AUGUST 30, 2006

What is going on with the F1 calendar?

In Formula 1 things should rarely be taken at face value and the flurry of reports that the San Marino Grand Prix is finished do not tell the true story. The calendar issued by the FIA yesterday is much more likely to be a nudge to the Imola authorities to hurry up and settle things rather than a confirmation that the race will not happen. The local authorities in Imola say they were surprised by the FIA issuing of the calendar but are assuming that all will be well. They have plans to completely rebuild the track and most of the money is organised. And let us not forget that Ferrari has always supported the event at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari and that is of great importance in F1 circles.

So what was yesterday's calendar all about? It bore none of the usual signs of an FIA calendar. There were no venues listed (which is unusual) and there were none of the usual notes that are traditionally added: noting such things as "provisional (subject to contract)", "subject to circuit approval" and so on. There are some races on the list which we know do not have contracts finalised. The timing, too, is odd. Normally we get the first official F1 calendar in October not at the end of August. This is not a good thing but it is something that the sport is used to.

The publication of an odd F1 calendar, ahead of time and outside the usual format, suggests that the job of putting together the dates for 2007 is not yet finished and a look at the calendar suggests that while most of the races may remain the same, there are changes yet to come.

All of this points to the fact that someone wanted a calendar to be published at a time when things are not truly settled. One can speculate that this pressure came from the new owners of the Formula One group CVC Capital Partners, who acquired the company in November last year and added Allsport Management to its acquisitions earlier this year. The cost involved in all of this is believed to have been in the region of $1.3bn and the plan was for CVC to issue a bond to recoup the investment. A commercial deal with the teams is done but there are still quibbles over the regulatory processes, which have dragged on for the last five months. CVC is currently leaving the negotiation to Bernie Ecclestone but there seems to be little he can do to get the FIA and the Grand Prix Manufacturers' Association to find a solution to their arguments. The FIA did put out a release recently saying that everything was agreed but the GPMA indicated that this was not actually the case and that further time was needed. Since then things have gone ominously quiet. Perhaps it was the summer holidays but with the return to work now in full swing, we would expect to see some more movement. CVC must be frustrated by all of this and the calendar may be reflection of that frustration.

Probably the oddest thing on the calendar remains the start of the year where there is the Australian Grand Prix out on its own, two weeks later than normal and an insane three weeks before the race in Malaysia. There is then a rushed few days in which F1 is supposed to move everything from Kuala Lumpur to Bahrain. We believe that this is purely a negotiating position because the F1 teams are going to look at this calendar and gripe that going out and back to Australia makes no sense at all because the equipment will have to stay in the region but the gap is such that the people will need to come home to Europe. This will lead them to argue for another race twinned with Australia to split the transportation costs and make better use of the people. And, of course, this is what FOM would like to see because each new race means there is more money to be earned.

There is a perfect candidate as well because Suzuka wants a place on the calendar in March or April because it has lost the Japanese GP to rival Fuji. Going to Suzuka at that time of year might not be a very good idea from a climatic point of view and one can imagine that once the teams have agreed to accept another race, there could well be a switcharound of the first four races. There is plenty of space to manoeuvre because of the illogical March 18 date which Melbourne has been given. Melbourne has no major events after the Australian Open Tennis Championships at the end of January, except if one allows for the Melbourne Queer Film Festival which runs throughout March, which attracts 20,000 people to the city. There is the annual Moomba Waterfest scheduled for March 9-12 and the Grand Prix has often shared the date with Moomba as the city tends to get more visitors to attend both events. A switch of date would also move the race away from the World Swimming Championships and the pre-season Australian Football League games which might impact on the Grand Prix audience on March 18.

We believe that the F1 season will start with a two-race sequence on March 4-11 and then a break so that teams can go back to Europe before a second two-race visit on April 1-8. Then the equipment can be shipped home in time for the traditional start of the European season at Imola on April 29. This all makes perfect sense and even allows for teams who want to ship cars out to Bahrain for pre-season warm weather testing in February to do so and then have the cars shipped on to the first race. This would be the most cost-effective thing to do and thus what the teams will be arguing for. the only real question therefore is the order of the races.

A place has been left on the calendar into which Imola will fit very neatly and indeed the GP2 teams in Turkey were circulating an unofficial calendar amongst themselves that included San Marino on the April 29 weekend.

In addition, the date of the British GP was listed as being either July 8 or July 15 and the Nurburgring was listed as being on either July 22 or 29. This indicates that, as expected, Hockenheim is gone from the F1 calendar and that the Nurburgring will now host a race in July. Putting the German and Hungary GPs back-to-back may be a little more sensible than having France and Britain together (as is currently the case), if only because of all the equipment that needs to be transported from one race to the next in a very short space of time. The logic in this is very simple. It is easier to move 250 trucks (F1, GP2, FOM, Allsport, TV companies etc) quickly from one place to another if there is no large body of water (requiring ferries) between the point of departure and the point of arrival.

There are also now questions over whether the Turkish Grand Prix will happen.