There has been an interesting response to yesterday’s news of a Russian Grand Prix joining the calendar in 2014.
The response from the teams is positive; Russia is an important new economy and has plenty of people with spending power, who fit the profile of F1, so it’s a good place to go as a car manufacturer or a major sponsor to promote your involvement in the sport and sell some product.
The response from many fans is positive too. The proposed track layout, around the Olympic village, looks fast and interesting. I think people are open to the idea of this race.
The first thing to say is that in a time when many sports are contracting, F1 is expanding and doing so globally, so that is something very positive to remind ourselves of.
Ecclestone has been very productive recently, expanding the broadcast reach of the sport and adding in important new venues like India, USA and now Russia. These are all venues which will be paying in the order of $40 million a year for the rights to host a race and under the current arrangements half of that goes to the teams. So the revenues are welcome to them.
The concern of the teams and others in F1 is to get the balance right so that the championship doesn’t become too long and fans find it hard to follow. At 16 races, one every two weeks, as it used to be, the F1 championship was easy to follow, fans made an “appointment to view” for two hours every other Sunday from March to October.
Now it’s more strung out, more irregular and harder to follow for fans, who need to commit 19 weekends a year. If the calendar were to go to 22 races, would fans’ interest start to wane? I think there is a risk that it might. What you might see is fans picking and choosing the races they watch, missing ones they consider dull, like Valencia, for example, or not bothering to set the alarm for a race in the Far East. Some TV companies might find it hard to schedule that many races, although in the countries with strong audience figures, it will tend to out-rate most other Sunday programming.
Anecdotally, without any scientific research at all, I’ve noticed that quite a few fans, who would have expected to watch most, if not all, races find it hard to keep up with 19.
Of course NASCAR has a huge calendar, with 36 events from February to November, clearly they have accepted that only the most fanatical fans will follow every one and have gone for maximum reach in the various states across the USA. The TV contract is split between broadcasters, as it is too much for one network to handle.
Ecclestone has to listen to input from various quarters, from the TV companies, the teams, who push for races in certain territories along with their sponsors, to CVC his commercial partners, who are keen to sign up as many long term contracts as possible with circuits, global partners and TV companies. They want to guarantee the long term cash flows and keep them growing, to make the business robust, giving them the option to sell or float in the future. A friend of mine who is a financier and does business with CVC says that they are very pleased with their F1 investment and are not planning an exit any time soon.
But if the decision is that 20 races are the maximum then clearly some will have to make way. Turkey is clearly a candidate, with very poor attendances and no grass roots programmes to grow interest in the sport. The German and Belgian GPs are always a concern as the venues struggle to balance affordability.
The rest of the European venues either have long term deals or are keen to continue, I’m told. Again affordability is the key.
There have been some suggestions that in an expanded calendar, race weekends could be compressed. Certainly Friday is a bit of a wasted day, but it would be a mistake to standardise running qualifying and the race on Sunday, as happened in Suzuka. The TV companies wouldn’t like it and it reduces qualifying as a story.
What do you think? Should there be a limit of 20 races? Could you handle more? Let me know your thoughts.