Is Formula 1 in danger of ‘selling its soul’ through calendar changes?

Jon Wilde
Greg Maffei talks to Stefano Domenicali. Austin October 2021.

Stefano Domenicali has rejected any suggestion that the Formula 1 calendar is constructed only with money in mind.

Although the grand prix schedule next year could be 50% bigger than it was for most of the 1990s, with 24 races planned, the focus has been placed on additions that bring big commercial value rather than guaranteed exciting racing.

United States, the Middle East and Asia have been the markets in which F1 has expanded most, whereas the traditional hotbed of Europe is in danger of being left behind.

So much so that there is a significant threat to each of the French, Belgian and Monaco Grands Prix, all of which featured in the very first World Championship season of 1950.

 

Will France stay on the calendar next year?

The future of the French Grand Prix is currently up in the air.

But Domenicali, the F1 CEO, has hit back at claims the sport is selling its soul in order to simply generate as much revenue as possible – saying if that was the case, it would appear obvious from the composition of the calendar.

“Money is important everywhere, for us too,” Domenicali told Sport Bild, and reported by RTL.

“But we don’t just look at that, the whole package has to be right. If we only looked at the bank account, the racing calendar would definitely look different.

“I’m not selling the soul of Formula 1. This is the normal change. We are opening up to the whole world.”

There has also been criticism that F1 is now staging grands prix in countries with disturbing human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar which have both been given long-term contracts.

The 57-year-old Italian defended the decision to establish the race in Jeddah, saying: “We are providing the spotlight in which the hosts want to present themselves well. There are already first successes. In Saudi Arabia, women have been allowed to drive for four years.”

As for Europe, it is possible France, Belgium and Monaco could potentially go the way of Germany, which also used to be a mainstay but has dropped off the calendar in recent years as the promoters could not make the event pay – and it looks unlikely to return any time soon.

“If I don’t make a call myself, I see and hear little from Germany,” said the former Ferrari team principal.

“They talk, talk, talk, but in the end you need facts. It’s a mystery to me how you can’t build a business around a grand prix these days.”

Is the Formula 1 calendar all about money?

Like Domenicali says, commerciality has to be an important factor in planning a grand prix season – it’s such an expensive sport in which to compete and the teams have to benefit from the vast revenue generated.

And with various factors that have put Formula 1 on such an upward trajectory – a thrilling 2021 season, personable young drivers who are exciting to watch and the popularity of ‘Drive to Survive’ – there is a sense that in a way Domenicali and Liberty Media can hardly go wrong.

But equally, each grand prix needs to have its own identity. Obviously it would never happen, but what if a season consisted of a street race in each of the 24 largest cities in the United States? That simply would not work.

It’s a World Championship and has held that title since the very first year in 1950 when the Indy 500, despite being a completely disparate event as it is today, was added to six grands prix in western Europe to expand the reach.

Fans who defend the likes of Monaco are accused of being old-fashioned because F1 has, with its much bigger cars these days, literally outgrown the Principality.

There is no question the sport has moved on apace from the days when a season’s nucleus was those European races on a Sunday afternoon with Murray Walker and James Hunt commentating on the BBC, save for the trips to Brazil, Japan and Australia at either end of the campaign.

Whether it’s one, two or, as it will be next year, three grands prix in the USA, as long as each has a distinct identity there is no reason why it should not work. That ought to be the case with Austin, Miami and Las Vegas and the different spectacles they will provide.

The Middle East, and the human rights records, is a trickier one. That is an aspect with which Formula 1 has had to reconcile itself – and given what Domenicali says, they have certainly found a way to do that.