F1's Vegas, African Adventures in Battle of Racetracks
New ideas and deep pockets
Just three races in, the 2022 Formula 1 racing season is hotting up on the track and off it. While F1 drivers are still antsy after the Saudi escapade, the sport has ventured far and wide from Las Vegas to South Africa, plunging hands into deep pockets, capitalizing on the burgeoning market. But where does it leave the traditional favourites, Monaco and company?
New rules and regulations for cars and drivers on track are not the only talking points this season.
Formula 1 returns to one of the iconic circuits in the race country of Italy, which hosted as many as three races in the pandemic in a single year in a one of its kind scenario. Not surprisingly the background is lit with debate and discussion as the bosses contemplate increasing the number of races to as many as 30 in a couple years time, which would go against the existing Concorde Agreement.
Blame it on the pandemic, but the shuffle of race tracks could not have come at a more opportunist time for the bosses at Formula 1. In fact chief executive Stefano Domenicali chief executive, has already signalled that pedigree and past race history at a particular track would not be a factor in deciding which race stays on the burgeoning F1 calendar going into the future.
The delayed restart to the 2020 season saw races stack up not only back-to-back but also being bunched three in a row over consecutive weekends. Inadvertently opening the doors to new markets and possibilities towards maximizing the F1 calendar and window, which is already being stretched to the point of eating into the off season testing and training period as some of the drivers are already groaning about.
For fans, it is a matter of rejoicing knowing how the past couple of seasons and this one in particular is shaping up, with Lewis Hamilton’s “boring” domination days seemingly behind.
The fascinating battle on track three races in has already seen surprise package Ferrari puncture a hole in Red Bull and Max Verstappen’s ambitions, the latter hindered by their own reliability issues as much as Charles LeClerc’s pugnaciousness out of the gate this season.
But an even more interesting game is going on behind closed doors and it seems the on-track rivalry has come at a fortuitous time for motorsport’s premier event as tracks must now fight it out viability wise to keep their place.
Although the Formula 1 season has been currently capped at 24 races, the announcement of the addition of a third race in the United States in Las Vegas for the 2023 calendar has already stretched it to 23. This after Qatar became the latest beneficiary after China was taken off the calendar due to coronavirus concerns, and after Saudi Arabia joined the pack, despite reservations from drivers after a Houthi missile attack came too close for comfort on race weekend last month.
One of the concerns on race organizers’ agendas is that not all races had to pay hosting fees in the past. The Monaco Grand Prix was one of the beneficiaries, and with the contract at the iconic venue since 1950 expiring this year there are legitimate concerns that the street circuit encapsulating casinos and tunnels as well as a stunning view across luxury yachts might lose its spot amidst the competition.
One of the factors going against the Monaco Grand Prix is the fact that while it is a “destination race” for fans and for the rich and famous, it is not a favourite amongst race drivers as overtaking opportunities are slim and the streets are narrow, increasing the danger of running into barrier walls.
But it is not the fate of the Monaco GP alone that is in question. Several races on the agenda might get the boot after 2022. On the endangered list include the French, Brazilian and even the Belgian GP which have been put on unofficial notice.
This is a worrisome scenario, with some drivers expressing anguish after the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix about the future feasibility of hosting races with the danger of violence so close to the action as was witnessed during practice on race weekend. There are further queries over the need for three races in the USA and also in the Gulf, where undoubtedly there are also human rights issues at play, something that has become more prominent in the post pandemic world as drivers like Hamilton have adopted social causes courting controversy.
Furthermore, there are tracks itself that have drawn question marks despite being picturesque especially at night, with the street circuits like in Jeddah raising questions over driver safety during the overtaking entertainment for drivers and fans.
Precedent was set in 2020 when Italy hosted as many as three races in Monza, Imola and Mugello in the rearrangement that saw Australia and China dropping out that year over the timing of coronavirus concerns. That the Australian Grand Prix returned to the circuit in 2022 after 1,000 days in total says a lot, as does the fact that there is no prospect of China returning to the race track any time soon.
Compounding matters or conversely, freeing up the calendar, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced Russia to be dropped off the calendar while tracks like that in Qatar were almost seamlessly squeezed in last year which did not go unnoticed either.
F1 meanwhile remains defiant, despite workload pressures on drivers and safety and off-season work on the cars, prospecting race circuits from Las Vegas to Kyalami in South Africa. If the F1 bosses are not in a hurry to discuss about the security concerns of the race in Jeddah, it might have to do with reports of a 15 year deal in place worth 65 million dollars a year, not to mention the ongoing sponsorship deal with Aramco worth some 40 million dollars per year.
An already packed, prolonged calendar saw F1 stretch last year from March to December. More races will mean less turnaround time for travel, transport and training, and tune-ups of the car as well as team setup at the next venue. Such stretched and tightly packed seasons are likely to increase attrition among drivers, and it might come down to teams rotating drivers not far off into the future if 30 races do become reality.
The other viable option that F1 bosses are entertaining is the idea of rotating race venues. It might be one way to keep all parties involved happy as well as fans across continents while keeping market options open. Which way will Formula 1 racing go?