Pit Stop

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 May, 2011, 12:00am


I don't know if you were at the Chinese Grand Prix or watched it on television, but you couldn't help but notice how many seats were empty at the track. At the start of a new contract for Shanghai to host races, it wasn't the sight that track bosses or Formula One wanted to see. As the sport continues its global expansion, popularity in some new venues is one of the few areas of concern for a sport that otherwise is ticking along very nicely, thank you.

This weekend's race is in Turkey and it could be the last there. Officials are baulking at a reported doubling of the race fee being demanded by Bernie Ecclestone, who bizarrely is also the race promoter. It's a great track with turn eight being one of the best you'll see all year. But spectator numbers have continued to fall after a sellout first year, and it's questionable whether there is the appetite to continue to plough in good money after bad when people aren't turning up.

Some analysts suggest that F1 is becoming too elitist and attracting an ageing fan base. I guess one is linked to the other. For elitist read rich. The sport has become a must see, and be seen at, for those 'beautiful people' who wear oversized glasses and have entourages in tow. For the rest of us, a ticket to a grand prix is a real financial stretch unless you know a 'corporate mate'. Then we've become part of the elite.

Interesting then to hear of talk of a buyout of Formula One. Rupert Murdoch, the owner of News Corporation, is reported to be mulling over a bid to buy the sport from the venture capital firm CVC Capital Partners.

It's thought that News Corp feels the sport should attract younger fans. Cheaper ticket prices and an opening up of protected inner sanctums like the paddock and pit lane, sometimes over the weekend, might be on the agenda. This no doubt would be attractive to the average fan, but it would mean taking F1 away from a business model that is now hugely successful.

All this comes as the Concorde Agreement that governs the financial aspect of the sport is coming up for renegotiation. As well as dividing up the profits between stakeholders, intriguingly they will have to decide whether to continue a policy of putting F1 onto free-to-air channels where possible in major markets or let the highest bidder take the spoils. News Corp may have something to say on the matter if it owned the sport.

As Murdoch has shown with his satellite coverage of the English Premier League in Britain, it can bring big financial gains for sports. Free-to-air channels like the BBC in Britain bring smaller amounts of cash but millions more of viewers. That can be crucial for attracting car sponsors, especially if you are a smaller F1 team.

It's also important for keeping the sport in the public eye.

Any takeover of Formula One would leave a question mark over Ecclestone's future in the sport. Being 80 would not be the issue - Murdoch after all is the same age. The man has brilliantly marketed the sport, turning it from an amateur pursuit among gentlemen to the multimillion-dollar industry it is now. However, a new broom might want new blood at the helm. There is also the question of his judgment. This week's vacillation over Bahrain has done the sport's image no favours. The kingdom has just been given an extra month to tell Formula One whether it can hold its postponed grand prix later in the year.

This is at a time when martial law is still in place, where dozens are still imprisoned and with four people recently sentenced to death for events in the protests. A foreign army is still in the country. There are times when the bottom line should be moral and not financial, and the sport should turn its back on Bahrain.