F1 is already looking to travel even further in 2013, but has it forgotten that home is where the heart is? Pete Gill looks at what the future may hold and why some familiar tracks may be under threat...
Last Updated: 17/02/12 12:17pm
Here's a loose question to get us started: is the 2012 calendar already old news? We ask because ever since the FIA confirmed the 20-race schedule for next season on December 7, the news cycle seems to have exclusively rotated around plans for 2013 and beyond.
First there was Bernie Ecclestone announcing on December 11 that F1 will soon be heading to Russia and "maybe to South Africa and Mexico", then there was the disclosure from Argentina that a new F1 circuit is being built near Buenos Aires. And now there are reports from France that the country has agreed a deal to start hosting grands prix again. All this, lest we've forgotten already, within three weeks of the busiest calendar in the sport's history being officially filed for publication. F1 isn't supposed to stand still but this has been ridiculous.
Yet there's an obvious flaw to all these new plans for further expansion. By common consent, a 20-race calendar marks saturation point. There may be other places to go but there's nowhere left to go on a calendar that is already full to its overflowing brim. If the sport is to travel somewhere new again then somewhere old will have to give.
Europe is bound to be victimised first. After all, one of Bernie's more memorable sermons of late heard him broadcasting the continent's obituary. "I think Europe is finished. It'll be a good place for tourism but little else. Europe is a thing of the past. In a few years, Europe will be left with only five races", he predicted in late November.
Of the eight European destinations on the 2012 calendar - Monaco, Britain, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Hungary, Spain and Valencia - there are some obvious vulnerabilities. Valencia and Barcelona will surely soon be put on rotation in much the same way that the German GP has alternated between Hockenheim and Nürburgring since 2007. Hungary has a long-term contract but neither the circuit nor the glamour to keep it a protected species for long. Spa, despite its cherished appeal and legendary status, is poised to lose out if France returns, at least on a biennial basis.
But the numbers still don't add up. Even if Hungary and either Barcelona or Valencia lose out, F1 will still require another pair of evictees if it is to continue its expansion into a truly global sport and accommodate a New York Grand Prix - as the New Jersey race will surely quickly be called - in addition to Russia, South Africa and another venue in the Americas. Go to New York and F1 has the backdrop it has always wanted to be depicted against. Go to South Africa and every hospitable continent on the globe will feature on the sport's itinerary. Go to Russia, return to Mexico or Argentina, and massive markets are opened up. Bernie will know this. He will know, too, that the cull can't be exclusive to Europe. Hard choices must be made elsewhere. Korea, a grand prix which has never caught the imagination there or elsewhere, is already on borrowed time. Bahrain, for reasons to be properly discussed another day, may already be a thing of the past even if it is still listed on next year's calendar. With a little flexibility, new routes for change can still be uncovered.
But there's a big but coming because there's a very interested party in this clinical calculation that we've so far failed to mention: the teams. Though they will appreciate the business benefits of F1 becoming a global sport, every team will also be mindful of the demands being made on a workforce who have hitherto had no say in the abrupt relocation of their workplace. Europe may have its faults - and its future might indeed be as a tourist destination - but the teams prefer racing there because, without current exception, it is their continental home. And everyone likes working closer to home.
At this juncture, in order to appreciate just how far F1 has come, it's worth recalling that during the 1980s the sport only visited three new venues, all of which were in Europe. In 1991, it had 16 destinations, ten of which were in Europe. In 1997, a mere five of the 17 seventeen races were considered 'long haul'. For 2012, however, that figure has more than doubled, with almost half of next year's races only first appearing on the calendar after 1999. True to its nature, F1 has moved fast. The fear, though, is that it has moved too far and too quickly.
Though the sense of overstretch was in part enforced by the circumstantial anti-climax of Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel securing the Constructors' and Drivers' championships a month before the season's belated end, a regular topic of conversation in those closing weeks was concern at the effects of globalisation on the sport's nuts-and-bolts protagonists. For those team members not housed in luxurious motorhomes or ferried about in private jets, F1's globetrotting calendar has come to be a relentless, exhausting treadmill of timezones and transit. And that fear has now become impossible to ignore.
Word has it that one leading team has commissioned a study into the physical and mental side-effects global expansion is demanding of their personnel, the results of which may well be pivotal in the shaping of F1's calendar of the future. If it is concluded that all those check-ins are resulting in serious cases of burn-out then something - and not just somewhere - will have to give. F1 cannot keep expanding if it has already exceeded the capacity its workers can sustain.
A few short-term solutions spring to mind. Much like a few selected circuits, some team members can be put on rotation. Families can be ferried out. Extended breaks might be enforced. But the essential problem will remain. And here's the rub that is liable to scratch away at F1's surface during 2012 as it once again boldly goes further than it has ever gone before: the more the sport travels, the more its people are likely to realise it must travel less.
1000 Words On: The Iceman's Return