Why the Italian Grand Prix at Monza Must Remain on the Formula 1 Calendar

Neil James@NeilosJamesFeatured ColumnistJuly 9, 2014

Ferrari drivers Fernando Alonso, bottom, of Spain, leads teammate Felipe Massa, of Brazil, and Red Bull driver Mark Webber, of Australia, during the Italian Grand Prix, at the Monza Formula One circuit, in Monza, Italy, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013.  (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
Antonio Calanni/Associated Press

Bernie Ecclestone's comments last week, indicating Monza may soon disappear from the Formula One calendar, were like a slap in the face to thousands of fans around the world.

To those in Italy, the feeling may have been more akin to a dagger in the heart.

In an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t ESPN for the translation into English), Ecclestone was asked about Monza's future. He replied, "I don't think we'll do another contract, the old one was a disaster for us from a commercial point of view. After 2016, bye bye."

He could have said this sort of thing about most of the venues on the current calendar, and it wouldn't have even made the news. Circuits like Shanghai, Bahrain and Catalunya are expendable.

Stirling Moss at Monza in 1956.
Stirling Moss at Monza in 1956.Anonymous/Associated Press/Associated Press

But Monza is different. The host of an Italian Grand Prix every year bar one since 1950, this simple but daunting circuit near Milan is a part of the sport's heart and soul.

And F1's heart and soul has taken quite a beating of late.

With 19 races taking place on five continents over the course of nine months, F1 has become a giant. What started life as a mostly European championship is now a truly global sport, broadcast all over the world to an audience in the hundreds of millions.

The rapid growth and expansion has brought with it incredible wealth. Per BBC Sport, the top teams spend hundreds of millions of pounds per year to stay at the front, and even the sport's minnows have budgets in excess of £65 million.

Once a sport with its feet relatively close to the ground, F1 now exists in a glamorous bubble of champagne, celebrities and multi-million pound contracts.

Overall, the changes are positive.

But there has also been a cost.

F1 in Abu Dhabi.
F1 in Abu Dhabi.Hassan Ammar/Associated Press

Now fat on the untold riches of increased commercialisation, F1 follows the money around the globe. The best circuits and most passionate fanbases are no longer first in line for a grand prixinstead, the coveted slots on the calendar go to those most willing to pay for them.

Host countries like Bahrain pour millions into the sport's coffers for an opportunity to put themselves in the shop window of the world. That their soulless circuits are surrounded by largely empty grandstands is unimportantthey pay the hosting fee, so they get the race.

As their numbers grow, the number of older circuits in the sport's traditional heartland falls. Their governments will not throw tens of millions at them to cover shortfalls caused by exorbitant hosting fees.

The governments of places like Abu Dhabi will.

So while Yas Marina's shiny new Tilkedrome is safe on the calendar, classics like Silverstone and Spa are not.

And that's not the only part of F1's soul being sold down the river in the pursuit of fast cash.

Bahrain Grand Prix, 2012.
Bahrain Grand Prix, 2012.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Fans like you and me are what made the sport what it is today. Telling our friends about the awesome race we'd seen at the weekend. Forcing our husbands, wives, children and parents to sit for two hours on a Sunday afternoon watching "cars go round in circles."

Dragging friends and family to Silverstone, the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve or Hockenheim.

The number of new followers the sport has accrued because of existing fans is vast.

But as well as seeing their home grands prix under threat, fans in traditional markets are also losing access to TV coverage. Many, especially the younger fans, can no longer afford to follow their favourite sport because F1 is increasingly moving onto pay-TV.

Information from cable.co.uk shows fans in the United Kingdom must pay a minimum of £552 per year to get access to all the races and sessions live. It's even more to watch in high-definition.

Per F1Fanatic, it costs £421 in Germany, £380 in France and £285 in Italy.

The commercial rights holders are happy, because they're raking in more and more money. According to Forbes, F1 owners CVC have made £4.8 billion from the sport since 2006.

But per ESPN, viewing figures are falling, and F1's global fanbase is slowly dwindling.

Post-race Monza, 2013.
Post-race Monza, 2013.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Its never-ending pursuit of instant income means F1 is in danger to losing touch entirely with its roots.

And as it changes, evolves and moves on, the few pieces of history it still has left become more valuable than ever before.

Circuits like Monza, Spa and Silverstone are part of the sport's soul. Beautiful circuits full of character and life, packed grandstands filled with passionate fans and atmospheres no Tilkedrome could ever dream of matching.

The sea of red which forms as the tifosi descend upon Monza is one of the sport's most iconic images and, regardless of your own leanings, something we should cherish. The venerable old circuit, its layout almost unchanged since 1950 and its crumbling banking still visible through the trees, gives today's fans a glimpse into the very origins of F1.

Progress is necessary. That the sport now visits all corners of the world is a good thing, and the increased revenues have transformed what started life as a relatively small, close-knit racing series into the greatest motorsport spectacle in the world.

But it should never forget where it came from.

F1 is a sport, not a brand. A sport lives and dies not on money, global reach or marketing value, but on passion.

And nowhere has more passion than Monza.


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