Monday, August 3, 2009

Formula 1 Racing Fiddles While Montreal Burns With Rage

It was with a measure of disgust and frustration that I watched the Formula 1 race from Hungary last Sunday.
As seen in the picture, the race was run to a half full house, with tens of thousands of seats unoccupied.

Formula 1 has always nurtured an image of exclusiveness and owned a well-earned caché of decadence.
Rich tourists with fat bankrolls, expensive sports cars, beautiful women, Dom Perignon, Cuban cigars, famous pop singers and movie stars, that's what the Formula 1 organization promised to deliver to the hosting venues.

When the Grand Prix came to town, it was a chance for the hoi-polloi to rub up against the gliterrati, the rich and famous jet setters, for a weekened, anyway.

Watching the Hungarian Grand Prix play out before an empty house was deflating and image busting. It can't be good for the sport.

Here in Montreal, the Grand Prix always ran to a packed house and everyone involved with the event including the racing teams, the organizers, the sponsors and the fans were in love with the summer event, everyone that is, but Bernie Ecclestone, Formula 1’s boss.

Next to Monaco, Montreal was the highlight of the racing calender, the worldwide television audience numbers proved it. No other host city put as much effort into making the event successful and memorable. The city transformed itself into a Mardi-Gras type atmosphere with street closings, parades, parties and special events making the fun accessible even to those who don't like car racing.

Each year over 100,000 fans shelled out between $60 and $1,500 dollars for tickets.
How on earth can that not be a paying proposition for Formula 1?

Ever since Mr. Ecclestone sold the majority of his interest in the business to CVC Capital Partners for $2.5 billion, Formula 1 racing has become obsessed with wringing out as much profit from the business, without regard for the long-term good of the sport.

To fetch such a high selling price, Ecclestone had to guarantee a huge cash flow and so he regularly takes out half of the $1 billion that the sport generates each year.

This is the new reality of Formula 1, where venues are chosen exclusively for what they will pay to host the event and where live audiences and real fans have been declared redundant.

If an organizer offered Bernie enough money, he’d hold a race on the moon.

And so races take place in countries where autocratic leaders seek validation of their regime by hosting a showcase international event. They pay obscene amounts of money in the vain attempt to buy legitimacy.
No matter that the man in the street has no interest in the sport or the wherewithal to attend, it is but a side issue.

Turkey, China, Hungary, Singapore, Dubai, Malaysia and Bahrain are all venues where fans are nonexistent and where those who do attend, pay just a few dollars or are let in free. Worse still, in some venues people are forced to attend to give the impression that the event is successful.

The sport may return to Montreal, but I'm not sure it will ever recover it's past glory. In North America and Montreal in particular Formula 1 is damaged goods.

Fans were royally annoyed that they were so callously treated. With the elimination of the US Grand Prix, those Americans fans who made the trek up to Montreal to see the race may choose to pass on Formula 1 if it returns to Montreal.

I can't imagine what sponsors think. Allowing the sport to remain unrepresented in their most important markets seems counterproductive, but then again many things are strange.

Perhaps the chickens have come home to roost.

This week BMW announced their retirement from the sport, leaving only four engine manufacturers left in the sport. It's widely believed that another engine manufacturer will also leave by year's end.

Formula 1 continues to generate a lot of money, but for how long?

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