MARCH 10, 2008
The constant pursuit of numbers
Bernie Ecclestone is a man who likes numbers. They are the way in which he can measure progress. His chief aim is to expand the Formula 1 circus year after year, pushing up the number of viewers, and reaching the widest possible audience around the world. It is a process that has been going on since the 1970s when Formula 1 was a much less organised activity than it is today.
In those days there were just a few "flyaway" races and they tended to drop in and out of the calendar, depending on whether there had been a coup d'etat in Argentina or whether the promoters had the start money that the teams needed. The bigger teams did most races, but not all and there were constant one-off appearances by local heroes, who could afford to hire leftover machinery. Ecclestone changed all that and gradually convinced the teams of the need to commit to being at every race. This gave him a package to sell to the race promoters and TV companies; gave the tracks something to sell to the public; the TV companies something to sell to advertisers and teams something to sell to sponsors. As demand for races grew, so Ecclestone was able to make more demands. He pushed promoters to tidy up shoddy venues, and insisted on longer, more expensive contracts with guarantees that he would be paid if promoters failed. Demand has never seriously flagged since those days and the once Euro-centric World Championship has today spread to have major events all over the world. This year there will be 18 races, but there are already several others in the pipeline. This means that some of the older venues are now feeling the pressure to keep pace with races in countries where the funding is easier to find, and where governments are happy to dip into their budgets to enjoy a little F1 glitter. These activities have made Ecclestone a wealthy man, but he has also created many millionaires in his wake. Now 77, he remains intent on pushing relentlessly forwards.
This year Formula 1 will hit the streets of Singapore with its first night race. Next year a spectacular new venue in Abu Dhabi will join the calendar - and F1 will unveil its first theme parks. More will follow. India is busy planning for a race in 2010 and there is much activity in Russia as well.
The old races in Europe, on which the World Championship was built, suffer against such competition. They have the added disadvantage of being located in places which may have made sense in the 1950s, but make little sense today. The trend in recent years has been to have circuits within easy reach of big cities, following in the tradition of Monza, Indianapolis and Interlagos. In the cases of Monaco, Montreal, Melbourne, Singapore and Valencia (the second new venue this year) the races take place in the cities themselves. Taking racing to the people is more successful than trying to get people to go to far-flung spots such as Silverstone, Magny-Cours, Spa, Nurburgring and Zeltweg. Interest in these events tends to be based on whether a local driver is doing well.
The pressure is on in France to move the race - the oldest Grand Prix of them all - to the suburbs of Paris. This is a sensible idea, but more difficult to organise as there is bound to be more opposition if races take place in populated areas. There has been talk of doing something similar in London but Silverstone, which hosted the first round of the World Championship in 1950, refuses to give up and is trying to reinvent itself to meet Ecclestone's wishes.
Formula 1 is now very strong in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The Americas remain weak, in part because of the problems of scheduling races to hit peak hour TV viewing slots in the big F1 markets. Races on the eastern seaboard of the Americas can do that effectively - the Brazilian GP ends the F1 season and is the highest rating event of the year, because its geographical position means that the race is broadcast in prime time.
The problems in the Americas are due to a number of factors. Finding a competitive American driver has been difficult, as the best performers have profitable options that allow them to stay at home more than they could do if they raced in F1. Many Americans do not want to live in Europe. Finding promoters willing to pay the going rate for F1 races is not easy because there is a lot more competition from other sporting events in the United States. Prices stay low.
In the longer term, the pressure from Ecclestone is for more races and less testing. It makes little sense for F1 teams to run their cars round and round at empty race tracks when they could be generating more money with new events. They will, however, still want to test no matter how many races Ecclestone lays on.
Getting a group of strong-willed team owners to agree on anything has always been Ecclestone's forte. That task has become harder as more car manufacturers have involved themselves in the sport, but the key seems to be that progress is achieved with flexibility.
Nothing is impossible and the arguments used yesterday may no longer be the arguments of today.
Part of F1's endless fascination for fans seems to be this constant change as the soap opera continues on its merry way.