The last two races on the Formula 1 calendar took place at two of the most historic circuits around the world, the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa Francochamps, and the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Now the calendar moves into some of the new territories, with the likes of Singapore, Korea and Abu Dhabi still to come in 2011, as well as the sports first visit to India.
In recent years there has been a shift in the locations that have been used for the Formula 1 World Championship, with many of the European races being dropped from the calendar. So does this mean F1 is leaving its traditional European roots behind in favour of further exposure in (mainly) Eastern markets? Or does Formula 1 have an obligation to remain with its traditional locations around Europe? Without which, we would not have the sport we have today?
Of course there is a case of Formula 1 having to move with the times and to become a true World Championship to move beyond the traditional European heartland, but this should not take away from the heritage of Formula 1.
Some of the historic tracks from the early days of Formula 1 continue to be in use today, with the likes of Monte Carlo, Silverstone and the aforementioned Spa and Monza. In recent years we have seen rumours and speculation of some of these races under threat (bar the Monaco Grand Prix), and the future of Spa in 2012 is still uncertain with rumours of the Belgian Grand Prix alternating with the return of the French Grand Prix.
What about the new tracks that have come into the calendar? Do any of these tracks count as worthy replacements for the likes of Magny Cours or Imola?
The next race takes place on the streets of Singapore. This track created history as it is the only night race on the Formula 1 calendar. Looking at the track layout, it only lends itself to a few good overtaking spots, but does contain a lot of tight 90 degree turns. Some sections of track have quite wide run off areas, so there could be a case of widening some sections and opening out some corners to make the track flow. Due to the tight layout of the track, we have seen incidents that caused the deployment of the safety car which brought the field together and made some close racing. Without that, could we have been left with processional races and no overtaking?
Beyond Singapore, the other new tracks include the likes of south Korea, which is a difficult track to judge just after one race, but this seems to have a good open flowing layout, apart from the typical sections of track we have come to expect from Herman Tilke designed circuits, with the long straights leading into slow corners.
That is a theme Herman Tilke likes to employ in his track layouts. I for one do not believe that it is the right way to go for Formula 1. Looking at the track layout in Malaysia, we have two very long straights with slow corners at either ends, yes this does help in overtaking, but it is the previous corner exit that dictates the speed and acceleration down the straight for the cars to close up. The same can be said for Shanghai, it is the turn before the long back straight that dictates whether one car will overtake another, with top speeds being relatively similar between all cars.
Looking at the other recent additions to the Formula 1 calendar, we also have Bahrain and Abu Dhabi. In the past, Bahrain has provided some good race action, but the change in layout in 2010 added more low speed corners which changed the flow of the track and did not provide any positive additions to the race. It is interesting to note that if the Bahrain Grand Prix would have taken place this year, it would have been on the previous track layout.
Then we have Abu Dhabi, with the millions (if not billions) that the Abu Dhabi government put into this facility, it seems that the race track was an afterthought. Long straights preceding low speed chicanes have caused a lack of on track action. It is to be noted that the circuit announced they would look into changes to the track layout for this year to be able to aid overtaking, but this was not carried out due to the circuit owners believing KERS and DRS will solve the problem and we are left with the existing layout.
Another relatively new track that has been a part of the calendar is the Valencia street circuit, under the European Grand Prix banner. This is another street track in the Singapore mould, with a lot of 90 degree corners and a couple of long straights. This Grand Prix was added to the calendar on the back of Fernando Alonso’s success in the sport, to be able to hold two races in Spain. It is worth pointing out that he is from the Asturias region in the north of Spain, but the two races on Spanish soil take place on the eastern coast, at Valencia and Barcelona.
Bearing in mind that these tracks in recent years have replaced the likes of Imola, Magny Cours, The A1 Ring (now the Red Bull ring) and we now only have one race on German soil, alternating between Hockenheim and the Nurburgring.
All these tracks in the past have provided some memorable races (without mentioning the tragedies that occurred as some of these too). Michael Schumacher versus Fernando Alonso at Imola, the years of McLaren v Ferrari at Magny Cours and who can forget the Ferrari team orders controversy that took place at the A1 Ring in 2002. Even Hockenheim has changed to the layout we have now, but I for one would much prefer the high speed blast through the forest, where Rubens Barrichello won his first Formula 1 race in the Ferrari in 2000, starting from 18th on the grid.
It’s clear that F1 does need to move with the times and make circuits safer and to push the sport into a global audience, but it cannot forget the fan base. It is difficult to understand why the sport should travel to countries just because they have the money to build top class facilities, but do not have the fans turning up to watch races. Empty grandstands were all too visible at the Turkish Grand Prix, and this race has been dropped from the 2012 calendar. One entire grandstand at the Chinese Grand Prix seems to have always been empty, the one in front of the turn that leads onto the long back straight, and seems to be covered with the text ‘MADE IN CHINA’.
Just think of how much it would cost for someone in France, for example, to see their nearest Grand Prix, this could end up putting fans off the sport within the traditional European heartland, and if the likes of China and Turkey are unable to get fans in, then Formula 1 risks losing its appeal in the areas that it is trying to venture to, especially as there are no drivers racing from some of these areas.
We also see the inaugural Indian Grand Prix this year, but in contrast to the likes of Turkey, China & Abu Dhabi, there is a strong Indian presence in Formula 1, with the Force India team and two drivers, Karun Chandhok and Narian Karthikeyan, who will both most likely be racing at their home circuits for Team Lotus and HRT respectively.
This will no doubt raise interest in India, seeing as the fans have 3 options to aim their support. Only after this race will we know if they track layout and the fan base is there to make the Indian Grand Prix a success.
2012 also sees Formula 1’s return to the USA, at a purpose built (Herman Tilke designed) track in Austin, Texas. Formula 1 has never really been able to crack America, and its last attempt at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway did not go well. Only time will tell if this latest attempt will fare better.
It is clear that the calendar is moving to areas that can build state of the art expensive facilities and pay FOM the large hosting fees required to hold a Grand Prix, but the traditions of the sport should not be forgotten. The Monaco Grand Prix is a guaranteed race on the calendar every year, the likes of Silverstone, Spa and Monza should be added to that list, as it was those tracks in the early days of the sport that made Formula 1 what it is today.
It is all well and good holding races all around the world, but if the fan base is not there, even after a few years as in Turkey and China, then Formula 1 should take a look at returning to the likes of Magny Cours, or Imola, tracks where I can be sure that those races would sell out.
This would require Formula 1 to think of the fans, and the sporting side. But with a sport as big as F1 being commercially driven, it is more than likely that we will see at least one of these traditional historic tracks disappear from the calendar within the next few years. Then the question becomes, where next in the brave new world?