Out with the old and in with the new is not doing F1 justice
Formula One heads towards the final phase of the 2006 season this weekend with the German Grand Prix. After the race at Hockenheim, two thirds of the racing calendar will have been ticked off, and just three European races will remain until the whole circus heads off on three 'fly-away' legs.
The race at Hockenheim could not only give some indication of where this season's championship may be heading, but will give pause for thought on the direction this sport is heading too. The future for the teams may be a lot more assured after the signing of the next Concorde agreement, but the next battleground is the tracks on which the championship will be fought. The truth of the matter is that old historic (and mostly European) tracks are struggling against the march of new pretenders from every corner of the world. The old tracks may be old favourites with the fans, but the new (or still on the drawing board) venues have the cash. As we all know, in F1 money talks, and in Germany many race fans have been left speechless by the way the sport is going.
Currently, the country that is the home of BMW and Mercedes offers two grands prix to fans; the European at the Nurburgring and this weekend's German Grand Prix at Hockenheim. Both offer purists a racing delight. However, earlier this year the boss of the European Grand Prix, Walter Kafitz, suggested that the two circuits share a single German grand prix. It was an indication of just how precarious the financial picture is for many of the old circuits.
Hockenheim is in serious financial straits after spending US$60 million on a revamp. The Nurburgring is reportedly set for a US$240 million upgrade, and yet Kafitz remains gloomy about the future. 'We are no longer competing with race track operators, but against governments' he said. That was a reference to new races in places like China, Turkey, Malaysia and Bahrain.
Bahrain may bring F1 into a new part of the world, but it doesn't necessarily raise the pulse of the race fan. Journalist Maurice Hamilton described the place as possessing 'as much atmosphere and challenge as a race around an industrial estate in the middle of the desert'.
Exciting or not, the new tracks aren't cheap to build. Shanghai cost US$180 million to build, whilst the authorities in Turkey shelled out US$150 million. For their money they get positive exposure for their country and a little bit of prestige from F1's reflected glory.
By comparison, European tracks don't have their government's financial muscle to bail them out.
As well as the problems in Germany, Silverstone has struggled to keep its head above water and its facilities up to scratch. Magny-Cours in France has been a poor relation for many years now, but the most spectacular casualty has been Spa-Francorchamps.
The track in Belgium is one of the best in the world, certainly a cast-iron favourite of drivers and spectators alike and yet it was scrubbed off the calendar just before the season started. It was the same old problem - lack of money and the lack of an upgrade.
Amazing as it must seem, tracks have to rely mostly on admission prices, whilst Bernie Ecclestone's company takes the broadcasting, advertising and hospitality rights. Despite this, promoters still have to stump up US$11 million a race to Ecclestone's FOM company. You may not be unduly surprised to hear FOM made a profit of US$446 million in 2004.
Of course, there's no reason why Europe should hold on to races just for nostalgia's sake. In a past column I called for Germany and Italy to only have one instead of two races each.
Fans around the world deserve the chance to see a race near them, but there's no reason to vandalise the history of F1 just for a few more dollars.
Spa will hopefully be back on the calendar next year, but if the profit imperative continues in F1 prepare yourselves for a rash of identikit tracks coming to a country near you.