Features - Straight Talk
SEPTEMBER 26, 2016
Looking for new Grand Prix
BY LUIS VASCONCELOS
Formula One is about to enter new territory with the acquisition of Delta Topco by Liberty Media. From what has been said, we've all gathered a lot more effort and money will be put into digital and social media, as a way to broaden the exposure of the sport and attract a completely new generation of fans - something the old regime was not even trying to do as Bernie Ecclestone was quick to point out he didn't believe there was any money or future in those social platforms.
Being far from interested in these areas of the business, I'm glad to leave all the analysis, speculation and other to those who seem to go to the Formula One races but never see a car running, preferring to go around the paddock talking about money, politics, the Strategy Group and so on.
What really caught my attention in Chase Carey's many interviews was his mention of finding new markets for Formula One, new venues to host Grand Prix. At the same time, Gianluca di Tondo, the man who runs Heineken's massive Formula One program, was very open about wanting to have a new Grand Prix in Vietnam, because this beautiful Southeast Asian country is Heineken's fastest growing market. Heineken took its Vietnamese importers to Singapore last week and, according to di Tondo, they loved the experience and expressed a wish to have a Grand Prix close to Ho Chi Minh City, a city with more than eight million people and a vibrant economy.
Combine the two statements and you get the feeling the Formula One calendar will go through a face-lift in the next few years - once the current contracts expire - that may include an expansion from the already saturated 21-races calendar or some strategic changes.
Here I have to declare a personal interest because Vietnam has been my part-time home for nearly 20 years, I love the country and the people and I'd like to spend more time there, so a race close to home would be nice. But what the last 20 years have taught me is that getting the Vietnamese government to spend money on anything will be a very tough job. For 15 years there have been open talks about building a new international airport to take over from the heavily saturated Tan Son Nhat facility and not even a stone has moved. That's because building a brand new airport costs billions of dollars and while French and Japanese investors have expressed a lot of interest in building it, to then run it, the Vietnamese government wants them to build it but then reap the rewards from the new facility.
As some of you may remember, six years ago Ecclestone sent Hans Geist to Nha Trang, to offer a deal to the local authorities and everything went well until they were told they'd have to pay for the construction of a new circuit and a hefty promoters' fee every year. As soon as they heard that, their interest died and Geist didn't stay long to enjoy the lovely beaches in the area, returning home empty handed. So, if Heineken really wants a race in Vietnam, it's better the company is ready to pay for the whole thing, as the local authorities won't be interested in putting any money into it.
But if Vietnam comes in, does this mean we'll have a third race in Southeast Asia? Singapore's contract expires at the end of next year and there are internal discussions about the value of the event for the country. Losing what is one of the highlights of the season would be a blow to Formula One, the local government knows that, so they have the kind of leverage only Monaco has enjoyed. Hopefully a new deal will be done soon, one that will suit both parties and will keep the night race on the calendar. Malaysia, on the other hand, may be on its way out at the end of the current contract, which expires at the end of 2019. The locals spent quite a bit of money resurfacing the Sepang circuit but the government has lost all interest in the Grand Prix and it wouldn't be a surprise if they'd drop it, opening the doors to Vietnam. And Thailand could be an option too, but only after the country's situation becomes stable again and Red Bull would be massively interested in it, as would Heineken and other major players in Formula One.
Another Asian country that could get a Grand Prix is Korea, but not down in Yeongam, where not even the Koreans wanted to go: if Formula One is to return to the country it has to be to a track close to Seoul, as that would attract a lot of fans to the grandstands.
Looking at Europe, I guess Germany has to be a permanent feature and France should be back in the calendar, but Spain may be under threat after Fernando Alonso's retirement, as interest will seriously dip without the local hero - unless Carlos Sainz gets a chance with Red Bull and becomes the second Spanish Grand Prix winner.
One venue under serious threat, because the contracted improvement in the facilities is not happening, is the Canadian Grand Prix because there's no alternative to Montreal for Formula One. A second, maybe even a third race in the United States would more than make up for it and with Liberty Media being based there, it shouldn't be too difficult to do a couple of new deals.
A return to Buenos Aires, as long as the Oscar Galvez circuit would get a serious face-lift, would do wonders for Formula One because the huge success that was the return to Mexico, one year ago, would certainly be repeated in Argentina, such is the South American's love for motor racing.
Finally, there's Africa, absent from the Formula One calendar since 1993. Ecclestone has made dozens of attempts to get back to South Africa, mainly to Cape Town, with no success, but maybe with more favourable conditions for the promoters things could change. Morocco could be an alternative, as the country is stable, there's a lot of passion for racing there and a good amount of money to invest, but somehow negotiations with the locals have never picked it up.
Having said all that I seriously hope the calendar doesn't grow to 25 Grand Prix per year and I'd rather see a few races rotate - with a hardcore of 14/15 races being permanent features and the others getting an event every other year - with 20 races being the limit. Otherwise the wife may kick me out of Vietnam and there goes my retirement plan...