JANUARY 24, 2007

Ruminations on street racing

When one considers the current trends in Formula 1 there is one that is beginning to emerge which is not at first obvious: racing seems to be heading for the streets, or at least circuits which are being built in urban areas to try to duplicate the excitement and atmosphere of street racing. The new circuit in Korea promises to be a purpose-built track but featuring a street section around a marina. The same is true in Abu Dhabi. In Singapore the plan is for a street track. There are other races in the pipeline (such as Valencia, India, Moscow and perhaps even Mexico) and it seems that they too could follow the trend.

F1 is not unique in this vision as Champ Car has clearly moved in this direction in recent years with the arrival of events such as San Jose, Edmonton, Denver, Houston and most recently Las Vegas.

There is much logic in the concept. In the course of the last few years there have been street events featuring F1 cars in London, Rotterdam, Valencia and a strong of other venues where the Renault road show has visited. All of these have attracted vast crowds. Admittedly, most of these events are free but it is fair to believe from the success of the Rotterdam event that people will pay sensible prices rather than the huge costs associated with grandstand seats in more traditional venues.

Street races are spectacular, although the racing is not necessarily any better, but most importantly, these events take the racing to the people, rather than trying to get people to go to remote race tracks in the middle of nowhere. This also gets around the problems of accomodation that rural races often have and guarantees that cities have their hotels filled and their restaurants booked. It offers the cities involved the chance to create racing carnivals with other activities becoming associated with the F1 action. The sport can even argue that it is more environmentally-friendly as spectators arrive by public transport rather than using their own cars.

The races also make sense for the bidding cities because there are only so many cities in the world willing to build the mega-circuits that we have seen in recent years in Malaysia, Shanghai, Bahrain and Istanbul. These vast facilities are impressive but they may never pay back what they cost. Street racing has plenty of hidden costs and other complications but a government can get a race up and running relatively cheaply if it does not worry too much about opposition to the idea. There are recurring costs such as the erection of walls, barriers, bridges and grandstands but once the investment has been made to manufacture them, they can be brought out each year. A clever organiser might even rent out the infrastructure for smaller events in other cities, as Long Beach did in the 1980s with the Del Mar IMSA race.

Taking racing to the people means that the more people who attend, the cheaper the tickets can be priced, at least in theory, although from the Formula One group point of view, there is more potential for charging cities bigger fees.

The idea is clearly one that Bernie Ecclestone and his partners would like to see in countries where they have to have races (there are several stipulated in the commercial contract between the FIA and the group). The two obvious examples of this are France and Britain, neither or which is currently producing huge income.An attempt to get a race in London has already failed but that does not mean that Ecclestone will be unable to find an alternative in another city. France is obviously going to need a rethink as well in the not-too-distant future as Magny-Cours cannot survive forever with the fees going up 10% every year. The logic has always been to move the race to Paris although it has been some years now since that idea was last discussed in public.

The bottom line (if you will pardon the expression) is that F1 seems finally to have realised that racing is not just about TV revenues and that bums on seats are still a key element in the success of any sport.