Nineteen into 17 does not go

Bernie Ecclestone said last week that there are two slots on the Formula 1 calendar in 2004 and that he has seven different groups bidding to hold a race. This is a very useful situation for the Formula 1 boss who will be able (and happy) to put the different bidders up against one another.

The problem is that no-one seems to know where the two slots are going to come from. Most of the existing 17 races have long-term deals in place which go beyond 2004 and those which are weakest are in places where Formula 1 wants to be. Ecclestone is wisely looking for new markets to keep the interest of the current F1 sponsors and is also hoping that the new markets will bring in new money. The Chinese market is, in this respect, the most important as this is now seen as the country which is offering the biggest opportunities in the future.

The one race which currently looks weak is the French Grand Prix as there is little left of the once thriving French motor racing industry and Renault has chosen to base its chassis operations in Britain. In addition there is only one French driver left in F1 (Olivier Panis) and he is yet to secure a drive for next year. There has been some talk of Renault taking on Sebastian Bourdais to be its test driver as the French company has been on the receiving end of some criticism about not doing enough to support French drivers. Renault is backing a whole string of young drivers including a Finn, a Pole, a Brazilian but there is only one Frenchman on the books (at least publicly) at the moment.

The French, who consider themselves to have invented the sport, are naturally appalled at the concept that the French GP could drop from the F1 calendar but in the modern age such romantic notions are swept away by commercial considerations.

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