Pit Stop

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2007, 12:00am

Just before the start of the season I was in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. So were the majority of the Formula One teams. Neither they nor I were there to enjoy the Middle East sunshine as it shone down relentlessly on the Corniche. As the cars turned 'doughnuts' in front of thousands of fans on a makeshift seafront track we all waited for a badly kept secret - the emirate was to get an F1 race.

The clue was on the bottom of the Etihad jet that flew past at the end, proclaiming 'Abu Dhabi 2009'. The confirmation was at the press conference afterwards. It was held in the opulent Emirates Palace Hotel; a place so big you could be forgiven for thinking it's the size of Hong Kong itself. As I sat there watching Bernie Ecclestone charm the journalists I found myself pondering the future of the sport.

We all know Formula One is migrating east out of its traditional European heartland. But races are also increasingly a government-bankrolled affair. This was vividly illustrated in Abu Dhabi. Facing the press at the side of Ecclestone wasn't some entrepreneur or promoter but the chairman of the Executive Affairs Authority - part of the government. Earlier, as the dignitaries pulled up to watch the show in a fleet of shiny new Mercedes, Ecclestone was side by side with the ruler of Abu Dhabi and the president of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan.

The ruling family have dug deep to clinch this deal, but they are rich on oil reserves. They can see not only the prestige it brings to their part of the world, but the business deals to be done on the back of it. Ecclestone, in the meantime, will be laughing all the way to the bank.

The cost of bringing F1 to the UAE hasn't been revealed, but it's fair to say money is no object in this oil rich country. The same can't be said at the European tracks that have been left feeling pretty insecure by recent developments. There are only so many races that can be squeezed into a calendar. Bernie and the teams seem to agree that 20 is the maximum.

With Singapore being added next year and South Korea and India looking increasingly likely to join the party, some European tracks are feeling the heat. The San Marino and European grands prix are missing this year. Rumour has it France could be the next to get the chop. Despite its history, the British Grand Prix has come under increasing pressure from Ecclestone over the past few years because of a lack of investment in the track.

Silverstone is a good example of the old way of doing F1. It's owned by the British Racing Drivers Club, the BDRC. Its head is Damon Hill and there are many other famous racing names involved.

The problem is their pockets aren't deep enough for the investment needed to bring the place up to scratch. As a result the relationship with Ecclestone is not the cosy one enjoyed in Abu Dhabi and elsewhere and the future of the race after 2009 is in doubt.

'I want to deal with a promoter rather than the BRDC,' Ecclestone told Autosport recently. 'It is too difficult with the BRDC because you get no guarantees with them. We've said that unless they can get the circuit to the level expected from so-called Third-World countries, we are not prepared to do a deal. They know what we want them to build.'

A new paddock and pits are planned, financed in part with development of land near the track. But Ecclestone obviously feels that government intervention is the way to go. 'It is nice to have a British GP because it is the home of Formula One,' he said. 'But a lot is being spent on the Olympics. Perhaps they need to spend some money on Formula One.'

That's what has happened in Valencia, which has bucked the trend by securing a second race in Spain. This was due to regional government backing, backing that is dependent on winning local elections on Sunday. If the government doesn't prevail, there will be no race. Who says sport and politics don't mix. And who can deny that Ecclestone has the clout of many prime ministers, with a knack of getting his way.