There’s a very strong feeling in the F1 world that major change is coming to the sport in 2014.
With new regulations and new technology taking the sport down a new and unknown path, and with this new ‘greener’ approach seemingly about to cause a changing of the guard at the top, as Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel struggle in the build up to first season following the end of the ‘aerodynamics era’.
There’s also major change off the track with the long-time chief, and usually public enemy number one, Bernie Ecclestone, fighting to save his place as an old bribery case comes back to haunt him.
Some are delighted that the short, white-haired old man who seemingly provides such a juxtaposition to the glitzy, glamorous persona that the sport portrays could be on his way out perhaps paving the way for a new, more modern thinking structure to take his place.
Indeed there is perhaps a lot a man, even half the age of the F1 dinosaur that is Ecclestone, could do to bring the sport forward into a more 21st century way of functioning but one thing I do worry about if Ecclestone leaves is the core of F1.
Some of you may scoff and think ‘What the hell is he talking about?’ but what Ecclestone does do, quite successfully I believe, is manage the balance between tradition and modern – particularly when looking at the calendar.
Once again that may cause a few to argue that in fact he’s ruined it with all these races in far out places, taking the sport away from its European roots.
Well it certainly is true that from just a handful of non-European races at the end of the last millennium, the sport now has eleven races outside the continent, seven of which constitute as Asia with Canada, Brazil, USA and Russia the other four.
The number of races in Europe has also dropped from a high of 11 in 2005 ago to eight now, with the likes of Magny-Cours and Imola all no longer part of the calendar.
The race in Germany also now alternates between two of F1′s great historical circuits, Hockenheim and the Nurburgring, however, this race is exhibit 1A in my argument that a Bernie-free F1 could spell disaster for F1′s heritage.
This week there has been speculation 2014 could be the last German Grand Prix with the fabled Nurburgring in deep financial trouble, it was reported the track was sold, including the Nordschleife and other facilities for between €60-70m to a Miami-based equity group called HIG Capital, which in itself is a little worrying.
Ecclestone was a bidder for the circuit reportedly offering €50m, and though he failed it proves he wants to keep a race in the country, whether it be at Hockenheim and/or the ‘Ring.
For all the new places he has taken the sport he has tried to keep the core countries, Britain, Italy, Germany, Monaco and Belgium have all held races virtually non-stop for decades.
With someone else in charge, particularly not from the motor sport industry, I worry that this core could be disrupted if other countries offer more.
The legendary Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium has had financial troubles for quite some time yet it remains, Ecclestone asked for upgrades to Silverstone and, although it took a lot of poking, Britain now has one of the best race facilities in the world and a long-term contract, Monza too has had an increasing cloud over it but now its future looks secure.
It isn’t just the European hub either, Ecclestone fights to keep F1 in Brazil though Interlagos is perhaps one of the most run down circuits on the calendar infrastructurally and he has managed to find the sport a facility it can be proud of in America at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas.
In the East, Japan has somehow stayed on the schedule even if it meant leaving its spiritual home at Suzuka to go to Fuji Speedway, while the Australian GP has had its future hanging over its head and still does but efforts are being made.
Yes F1 has gone to places few would have thought of back in the sixties and seventies, but the Malaysian and Singaporean races have been success stories, Abu Dhabi is growing in stature, Russia, I believe, will be a success and then there is likely Azerbaijan, one of the quickest developing places on earth as well as Mexico and then surely a return to Africa must happen soon.
Quite how maintaining the core strongholds of F1, while expanding to key emerging markets, and keeping the race schedule to a manageable number remains to be seen.
At least with Ecclestone and/or a successor that understands calendar slots can’t just be sold off to the highest bidder, at the expense of classic tracks who maybe cannot afford to pay as much as others, then the sport will be able to maintain that mix of new and old.
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