. It is of the second longest contract after F1’s recent contract with Bahrain. which stretches to 2036 and is indicative of the type of business F1 is in the process of entering into.
A contract with Saudi Arabia is worth £50m per meeting for over a decade. Qatar will start his 10-year deal next season, having paid a similar sum. At the end of last year, Abu Dhabi renewed his contract until the end of the decade, while Miami’s debut this year was the first of a 10-year contract.
The surge in interest in F1 is a welcome welcome from owners of the sport, but it comes at a cost. The maximum number of meetings that can take place under the current commercial agreement with the teams is 25 and 2023 is already shaping up to exceed this number. With 22 races this season – and Las Vegas, Qatar, South Africa and a return for China, Covid regulations permitting, all scheduled for next year – at least one race needs to be contested. It is clear that F1 will not consider giving up these big long-term contracts.
Monaco, France and now even the Belgian GP at Spa are vulnerable. The rotation of races – a circuit hosting a grand prix every two years – will be employed.
The Belgian GP, which has contested 66 years of the F1 world championship since its debut in 1950, may now have to accept that it cannot compete with the financial demands of the sport. There are also concerns about Spa’s facilities and infrastructure, as demonstrated last year when heavy rain that destroyed the race left fans stranded with their cars stuck in the muddy fields surrounding the circuit.
Monaco have been optimistic that he will remain a permanent feature of the calendar, but even this race cannot regard his position as sacrosanct. Since F1 owner Liberty Media has expanded the sport, particularly in North America, Monaco’s place as a ‘glamorous’ meeting that sells the sport no longer matters and discussions with organizers continue, far from preferential treatment. the breed received under the Bernie Ecclestone regime.
Conversely, however, it is believed that the French GP at Paul Ricard would be open to becoming a biannual event and that the Observer understands that it is Spa and France that are in the running to be dropped next year. That they can become rotational meetings is indicative of the clear ambition of the sport in full swing now.
Only a year ago some team bosses expressed a desire to peg the season at 20 races, fearing for their staff’s record, especially with a relentless string of double and triple headers. After Canada, 13 races remain and all are double or triple headers.
There were also concerns that the sheer volume of races diluting their impact and value. High profile figures have expressed concern that it is difficult to sell such a special Grand Prix when it arrives in droves and quickly.
Last year McLaren CEO Zak Brown argued for a 15-race core, with another 10 rotations in and out of the calendar; five one year, five the next, in a 20-race season. His plan seems hopelessly out of step with what F1 is aiming for. While Domenicali has argued for 23 races to be the optimum, indications of what’s next year are that F1 is heading towards a 24 or 25 race season.
Race hosting fees are one of the top three sources of revenue, alongside television rights and marketing, and with the global economy in a precarious position, locked-in fees are a stable source of revenue that the sport wants to adopt. Many European venues may well retain their place on the calendar, but only as part of what will turn into a huge and grueling season.