Formula 1 at the Crossroads: Is the Drive for Expansion Destroying the Sport?

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Formula 1 at the Crossroads: Is the Drive for Expansion Destroying the Sport?
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Formula One is at a crossroads and F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone may well be accelerating headlong down the road that leads to the sport’s demise.

F1 has undergone a massive transformation over the past decade. It is no longer a Eurocentric, elitist, boutique sport, supplemented with a smattering of exotic locales to give the illusion that it is a world sport.

The growth has opened up new markets, but, like all things, there can be too much of a good thing.

F1 is now a global powerhouse with races not only in its traditional homes in Europe but now throughout the Middle East, Asia, Oceania and the Americas.

Only Africa stands apart from the F1 family, but South Africa is working very hard to change that.

So global is the sport that, since 2010, there are now more races outside of Europe than on the traditional circuits where the sport evolved.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing—except for the important fact that the very great majority of the new tracks are designed by German architect and track designer Hermann Tilke.

Those familiar with Herr Tilke’s work will know that he has a reputation for designing aesthetically beautiful, flowing, safe tracks that are brilliant to drive.

Sadly, however, they have a habit of sucking the life out a Formula One race by being notoriously difficult to overtake on.

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Tilke’s emphasis on safety sees the tracks blessed with large asphalt run-off areas, allowing drivers to make mistakes going into corners with little consequence as they can simply drive straight back onto the track.

The 2010 championship decider at Abu Dhabi saw Mark Webber stuck behind Fernando Alonso for most of the race, despite the Spaniard making multiple mistakes and drifting onto the run-off areas. Because the area alongside the track was asphalt, Alonso was able to recover to the track without losing track position.

Next weekend will see yet another new Tilke track greet the F1 circus. As always, we are promised a circuit that is different to his other tracks, one that will be great for racing.

We’ll see, but don’t hold your breath (although the two DRS zones might help.)

Looking at the 2012 season and beyond, F1’s continued move into new markets will start to mean the loss of European races.

To make way for the USGP, Turkey has had to be sacrificed. Although the Turkish GP was only established in 2005, its axing to make way for an American race reflects the waning influence of the European homelands.

It has already been confirmed that beginning in 2013, the Belgian GP will alternate with the French GP at the Paul Ricard Circuit. In doing so, it will rob every second season of a race at Spa in Belgium, a track widely regarded as of one of the most exciting and popular tracks on the calendar.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Buddh International Circuit: Another new circuit.

The latest news has F1 visiting the USA twice in 2013—at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin which will debut in 2012 and then at a street circuit in Weehawken, New Jersey the following year.

The Austin track is yet another Tilke track which doesn’t bode well. Then again, it could be worse.

The Weehawken track will be the nightmare combination of a Tilke track and another street circuit.

It’s being marketed as Monaco on the Hudson, but it has neither the history nor the charm to make that claim.

Besides, even though Monaco is steeped in tradition, it is renowned for producing processional races with almost no overtaking on the track. The sport doesn’t need more street circuits.

Fortunately the New York skyline will be there to give the punters something to look at when the racing gets dull.

Surely, that’s not the way to try to secure a notoriously fickle market—by racing at tracks that traditionally don’t encourage overtaking.

It doesn’t stop there, either.

Clive Mason/Getty Images
The brave new world

Talk of a 2013 street race in Rome could conceivably mean the end of the race at Monza—the spiritual home of F1 racing. If that happens, then there is nothing sacred in F1 anymore.

Russia is looking to get a race for as early as 2014. South Africa is waiting in the wings, and there’s talk of a second Indian F1 track.

The downside is that to make way for these new entrants, the traditional home of the sport is likely to be sacrificed. While some would argue that renewal is not necessarily a bad thing, the thing that sets F1 apart is the rich tradition and history.

Lose that, and it’s no longer the same sport.

There is a seeming endless line of cities willing to throw cash at Bernie Ecclestone’s feet in order to buy the right to bask in the reflected glory of the Formula One circus.

Luckily for them, Ecclestone is always in the mood to sell.

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