Just four weeks remain until the new Formula One season begins, yet doubts still linger over the future of some of the sport’s most iconic tracks beyond this year.
Britain’s Silverstone has led the revolt against F1 owners Liberty Media as one of five races whose contracts are set to expire. Also among them is Italy’s Monza, another prestigious circuit that was involved during the motorsport series’s initial season in 1950.
Neither are willing to budge on their demands that race fees are reduced, arguing that costs are up and revenue is down, with Hockenheim, Barcelona and Mexico City also in doubt.
While there has been some progress in race renewals, with Liberty confirming it has extended the deal to host a race in Baku to 2023, it will hardly be enough to get fans, or shareholders, off their seats, particularly given that Azerbaijan was not one of the five races up for renewal this year.
Furthermore, Liberty’s chief executive Greg Maffei openly questioned the wisdom of staging a race in the country when the company took over the sport.
“We end up with races in places like Baku where they paid us a big race fee but it does nothing to build the long-term brand and health of the business,” Maffei said less than two years ago. “Our job is to find partners who pay us well, but also help us to build the product.”
Liberty also announced last year that a race would be held in Vietnam from 2020, which also appeared to go against the original plans and potentially poses a threat to some of the more traditional races.
Discontent over the addition of new races and a lack of progress with renewals was brought to Liberty’s attention at an annual meeting with the Formula One Promoters’ Association (FOPA) last month.
FOPA, which represents 16 of the 21 race organisers on the current calendar, expressed concerns regarding the introduction of new races “to the detriment of existing events”, as well as the increase in pay-TV deals globally and a “lack of clarity on new initiatives”.
“I thought the meeting was incredibly positive,” F1 CEO Chase Carey told ESPN. “I thought there was tremendous support from the vast majority and they have a great appreciation for what we are doing. The fact that a few of them wanted to find something to complain about, that’s life. It’s not going to change what we are doing.”
Russian and Mexican race promoters are two of the five not associated with FOPA – along with Monaco, Bahrain and Japan – and distanced themselves from the association’s view.
Both insisted that discussions between themselves and Liberty had been productive, although Mexico is yet to agree a renewal beyond this season.
Race against the clock
So far just 17 of the 21 races due to take place in 2020 have been confirmed and only six are in Europe, four fewer than on this year’s calendar. It also means that at least one of the five set to expire will not be renewed.
Silverstone exercised a break clause in its contract two years ago but its owner, the British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC), hopes to retain the race “on terms that are commercially viable”. The track’s managing director Stuart Pringle has previously been outspoken and critical of Liberty Media, but Silverstone chiefs have now agreed “to talk in private”.
Monza is also struggling financially with ticket sales down last year, amid Ferrari’s recent lack of success, and Italian Grand Prix boss Angelo Sticchi Damiani confirmed that it is among the 16 tracks protesting against current race fees.
In Germany, the situation is calmer. The deal with Hockenheim was extended by 12 months in 2018 and tends to be handled on a year-by-year basis. The track previously rotated responsibility for holding the national Grand Prix with the Nurburgring and it is possible that a 2020 race could be held at either venue.
Race organisers’ unhappiness stems from the vast sums they are paying to host races, which totalled $608.3m in 2017 – a third of the motorsport’s total revenue.
Meanwhile, prospective hosts are being offered more favourable deals to join the calendar, with reports that Liberty is willing to waive fees in order to stage a race in Miami – sharing costs and ticket sales – with the company eager to add dates in the United States.
While it is unclear whether a race in Miami will happen, suggestions of the proposal have angered other hosts, most of all in Austin, Texas, where millions of dollars are being paid to host a grand prix.
As the 2019 season approaches, Liberty has left itself in a precarious situation. With mounting uncertainty over what the 2020 race calendar may look like, chief executive Carey’s hand may be forced into giving rebel race organisers what they want.