Earlier this week Liberty Media released the provisional calendar for the 2021 Formula One season. While there were minimal surprises, it raised some eyebrows about the integrity of the sport.
Many believe that the idea of racing in countries with less than ideal human rights records contradicts the mantra “We Race As One” that Formula One has been pushing so often this year. With races in Bahrain and China, as well as the new Saudi Arabia race, many believe that F1 should not be holding races, and thereby drawing in fans, in countries where seemingly dodgy political regimes can reap the economic rewards.
To counter that, some have argued that it isn’t fair to punish the inhabitants (for whom many will not have had a say in who runs their country) by not allowing any international sport to be held for them to see. Ultimately though, money talks and therefore Formula One is unlikely to avoid controversial venues if they have suitable funds.
Another issue some have raised is Liberty Media’s insistence on quantity over quality. Initial plans are for a 23-race season sometimes covering tracks that have famously struggled to produce exciting racing. F1 is entertainment as much as sport, and as a result fan enjoyment should be a top priority. If you were to ask F1 fans to create their dream race calendar, very few would have as many as 23 venues, and even fewer would include the likes of France and Spain.
By focusing on the number of races over the quality of the racing the track produces, some believe you run the risk of wearing the fans out. Yes, we love racing, but if you’re tuning in every weekend to watch very little of it, you’re going to get worn out and lose some love for the sport. This is all without mentioning the impact on the teams being away from their families for so long.
At the end of the day, Formula One is seen by the owners as a business over a form of entertainment and therefore Liberty Media are certain to want a race calendar that can maximise their profit. Fan opinion is just an aside.
Former Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali is set to take over from Chase Carey as Formula One’s new CEO later this year, according to reports published on Tuesday night.
Inevitably the reports have drawn no small amount of criticism for the fact that between Domenicali, F1’s managing director for motorsport Ross Brawn and FIA president Jean Todt, F1 would effectively be in the control of three former Ferrari heavyweights.
But despite spending more than 20 years at Maranello, Domenicali is more than just a Ferrari man. Indeed, his history with the Scuderia didn’t stop Domenicali resigning as team principal in 2014, in protest to then-Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo’s calls for scapegoats to be fired for the team’s poor hybrid engine performance.
That’s not the action of someone so beholden to the Prancing Horse that it would taint his ability to lead F1, nor of someone who would yield to any Ferrari bias from above (if that even existed).
In many ways, Domenicali is an excellent choice for F1’s top position. For starters, he’s an intelligent and capable businessman with the CV to prove it.
After leaving Ferrari he joined Audi as vice-president of new business initiatives before moving across the VW Group to become Lamborghini’s CEO in 2016. In his time heading the brand Domenicali oversaw Lamborghini beat its own global sales records year on year, with the company’s 2019 sales figures more than double what they were when Domenicali joined.
It’s also worth pointing out that Ferrari’s last drivers’ and constructors’ titles in 2007 and 2008 respectively came under Domenicali’s leadership.
But perhaps more importantly, Domenicali is able to combine that business acumen with his racing pedigree. It’s become an F1 cliché to justify someone’s role in running the sport by describing them as a “real racer at heart”, but for Domenicali that saying is actually true.
He joined Ferrari straight out of university in 1991 and stayed at the top of F1 right up until 2014. Even after leaving Ferrari, Domenicali remained a prominent motorsport leader as the president of the FIA’s single-seater commission, and was responsible for the revival of Formula 2 and the creation of the more streamlined FIA Formula 3 Championship.
Domenicali’s entire career has been in motorsport, and that’s something current F1 CEO Chase Carey just doesn’t have. When Liberty Media bought F1 in 2016, Carey’s commercial and media expertise was necessary for the sport to move on from the Bernie Ecclestone era. We have that to thank for Drive to Survive, F1’s long-overdue embracing of social media and the additions of Zandvoort and Hanoi to the calendar, all of which have helped to reinvigorate the sport’s global profile.
But with those foundations in place, F1 now needs a leader who has an inside understanding of how to run the sport itself as well as the show. Someone who knows how to make the right changes to improve the racing and competition, and who has the principle to oppose kneejerk responses that just up the spectacle instead.
And if that’s not Stefano Domenicali, F1 would be hard-pressed to find someone better.
After 37 Grands Prix since 1970 and some absolute belters in recent years, there is still the almost inexplicable threat that Hockenheim may not be on the Formula One calendar next year.
A spectacular race on Sunday saw Lewis Hamilton crash and finish down in ninth, a podium for Daniil Kvyat in what is turning into a remarkable comeback, Sebastian Vettel finishing second having started from last at the track where it all went wrong for him in the 2018 season, and victory for Max Verstappen.
It was a day that encapsulated what F1 should be about: challenging conditions, hard racing, and drama, which was unrelenting during Sunday’s race.
It was not at all a glistening race for Mercedes, who celebrated their home race, 125 years of involvement in motorsport, and their 200th race last weekend. Hamilton hitting the Mercedes barrier right in front of Charles Leclerc’s stricken Ferrari acted as an agonising metaphor in what was a disastrous race for the German manufacturer. It was a race that they will, of course, come back from even stronger, having learned some invaluable lessons. Lessons of such magnitude must also be learned, to some degree, by Formula One.
Many brilliant circuits in the history of Formula One have seen themselves land on the wrong side of that history, with once prestigious circuits having become derelict, undervalued, and largely inconsequential to motorsport since falling off the equally prestigious F1 calendar. However, as race organisers begin to lose their patience with F1’s high prices and lack of appeal to a mass audience, the calendar begins to lose its appeal to anyone at all.
Tracks like Turkey, the Nurburgring, Malaysia, Imola, and more are left miles away from hosting an F1 race, while circuits like the Circuit de Catalunya, the Sochi Autodrome and Paul Ricard – none of which have succeeded in captivating a global audience on race day – remain, perhaps erroneously in Formula One today.
Hockenheim kept its place on this year’s calendar due to financial backing from Mercedes, who also sponsored this year’s race, but the fear is that this short-term investment provides no real answer to the long-term, and ever-increasingly daunting question: where can the German Grand Prix find a home? Worryingly still, will it have a home at all in years to come?
There is a clause in its contract this year, as there was last year, to keep Hockenheim on the calendar if it receives a certain amount of investment. But, it is uncertain whether Hockenheim can really sustain the financial costs required to keep the race there. That is on top of a potential plea from F1 management to change the asphalt that both Charles Leclerc and Nico Hulkenberg took issue with after their crashes at turn 16.
Whether this clause is activated depends on Mercedes, and also on what F1 can do differently. In fairness to Liberty Media, Formula One is now starting to attract younger and more energetic and enthusiastic viewers, while still retaining the same niche audience that made the sport so popular before.
However, times are changing, and F1 as a sport needs to change quickly too. Many race organisers have spoken out against the costs of hosting a Formula One race and this, with an ever-growing movement developing, is something F1 itself needs to learn from this weekend.
After all, while demanding high prices from tracks may bring the sport revenue, there is just one thing that money cannot cover: passion. We saw it in abundance in Hockenheim, Silverstone and Austria.
Our passion for motorsport comes not from money or greed, but from watching with a pure and unbridled love for racing, and it is for this exact reason that the drivers and teams work so hard to find every tenth of a second out on track. This passion for racing is far more complex than those with solely business-related interests can comprehend, and we must surely ask that F1 values the love of on-track drama over profit margins that have been killing the sport over recent years.
So can F1 afford to lose Hockenheim?
In a word? No.
[Featured image – Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool]
Sky Sports pundit and former F1 driver Karun Chandhok has said that F1’s calendar should be limited to 18 races to ensure each event remains special.
The championship calendar has featured a record 21 Grands Prix for three of the last four seasons, and Liberty Media has expressed a desire to expand that to 25 in the near future. 2020 will see the return of the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort, as well as the debut of a new street venue in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Liberty has also investigated running street races in Miami, Las Vegas and Copenhagen, and is reportedly in talks with both South Africa and Morocco about returning F1 to Africa.
But Chandhok has told ThePitCrewOnline he believes this is the wrong direction for F1’s schedule to go: “I think 18’s a good number, I think it’s good for fans to have a break. Somewhere around the 18 mark makes each race have a good amount of importance.
“When I was growing up, 16 races was the number. In January I would get the Autosport sticker sheet on the first page of the magazine and I would stick it on the side of my desk, and every one of those Sundays was blocked out because those were 16 events.
“Now if you get to 21 and have triple headers, if a kid misses one they go, ‘Oh, there’s another one in a week’s time’. Each one is less of an event, and I think we run the risk of that.”
Chandhok also called for Liberty to keep “a good balance” in mind when seeking future F1 destinations: “You need that balance of modern circuits that bring in the money and income because that supports the sport, but you also have the historical races.
“And I think you need that balance [to include] street races. Baku has turned out to be a great event—great racing, good event to go to, looks good on TV. Singapore’s another one. So it’s good to have that balance, and also to go to Silverstone and Spa and Monza and places like that.”