AUGUST 7, 2001

How can Formula 1 grow further?

THERE are often discussions in Formula 1 circles about whether the bubble of growth that envelopes the sport will eventually pop and what will occur when that happens.

THERE are often discussions in Formula 1 circles about whether the bubble of growth that envelopes the sport will eventually pop and what will occur when that happens. But the fact remains that despite the huge TV audiences that F1 can claim there is still a huge amount off growth to bee achieved in the years ahead. The sport remains fundamentally a European phenomenon. There is interest right across the Middle East and Asia but F1 has not rally done much to exploit that. There is also enormous potential in North America, where F1's penetration is tiny.

America has always been the big nut that Formula 1 wants to crack. There is plenty of long-term potential elsewhere but the United States is a mature market with a ready-made consumer class.

The problem is getting the sport onto network TV. The culture needs to appreciate F1 does not exist in US television circles. Viewers are used to sudden bursts of sport. Attention spans are limited. Formula 1 involves rather more prolonged interest (unless it chooses to develop into more of a spectacle like NASCAR or CART). The problem is that it is hard to sell the sport to a network without changing it and F1 does not want to change.

However, there are other ways. The best idea is for F1 to be bundled as part of a bigger sale of TV rights. This would be seen as an unwelcome bonus by the networks but if the deal was right it might be something they would consider. That way interest in F1 could be built up and advertisers found to support the programming.

It is interesting, therefore, to hear that there are discussions going on which could lead to an eight-race Indy Racing League in Europe next year. If it was to happen there would be four races at Rockingham in England and another four at the Lausitzring in Germany. These are the only two modern oval tracks in Europe at the moment but the development of IRL in the European market could result in other facilities either being upgraded or being built from scratch.

The short-term aim of such an idea would be to enable the US teams to sell on their old engines and chassis. This would be good news for the suppliers. The longer-term aim would be for the European and American IRL events to link up to form the much-vaunted FIA World Oval Championship. This has been the goal of the FIA since the 1980s when the then FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre first discussed the idea. The aim would be for this to run alongside F1 - on alternate weekends - to raise the overall profile of single-seater racing without the two series being in conflict. There is a strong argument that the centralized selling of TV rights for the two series would result in bigger audiences for both and better deals for all concerned.

The current FIA President Max Mosley confirmed at the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis last year that the FIA would be open to the idea but that if that was to happen there would need to more ovals built around the world. For some years CART has had a deal with the FIA which allows it to expand globally but only if the races outside the Americas take place on oval tracks. This has led to the development of Rockingham and the Lausitzring and the construction of Twin Ring Motegi in Japan, an oval in Rio de Janeiro (although this has since been abandoned). There is a usable oval in Australia and we have heard of plans to build an oval in Malaysia and also at Paul Ricard in France.

Much of that happened when CART was looking towards ovals for expansion but the new management seems to be going in the opposite direction, leaving oval racing for IRL and trying to build up CART as a road racing series with races such as Long Beach, Toronto and so on.

There are many people in the motor racing industry who believe that ultimately open-wheeler racing in the US has to be cut back to once series. CART and IRL are simply hurting one another and as IRL is backed by the billionaire Tony George, who controls the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it will ultimately win the battle. The successful CART races (and there are not many of them) could then be switched to either a domestic road racing championship or could conceivably be annexed into the Formula 1 World Championship, while oval racing would go global.