x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

F1's global formula takes shape

Away from the traditional European base, the sport's reach is expanding. Gary Meenaghan reports from Barcelona.

Europe’s representation could diminish further if one of Spain’s two races lose out next season.
Europe’s representation could diminish further if one of Spain’s two races lose out next season.

For the past two decades, as Formula One's geographical footprint has expanded, its nucleus has slowly edged eastward.

Europe, traditionally the sport's central hub and home, has seen its presence shrink from the calendar, while Asia has strengthened its position as a protagonist in what has become a genuine world championship. No racetrack can claim to be at the centre of F1's global footprint more legitimately than Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.

Yet it is not only the racing calendar that is expanding its global reach. A study carried out by The National into the changing face of F1 over the past 20 seasons provides evidence that drivers and teams have also started filing into the sport from increasingly distant parts of the globe.

We look at the expansion of the F1 calendar, the evolution of driver nationalities and the introduction of non-European race teams in the sport as well as exploring what the future may hold for the increasingly international world of F1.

Circuits

Twenty years ago, Nigel Mansell, a mustachioed 39-year-old driver with Williams, won nine grands prix in a 16-race season to set an abundance of records and become the first Briton since Jackie Stewart in 1973 to be crowned world champion.

His season started like a dream as he cemented a healthy and unassailable lead at the top of the drivers standings with victories in the first five races. For a traditionally European sport, the 1992 calendar had begun with more than a hint of exoticism. The season-opening race in South Africa was followed by races in Mexico and Brazil before the travelling circus returned to Europe.

Between the Spanish Grand Prix on May 1 and the Portugal's annual race on September 27, the fraternity left the continent only once more, for the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. The season ended with two flyaway races - in Japan and Australia - to conclude a championship that featured six non-European races.

Ten years later, while the countries the calendar incorporated had changed substantially, such was the strength of Europe that while Malaysia and the United States had muscled their way on to the schedule, traditional races such as Austria, San Marino and France had also remained. Mexico and South Africa had departed, leaving the number of flyaway races on the calendar at a stagnant six.

The global economic recession hit many European countries harder than their Asian counterparts, resulting in recent years forcing the traditional races to slide off the calendar replaced by shiny new events in nations such as Singapore and South Korea.

This season sees a record number of races taking place outside Europe; a figure that would have arrived sooner were it not for the cancellation of last season's Bahrain Grand Prix. Despite this season's absence of Turkey - which the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, motorsport's Paris-based governing body, recognises as an Asian race - the 2012 world championship calendar includes 12 flyaways featuring events in Australasia, North and South America, the Middle East and East Asia.

Having started, as has become standard, in Australia, next came Malaysia, China and Bahrain before this weekend's Spanish GP in Barcelona. Much like in Mansell's championship-winning season, Canada sits awkwardly in the middle of the European stint of the season before Singapore marks the start of a busy year-end that features seven flyaway races in the space of 10 weeks. For the first time, 60 per cent of the F1 calendar is being held outside of Europe.

Bernie Ecclestone, the F1 commercial rights holder, is often criticised for chasing money rather than acknowledging spectator interest. Spain, from next season, is expected to lose one of its two races - both of which attract strong crowds - while the likes of Bahrain and South Korea, the former of which failed to fill half its grandstand last month. "I think there may be too many races in Europe now," Ecclestone said at the start of the 2012 season.

"We're not a European championship any more, we're a world championship and we need to be in all different parts of the world." He added: "We are short of races in Latin America, so we are looking closely to that part of the world."

The United States has returned to the calendar this season for the first time since 2007 and the race in Austin, Texas, is expected to be joined by a grand prix in New Jersey by 2014.

Likewise, Russia has signed a contract to host a race in 2014 in Sochi, while Argentina, Mexico and South Africa have been touted as possible future venues.

With the season already featuring a record 20 grands prix, current venues will need to disappear, and as well as a Spanish track, races in Germany and Belgium have been cast in doubt. Ecclestone, however, as ever, is keeping his cards close to his chest and his options open.

Teams have made it clear they would be reluctant to sign up for any more races, but the sport's wily chief executive said last year that 21 events per season is not impossible, adding: "If we say we have got to get rid of Monaco, [teams] would say we would rather not."

Drivers

It is entirely understandable why Ecclestone is so keen to take the sport deeper into Latin America. Having previously held races in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, only Sao Paulo's Interlagos remains on the schedule. Yet from the relatively small number of non-European drivers who have graced the sport throughout the past 20 years, the majority have came from South America.

Of the six non-European drivers who lined the grid at some stage of the 1992 season, only two nationalities were represented. A pair of Japanese drivers - Aguri Suzuki and Ukyo Katayama - were joined by four Brazilians, most notably Ayrton Senna, the who was chasing a third consecutive drivers title.

Compare that to 10 years later and the differences are clear. In 2002, only three years after the Malaysian GP had made its F1 debut on the calendar, the South East Asian nation had a representative on the grid in the form of Alex Yoong.

Likewise, Mark Webber had progressed through the junior series to represent Australia at his home grand prix and Canadian Jacques Villeneuve brought patriotic pride to the stands at the Montreal circuit named after his father, Gilles.

Alongside them raced Juan Pablo Montoya, a charismatic Colombian who drove to third place in the standings in a BMW-Williams, Japanese driver Takuma Sato and the Brazilian trio of Felipe Massa, Rubens Barrichello and Enrique Bernoldi. Eight non-European drivers representing six countries.

This season, again, provides a record number of non-European countries being represented. While 10 drivers from outside the continent competed at some stage of 2001 and 2004, they did so representing only five countries. This year, seven countries as diverse as Venezuela and Russia are represented by nine drivers.

At last month's Malaysian Grand Prix, Sauber's Sergio Perez finished second to become the first Mexican to appear on an F1 podium since Pedro Rodriguez in 1971, 19 years before Perez was born.

Perez said he has noticed an increase in interest in Formula One from his compatriots back home, but outlined the reason why non-European drivers in the sport - while growing in number - remain relatively sparse. "Europe has a big advantage over America or Asia because to get into F1 you have to come to Europe, as I did," Perez, who moved to Germany from Mexico when he was 15, told The National. "This is the key reason why Europe will continue to dominate the number of drivers that F1 has."

While the field is diversifying, Perez's stablemate at Swiss team Sauber is now the only Japanese driver left in the sport. Kamui Kobayashi, a 25-year-old, said while more drivers from outside Europe may be breaking into F1, the fact there are 15 European drivers shows the continent is likely to remain dominant.

"It's very difficult, everywhere, but Asia especially" to break into F1, he said. "It's very important for drivers that there is a development programme and this is quite weak everywhere. They definitely have to work on this a lot because it's very difficult to find how young drivers come to Formula One."

The GP2 Series, widely seen as the feeder championship to Formula One, is as good a place to look as any when it comes to predicting what may lie ahead for the future of motorsport's top tier. A brisk run down the 27-man entry list for this season's GP2 throws up a range of nationalities, including 10 non-European: Indonesian, Colombian, Mexican, three Venezuelans, three Brazilians and one from New Zealand.

Teams

Unlike racetracks and drivers, Formula One teams have always been exclusively based in Europe, but a growing trend in the past 20 years has seen marques register as representatives of the team's majority backer.

For instance, in 2002, while Minardi were officially registered by the FIA as Go KL Minardi Asiatech and had Yoong racing for them, they remained registered as an Italian team. Yet in contrast, this season, Marussia F1 Team - based in Oxfordshire, England - appear on the FIA's official entry list as a Russian team.

The change could stem from when Red Bull Racing first started experiencing success in recent years. The team - based in Milton Keynes, England - would see their success on track being greeted by the British national anthem on the podium, much to the frustration of Dietrich Mateschitz, Red Bull's Austrian owner.

The new registrations now ensures that if Marussia, Caterham or Force India win a grand prix this year, the successful driver's national anthem will be complemented by that of Russia, Malaysia or India. Yet it is perfectly understandable to envisage that a team owned by an Indian businessman and named after the owner's home country would one day be keen to relocate the team to the subcontinent. Tony Fernandes, the Malaysian owner of Caterham, has already floated the idea of, at some stage down the line, relocating to South East Asia.

Sam Michael, the sporting director with McLaren-Mercedes, the Woking-based marque, said there is one key reason why moving a team out of Europe would prove difficult.

"Strong Formula One teams are made up of good people; whether they can attract enough good people, that will be the critical thing," he said.

Toro Rosso, who enjoy several sponsorship tie-ups with Abu Dhabi-owned companies, were last year rumoured to be considering relocating to Yas Island. They would struggle to find a more central hub in this new-look world championship, but it is unlikely at this time.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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