x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Northern over-exposure for F1 in America?

Not only is Texas stifling hot in summer, but pairing it with Canada means the Formula One circus will only roll through North America once in 12 months.

Lewis Hamilton leads the pack at the Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Lewis Hamilton leads the pack at the Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Canada's absence from the Formula One World Championship calendar in 2009 marked the first season since 1958 that the sport did not feature a race in North America. Next year, with the United States Grand Prix returning from a five-year absence, there will be two.

Abu Dhabi and Bahrain historically appear at opposite ends of the calendar as a means of maximising exposure and tourists to the Gulf, but the provisional schedule released last week positioned Canada and the Austin-based US race back-to-back in the middle of June.

The decision was met with some puzzled brows. Not only is Texas stifling hot in summer, but pairing the two together means the Formula One circus will only roll through North America once in 12 months.

Analysts suggested the sport's exposure would have been greater and more sustained if the US race had been positioned beside Brazil.

 

Such theories, however, overlook the colossal size of North - and, to an extent, South - America. The distance between Austin and Montreal is 2,400 kilometres, which is roughly the same as Abu Dhabi and Mumbai. In contrast, Sao Paulo is more than 8,000km from Austin - or approximately the same geographical remoteness the Brazilian city is to the venue of the European Grand Prix in Valencia, Spain.

Abu Dhabi and Bahrain — 420km apart — have in the past discussed offering packages that include tickets to both races and North America's two events would be wise to provide a similar option.

One American spectator yesterday estimated more than 40 per cent of the fans in the stand overlooking the Senna Virage corner were compatriots. Not as surprising as it seems when it is considered many from Montreal make regular weekend shopping trips to New York City.

"There are thousand of Americans here - can't you tell?" said Dennis Bell, a veteran fan from Massachusetts who said he intends to attend both of the continent's races next year.

Dan Kennedy, a 30-year-old from San Francisco, said North Americans will make the most of having two races.

"Just now we have only one race in the whole of North America, but fans are going to go to as many races as they can and having a second race closer to home is pretty amazing," said Kennedy, who's California-based Shark Werks company provides specialist Porsche parts to the Middle East.

America's dalliance with Formula One has long been a prickly affair.

It first joined the world championship in 1959 where it remained a mainstay at Watkins Glen in New York for 21 years. But it was absent for most of the 1980s and 1990s as it struggled to find a permanent home, shifting from New York to Phoenix to Indianapolis.

That looks set to change with next year's race scheduled to be the first of 10 annual grands prix held at a custom-built, multipurpose venue called Circuit of the Americas.

The track is designed by Hermann Tilke, the same architect who created Yas Marina Circuit as well as the new track in Greater Noida that will host the inaugural India Grand Prix on October 30.

The teams show no naivety when they talk about the importance of developing the sport in North America. Martin Whitmarsh, the chairman of the Formula One Teams Association (Fota) and team principal of McLaren-Mercedes, said earlier this year that "F1 needs the US; the US does not need F1. We need to learn that lesson before we go back into the US market."

Whitmarsh's fears that Formula One's pedigree Stateside will be hampered by alternative racing series such as Nascar are quickly dismissed by F1 enthusiasts in the stands at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, but they concede more needs to be done to promote the sport.

"Nascar is not open-wheel racing," said Bell from below his grey Canadian Grand Prix baseball cap. "It doesn't compare. There are so many different racing series in America and Nascar is the most popular, but F1 is the pinnacle of motorsport; Nascar is not."

Kennedy said he hopes now F1 has a permanent home in the United States, media interest will increase.

"There are so many potential F1 fans in the US, but just now, it's difficult to find coverage, you need to have a premium cable service just to see it on television. It's pretty sad if you are a big fan that you need tune into British broadcasting just to find out what's going on."

Eric Boullier, Fota's vice-chair and team principal of Renault, understands a race in the United States is essential, but said Canada's passion for grand prix racing means it will remain one of the most popular events on the calendar.

"Business-wise, Formula One has to be in the US [and] internally, in Formula One, Canada is rated as one of the best events to attend," Boullier said. "So you need both."

And next year, in direct contrast to both countries' absence in 2009, Formula One will have precisely that.

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae