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NOVEMBER 9, 2006

Getting the balance right

Bernie Ecclestone is always wheeling and dealing to try to get the best result for his company - and challenging established ideas as he does so. Ecclestone's latest provocative idea, to be floated via an interview with the Bloomberg newsagency, is that Britain will share its Grand Prix with France. The purpose of the remarks were presumably to show an Indian group - believed to be from Delhi - that there is room in the F1 calendar for an Indian GP in 2010. Ecclestone says that F1 has now found "the right place" in India and wants to begin work on a new circuit.

There is nothing wrong with F1 expanding into big new markets such as China, India and South Korea. The sponsors are keen and so are the manufacturers. The problem is that there is no sign that there is any real fan base in these regions and judging by Malaysia, the most mature of the newer Asian races, there may not be one. The key is to have a competitive driver and Japan has still yet to achieve that despite being involved in F1 for more than 20 years. Australia has a long history in F1 but there is very little interest in Mark Webber because he is not yet a winner. Compare that to the booms in F1 that occurred in Germany with Michael Schumacher and in Spain with Fernando Alonso and it is clear that creating interest in F1 is about having a winning driver, and to have a winning driver you need either the right infrastructure or to send the best locals to Europe, where the best drivers are trained. The constant flow of Brazilians through the European formulae is evidence of this. British F3 champions go on to better things, to date Asian F3 champions have achieved next to nothing. And the Middle East doesn't even have F3.

There is much activity in places like Bahrain and China to try to stimulate interest in F1 and, as a result, a racing infrastructure and drivers who could make the grade but are these markets really going to develop and one day challenge the mature motor racing industries of England and France? It is very doubtful.

The danger of pruning away at European races is that motorsport in those countries will suffer as a result.

Ecclestone's job is to run commercial matters in F1 and he will always push for the best deal. If he can convince governments in Asia to pay him $40m a year to brush up their images, then he is doing a good job for his backers. But there is still a strong case for protecting the historic races on which the sport was built. There is a clause in the contract between Ecclestone and the FIA that says that he must retain certain "historic races" in Europe (believed to be Britain, France, Italy and Germany) but as these do not pay as well as the Asian countries, Bernie is obviously less interested and is no doubt hoping that the FIA will accept the argument that having one race every two years in good enough. The F1 teams based in Britain are unlikely to support him as the British GP is a huge event for them, even if Silverstone struggles to pay Ecclestone's fees. And while Magny-Cours is a million miles from anywhere, the race is there because Ecclestone took it there. The promoters have worked very hard to try to keep it alive and they have done a good job. The fact that France does not have a driver racing in F1 is the major problem.

Traditionalists say that Ecclestone is turning his back on the sport's homeland and on its most loyal fans. The converse argument is that new fans are being created. That is fine except that there is no sign that this is the case. There are, for example, no full-time F1 journalists from Malaysia, China or Bahrain. There are precious few Japanese. The majority remain European.

Ecclestone has shown in Latin American that he is willing to keep a race in Brazil despite the fact that the facilities are not even close to normal F1 standards because he needs a race in that region. Everyone would like more races in the United States but Bernie cannot find a promoter willing to pay the kind of money that he is asking - because they don't need to. There are more cost-effective racing options other than F1. The United States is the world's most important automotive market by a very long way and yet F1 constantly fails to make a big impression there.

The question that needs to be answered, therefore, is whether Ecclestone's drive into Asia is really about doing what is best for F1 or what is best for the Formula One group.

The two are very different.