x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

An opportunity to save Spa and the Belgian Grand Prix

Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One commercial rights owner, could consider the option of holding the Belgian Grand Prix at the historic circuit biennially.

Bernie Ecclestone has been in talks to retain Belgium’s Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, so rich in tradition, on the F1 calendar.
Bernie Ecclestone has been in talks to retain Belgium’s Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, so rich in tradition, on the F1 calendar.

Romance or riches? That is the choice Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One commercial rights owner, faces each time he finds himself being asked to submit a world championship calendar to the sport's governing body.

Turkey's Istanbul Park, with its famously formidable Turn Eight, is to disappear from the F1 schedule from next year, and Belgium's Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps could well be the next popular track to vanish in a plume of exhaust fumes.

Belgium has a long, esteemed history in Formula One that dates back to 1921, but following financial problems, the future does not look positive.

As has been proved in the past, folklore counts for little with five new circuits having joined the calendar in the past four seasons in place of more familiar sporting nations.

Most notably in 2008, France - home of the first grand prix in 1906 - was forced to vanish from the schedule after 53 years of being an ever present.

Ironically, Spa's demise may be to the benefit of their European neighbours across the western border. Etienne Davignon, the Belgian race promoter, was quoted by his country's national news agency this month as saying talks were continuing between Ecclestone, Spa officials and French organisers regarding a possible rotational deal with the Circuit Paul Ricard in Le Castellet, near Marseille.

"The competition among countries who are willing to hold grands prix on their territory is becoming stronger," Davignon said. "The alternating solution would be to perpetuate the Belgian Grand Prix on the championship calendar."

Such a possibility was strengthened yesterday as Ecclestone - whose company Excelis owns the Circuit Paul Ricard - skipped the final day of his daughter Petra's three-day wedding ceremony to attend the race at Spa, and meet Gilles Dufaigneux, the man Francois Fillon, the French prime minister, has charged with returning F1 to France.

However, Pierre-Alain Thibaut, the general manager of the undulating Spa circuit, said that while it is a "possibility" that Belgium goes biennial, it would be "stupid" if Ecclestone prioritised money ahead of racing.

"In my opinion, it must not be a question of money," Thibaut said. "A grand prix is sport; it should be a question of sport. Is this track good for having a nice competition? Is it good to see a driver overtake another? Is it good to give pleasure to the spectators? That for me is the question that should be asked, not how much money does a circuit have."

Flyaway races, such as Singapore and Abu Dhabi offer substantially more lucrative financial packages than the older, more traditional European tracks.

This year, Turkish organisers were told by Ecclestone, that to retain the grand prix, they would need to pay US$26 million per annum (Dh95.4m), an increase of more than 50 per cent on what they have previously paid. Yet, in 2008, Singapore reportedly agreed to pay an annual fee of between $40m and $60m for its event.

"For sure, it would be a very sorry affair if it happened," Thibaut said of Spa being forced off the calendar.

"Everybody should be very disappointed because Spa is one of the oldest tracks, and is the last circuit for real men … There has been a grand prix here nearly every year since 1921, and the greatest drivers in the world have taken part: [Juan Manuel] Fangio, [Alberto] Ascari, Jim Clark, Sir Jackie Stewart. That is why it would be stupid for Spa to disappear."

Michael Schumacher, the sport's most successful driver with seven world championships, started his career in Belgium 20 years ago, and this weekend the 42-year-old German led the calls for Spa to remain.

"The fact of the matter is that if you go along the paddock, everybody wants to come back here," he said. "It has so much tradition, so much atmosphere and we all love this track. If our word counts, you're going to have it. But unfortunately it's not up to us."

Sebastian Vettel, Schumacher's compatriot, who claimed his first Belgian Grand Prix yesterday, said Spa deserves to remain on the calendar for "a longer time than all of us may be racing in Formula One", but the only way the circuit can remain on the calendar is for a private investor to purchase it from the local government.

Gerard Lopez, the chairman of Lotus Renault, is believed to be interested, and the current owners have said previously they are open to such an idea, but Thibaut warned against it.

"It is not possible," he said. "The circuit is so important and imperative to all the region from an economic point of view. Of course, anything can happen, but, in my opinion, it is not the right way forward."

Which leaves Ecclestone with a familiar problem: romance or riches. This time though, with the option to reinstate France looking viable, it would appear he has a clear-cut get-out clause.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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