Attendance Problems at the Abu Dhabi and Indian Grands Prix

Matthew WalthertFeatured ColumnistNovember 5, 2013

Two fans amidst a sea of empty seats during free practice before the 2013 Indian Grand Prix.
Two fans amidst a sea of empty seats during free practice before the 2013 Indian Grand Prix.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

What if you built it, but nobody came?  That is the situation facing the organizers of Formula One's Indian and Abu Dhabi Grands Prix.  

Held on back-to-back weekends, October 27 and November 3, these two relative newcomers to the schedule are having trouble living up to expectations in a sport that regularly draws 100,000 (or more) fans on race weekends in Europe, Canada, Brazil and even the United States, where F1 is, at best, a niche sport.

Wide swaths of empty seats over the previous two grands prix have highlighted the challenges with trying to start new races in countries with no Formula One history.  They have also illustrated the folly of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new circuits.  In fact, the price tag on the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi topped $1 billion.

The Indian race is in trouble beyond the poor attendance.  The Indian government has been levying oppressive taxes on the teams and drivers.  Now, after only three races, the grand prix has been dropped from the 2014 calendar, though it is supposed to return in 2015, moved to the beginning of the season.  

Meanwhile, despite low attendance, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is not going anywhere, as the emirate has plenty of oil money to fund the race whether fans show up or not.  As James Allen noted on the BBC's broadcast of the second free practice session, the 5,000 spots in the Paddock Club had been sold out for some time (at more than $5,000 each), but tens of thousands of tickets remained in the more reasonably-priced grandstands—i.e. those who can afford it want to mingle with F1's jet-set crew; those who cannot are not interested in just watching the race.

You might think that, to fans watching on television, it would not matter whether the grandstands were empty or sold out, but even on TV there is something special about the rabid masses at Suzuka or Monza.  Although the crowd at an F1 race does not have the same impact on the outcome of the a race as they do in other sports, they do have a significant effect on the atmosphere around the event.

To be fair, India and Abu Dhabi are not the only races with attendance problems: There were completely empty grandstands at the Korean Grand Prix earlier in October, and attendance at the Bahrain Grand Prix, at the beginning of the season, suffered from oppressive heat and ongoing political unrest (the 2011 race was cancelled due to the protests).

These attendance problems will continue for as long as Bernie Ecclestone continues to push the sport into new markets at the expense of its traditional home in Europe.  Relief may on the way, though, as the 2014 calendar will likely include only eight out of 20 or 21 races in Asia, Australia and the Middle East (compared to nine of 19 this season).

Of course, F1 could establish itself in some of these new markets, as well.  This is obviously what Ecclestone is hoping for, but it is difficult for the sport to be seen as more than a novelty in countries with no motor racing history, no local drivers, and no homegrown constructors.  In the end, races like India and Abu Dhabi may just be passing fancies before F1 returns to its roots.