As a parting shot to new F1 owners Liberty Media, Bernie Ecclestone handed discounts to several of the sport’s most lucrative races shortly before he was eased aside.
Now the sport’s commercial rights holders faces tricky decisions about how to organise the 2019 F1 calendar and how to push ahead with its previously declared plans for expansion. @DieterRencken considers how the schedule for next season could take shape.
Liberty Media, the owners of Formula One Management and holders of F1’s commercial rights until 2110, has set itself the target of reorganising the sport’s calendar. Their plan is to group grands prix on a territorial basis in order to rationalise regional marketing programmes, condition fans to events at (approximately) the same times for blocks of races wherever they may be, and streamline logistics.
On the surface it all makes perfect sense: Instead of criss-crossing the globe, following the sun would cut costs on freight costs (and time), while sponsors could plan their activation programmes on regional bases, rather than implementing the activities on a per-event roster. FOM, too, could plan its Fan Fests to promote regional, rather than specific, races.
There are, though, downsides to such groupings. Not least that events might cannibalise each other, a situation which has happened several times before: In 2001 a five-week gap between two races in Germany, at the Nurburgring and Hockenheimring, punished both venues; similarly in 2012 the European Grand Prix at Valencia took place five weeks after the Spanish Grand Prix 250 miles up the motorway in Barcelona; and just last year the nearby Singapore and Malaysian Grands Prix were staged two weeks apart.
In all instances attendances at the respective venues suffered, not least because fans’ budgets seldom stretch to two costly grandstand tickets within the same period, and downgrading to cheaper seats simply spreads the losses. Hence, without exception, such calendar crowding lasted, at most, two years. Small wonder both Bahrain and Abu Dhabi have insisted on retaining their April and November slots respectively.
Constructing F1 calendars is a complex task: Not only does FOM need to consider the factors above, but needs to recognise contractual obligations such as Melbourne’s right to host the season opener and Abu Dhabi’s claim on the finale. Then there is the question of climate: A March date for Austria’s race would be as nonsensical as an August race in Abu Dhabi; ditto typhoon season slots for Suzuka or December for Montreal. Time zones, too, play a role – particularly where daylight changes work in favour of television.
National and religious holidays and global events also impact on calendars: Some venues prefer to stage events during holidays; others experienced loss of business – for example Russia, which swapped to a May date in the hope of exploiting the Labour Weekend, but has reverted to an October slot – while staging grands prix to clash with FIFA World Cup broadcasts (or similar sporting events) is tantamount to financial suicide.
Russia will also host the football world cup this yearThen there is the question of tradition: Although this year is an exception due to the vagaries of an early Easter, Monaco generally stages its event during the Ascension Day weekend, when its businesses are closed for the day and the streets quiet. These considerations, incidentally, gave rise to the Principality’s original four-day race weekend timetable, with the streets being opened for business on Fridays.
Finally, packing 21 (and increasing) races plus a summer break and sufficient pre-season testing into an effective 50 weeks will always be a complex task, particularly when one considers that teams will travel around 100,000 miles between events and testing during the period. Any wonder F1’s current schedule features a triple-header and three double-headers, and jets to Montreal between its Monaco and Marseilles fixtures?
There is no doubt, though, that the current calendar is cumbersome: A two-week gap between Melbourne and Bahrain/China is counter-productive and costly: F1 personnel either faced the two longest hauls of the season within a fortnight, or stay away from base (and families) for two weeks. Either way, the return flight from Shanghai flew directly past Baku; then, two weeks later we are off to Azerbaijan…
RaceFans understands that upheaval is expected shortly after the recent disclosure in the USA via Liberty Media documents that the average race hosting fee amounts to around $30m, leading ‘showcase’ venues such as Sochi, Baku, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi to question why they are paying up to double the average fee – despite some venues being given discounts during former F1 tsar Bernie Ecclestone final days in office.
How then should the 2019 calendar shape up given the complex and conflicting parameters above while minimising travel time and costs? Equally, how best to accommodate a four-day launch/shakedown test in Barcelona while offering teams (and, crucially, Pirelli) an opportunity of hot weather testing at minimal cost? Another factor is routing given the preference of F1 folk to fly Middle Eastern airlines, predominantly FOM sponsor Emirates.
How next year’s calendar could look
Taking all this into consideration, here is RaceFans’ take on how the 2019 calendar could take shape, assuming all current venues retain or extend their existing deals.
Snow in Spain this year prompted calls to move testing to warmer climes
Pre-season test one Barcelona 28 February-1 March
A later start than usual provides team with sufficient time before the incoming season for car design and manufacture, plus launch activities. The Circuit de Catalunya is a known quantity, while Barcelona provides a perfect base for a season launch should FOM wish to stage a full-on Fan Fest as suggested here. A ten-day break provides sufficient time back at base to fettle cars prior to the next test.
Pre-season test two Bahrain 12-15 March
Pirelli and the teams have long demanded at least one hot weather pre-season test. Thus cars and kit could be flown to Bahrain and onwards to Australia after the test.
Australia is F1’s traditional curtain-raiser
Australia (Melbourne) 31 March – Currently contracted to 2023
At least a week later than recently, but the date permits a two-hour time zone swing that works in favour of most audiences – particularly European – while satisfying Melbourne’s contractual right to host the season opener.
Bahrain (Sakhir) 7 April – Currently contracted “beyond 2021”
Double-heading the race enables personnel to return to Europe via the Middle East, thus minimising costs and travel time. Post-race the cars and kit are ideally located for trip to China. Date over four months after Abu Dhabi, so little fan crossover. Sakhir International Circuit believed one of four pushing for a reduction in hosting fees, particularly now that Sheikh Mohammed Bin Essa Al-Khalifa sits on the main Liberty board.
China (Shanghai) 21 April – Currently contracted to 2023
Traditional slot, facilitates convenient travel and logistics to Baku via Turkey and/or Middle East. This would also be the 1,000th round of the world championship.
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Azerbaijan (Baku) 28 April – Currently contracted to 2025, option to break in 2020 with two years notice
Given that Baku was initially slotted in a week after Montreal, returning to Europe from China via Baku should pose no logistics challenges. Believed to be considering triggering its contractual break clause ahead of this year’s event in order to reduce annual hosting fees from over $60m with a 10% annual escalator.
Spain (Montmelo) 12 May – Currently contracted to 2019.
Traditional slot, with two-week window to Monaco facilitating first in-season test if required. Recently resurfaced, so clearly wishes to remain on calendar, but likely to negotiate more favourable contract.
Monaco (Monte Carlo) 26 May – Currently contracted to 2020
Traditional slot, but not during Ascension Day weekend as that falls at end-May and pushes GP into June. Currently pays no hosting fee, but with other circuits pushing for decreases, could that change after current contract expires? Paddock sentiment is that Liberty should call Monaco’s bluff, as with Ferrari. No longer F1’s only glamour race, and with a marked decline in sponsor interest, no longer crucial – as empty jetties attest.
Canada (Montreal) 9 June – Currently contracted to 2029
Traditional June at start of Canadian summer, but now twinned with Austin as was Indianapolis a decade ago. Two twinned North American races break European monotony while saving costs.
USA (Austin) 16 June – Currently contracted to 2021
Still the only US race on calendar despite Liberty’s plans to expand F1’s North American footprint. Moved forward from October slot for logistics reasons plus previous date saw cannibalisation with Mexico. Weather in June (+30C) warmer than October (+22C), and out of hurricane season. RaceFans understands the Fan Fest scheduled for October in Miami is intended to gauge reaction in preparation for possible 2020 date.
France (Le Castellet) 30 June – Currently contracted to 2022
A week later than 2018, providing an additional week after Monaco and LM24 respectively.
Austria (Spielberg) 7 July – Currently contracted to 2020
As per 2018, immediately after France, and thus a week later. Distance from Hamburg and Hockenheim is 700 and 500 miles respectively, so little overlap within Germany, while Spielberg has southern European catchment area. Trucks then head for Hockenheim.
Thin crowds greeted Germany’s last round of the world championship
Germany (Hockenheim) 21 July – Currently contracted to 2018
Hockenheim and the Nurburgring previously agreed to a myopic ‘time-share’ alternate-date agreement which, due to the latter’s financial problems, means Germany now hosts an F1 round only in even-numbered years. That deal ends this year but Hockenheim town council (the circuit owner) refuses to lose money annually and the Nurburgring is said to be not interested at current rates (believed to be $20m). Thus Mercedes may not have a home grand prix for the foreseeable future.
Hungary (Hungaroring) 28 July – Currently contracted to 2026
Traditional slot ahead of F1’s three weekend summer break despite late start to season. Recently resurfaced with new paddock/pit complex at planning stage. Slot permits crews to return to UK ahead of summer break if desired, ready for British Grand Prix. Timing also permits in-season or Pirelli tests before break.
Great Britain (Silverstone) 25 August – Currently contracted to 2019
Silverstone’s owner the BRDC triggered a break clause in its contract last year in the hope of agreeing better terms for a future deal after next year. A replacement venue seems unlikely in short term. A later date – in this case coinciding with the August Bank Holiday weekend – would avoid clashes with British sports events in July and enable teams to return home before heading for final two European legs of season.
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Belgium (Spa-Francorchamps) 8 September – Currently contracted to 2018
A week later than usual, and now also second round after summer break; back to backed with Monza. The promoter likely to push for discounted hosting fee in future: it made loss of $10m in 2016 despite the Max Verstappen effect, with similar losses expected for 2017.
Italy (Monza) 15 September – Currently contracted to 2019
As above, a Week later than usual. Its contract expires next year and the circuit is hopeful of renewal ahead of its 2022 centenary, but not at any cost.
Russia’s round of the world championship has one of the longest contracts going
Russia (Sochi) 29 September – Currently contracted to 2025
One of the circuits believed to have received a substantial discount before Ecclestone’s removal as CEO, although RaceFans understands that the fee is still $10m above average and thus pushing for a further reduction. Date in line with 2018 calendar.
Japan (Suzuka) 13 October – Currently contracted to 2018
Given falling attendances Suzuka owners Honda have cause to lobby for a lower price for their next deal. The only other suitable venue in Japan is Fuji, owned by Toyota, and thus unlikely to engage with FOM. With Hockenheim, Suzuka makes two of four engine suppliers without contracted grand prix for 2019, and one of three (with Ferrari) by 2020…
Singapore 20 October – Currently contracted to 2021
Twinned with Suzuka to reduce Asian travel – 2018 round a standalone after Malaysia’s exit – and thus pushed out a month. Still, on direct flight path to next round in Mexico via Middle East. Climate similar to first two Malaysian Grands Prix, held late October.
Mexico (Mexico City) 3 November – Currently contracted to 2019
Same weekend as 2018, but now twinned with Brazil rather than USA to avoid cannibalisation of crowds.
Brazil (Interlagos) 10 November – Currently contracted to 2020
Held a week earlier than usual – see above – and now no longer standalone, thus reducing costs and travel time.
Abu Dhabi pays a premium to host the season finale
Abu Dhabi 24 November – Currently contracted to 2019 (although some sources suggest 2021)
Contractually holds finale slot, and thus allocated its traditional end-November date. Another showcase event paying well over the odds, and expected to join a push by Sochi, Baku and Bahrain for hosting fees reductions.
As can be seen, it is possible to construct a calendar that takes into account all contractual obligation, is respectful of tradition and the summer break, facilitates testing in both Europe and hot weather, and, crucially, reduces travel time, costs and distances while spreading the calendar across the globe on a regional basis without undue cannibalisation.
Of greater concern to Liberty, though, is that no fewer than three grand prix contracts expire at the end of 2018 and four more the year after, including the home venues for three of four engine suppliers. Liberty maintains that it holds a total of 40 expressions of interest for future grands prix: today its managing director for commercial operations Sean Bratches has restated plans to hold a street race in Vietnam sometime after 2019. Now is the time to prove it, if it hopes to grow revenues and the sport’s footprint.
Follow Dieter on Twitter: @RacingLines