Change has been the singular characteristic of Formula One since the modern series was founded in 1950. It has never been change for change’s sake, as the various regulations on engine displacement and the like have always been architected to enhance the competitiveness and excitement of the sport. Now it seems that Formula One Management, Ltd. — the Bernie Ecclestone company that owns the commercial rights to F1 — is using change for a simple and rather base reason: money.
The history of Formula 1 has always been typified by a commitment to cutting-edge technology, but in the context of a sport that respects its traditions and memories. So Ecclestone’s recent and emphatic suggestions that the series’ so-called “traditional circuits” — Monza, Silverstone, Spa and the like — are threatened, are jarring and inconsistent with the spirit of F1. Unfortunately (and unquestionably) Ecclestone is prepared to forsake well-established, historically rich European race tracks in favour of government-subsidized venues on the other side of the world with no motor racing heritage. Spa Francorchamps Future Looking Bleak | ESPN F1.
It seems to me that taking away the storied tracks on which Formula 1 built its reputation and legend is self-defeating. It is certainly true that emerging economies in the developing world, like China and India, are worthy of pursuit for the financial benefits that they can confer on Grand Prix motor racing. At the same time, however, taking away the traditional circuits in the name of more shoot-and-squirt tracks — designed for television audiences rather than actual race cars — is absurd. Imagine the IndyCar series without the Indianapolis 500, or NASCAR without the Daytona 500, or the FIA World Rally Championship without the Monte Carlo Rally? Can’t be done. Coupled with the 2010 change to a new points system, now awarding 25 points for a race win (more than double that of the entire 60-year history F1), and one is left with the profound sense that F1 the longer respects, or even cares about, its history and traditions.
Ecclestone said the Belgian Grand Prix in particular was “absolutely” threatened by new venues with significant money behind them. “If it wasn’t supported by the government over there, it probably would go because they wouldn’t be able to afford it,” he said of Spa. “It’s the same with the British Grand Prix.”
Ecclestone reckons the expansion into new markets at the expense of European tracks is healthy. “We’re a World Championship and so, by definition, we need to be in different parts of the world. In the end, common sense has prevailed and we’ve expanded,” he said.
Whether it’s a consequence of the Max Mosley-led power play asserting FIA’s rulemaking authority or Bernie’s desire, even at age 80, to add this financial empire worth billions of pounds Sterling, matters little. Compare FIFA or the NFL, each of which cautiously tweaks its rules periodically but does little or nothing to diminish the reverence for those who came before.
I’ve been to Spa; I’ve not been to Monaco. I’ve been to Monza; I’ve not been to Silverstone. Eliminating both of those tracks — or, God forbid, all four — would take a sport that thrives on the almost constant comparisons of today’s drivers with their predecessors and make it one in which each season, any race, stands alone. This relentless his pursuit of money is ruining Formula One.
It is all well and good that for the past 20+ years F1 has been televised globally. It is not all well and good that over the same 20 years Ecclestone’s control of Formula One’s commercial enterprises has transformed F1 from a hyper–competitive sport, where small teams like Williams and Benneton could compete at the highest levels, to one in which only factory–funded outfits, and even then some, can dream of making the grid. Witness last year’s rejection of the Peter Windsor’s USF1 effort and this year’s inexplicable rejection of Jacques Villeneuve’s attempts to field a 13th team for the F1 grid.
This is not about sport, it’s about crass commercialism. Yes, Formula One needs sponsors and funding. But by rejecting its history and radically reconfiguring its rules every few years, Bernie is ruining our sport.
Update: Just 24 hours after this post, Bernie denied saying that Spa-Francorchamps is at the top of his hit list for elimination.
Bernie Ecclestone has denied saying that the iconic Spa-Francorchamps circuit would be one of the first to make way for new F1 venues in developing markets, claiming that he was misquoted in an interview.
“The Guardian twisted my words,” Ecclestone stressed, “I am sure that in the years to come, we will lose a few races in Europe, it is almost certain. Which ones, I have no idea. But, from our side, we want to keep Spa. There are long discussions about the grand prix there but, if it does go, it will be because of the government, not me.”
Update 2: Another 2 days later, Bernie was more forthcoming, saying F1 will “go east” and “disappear” from Europe.
“I’ve always believed we should go east,” he said. “Twenty years ago when we started I thought that was where the world was going to go, and Europe’s not what it was in any shape or form. I don’t know how long I’m going to live but I think it will more or less disappear as the current force before too long. I don’t think Europe can afford many things.”