The recent post about Indianapolis kicked off quite a debate on the blog and it struck me that it might be an idea to look at where Formula 1 wants to be, where it can go in practical terms, and whow it could all be paid for, without undermining the international price of a race.
The first question that must be addressed is does F1 need America? Clearly then answer to this is no as we have gone many years without one in the past. Is it desirable to have a US Grand Prix? Yes, absolutely. The United States is still the world’s largest consumer market. It is the major market for automobiles and, despite the recession, there is money to spend. It is a mature market and people understand motor racing. The American are a nation that likes shows and fairs and in the right place – and at the right price – it could be a huge success.
So where is the right place? Indianapolis managed to pull in crowds but they were lost in the vastness of the place. It is clear that corporate America, and indeed the corporate world in general was not interested in being in Indiana. This is important for sponsorship dollars. Indianapolis is nice enough city, it has a great racing tradition, it is a brand, but it did not fit well with F1. It is much more a beer-and-hot-dog audience than the wine-and-prawn F1 set.
So where is better? There are a number of elements that need to be addressed when considering this. There are the good racing venues, but there must be analysed not as racing fans would do, but rather as to whether a race is sustainable in that region. If one looks at Europe, even the great Spa-Francorchamps struggles to survive because it is located in the wrong place. Spa needs government backing to survive. Is the US government going to pay for a race? No. Are there state governments or cities that might? Perhaps. But they need a good reason to do so. Thus if F1 is to make it in America, it needs either to be willing to make an investment, or it needs an area that has a reason to want F1.
Bernie Ecclestone has long dreamed of New York City. It is a great dream, but New York City does not need any more tourists. Its hotels are always well-filled. It does not need to alter its image. It is New York and F1 has nothing really to offer. Thus its value to the city is minimal. If, for example, there was a desire to revitalise an area of the city, to give it some glitz, then F1 might work but the revamping of the many docklands, old military bases and industrial lands has gone ahead without much F1 interest. NASCAR tried to build a speedway on the marshes of New Jersey and ran into trouble even there.
Elsewhere in the east there is potential if someone can be found to invest. If New York is impossible, Formula 1 would be happy with Miami, but again it is finding the right venue that is important. Running a race on the infield at Miami Homeland, for example would probably not be a bad idea and permanent venues, such as the Palm Beach International Raceway, which has a 2-mile road course, would require considerable investment. There might be potential for other venues in Virgina an the Carolinas, but the fear with these is finding spectators. The IndyCar event in St Petersburg, Florida, has been a big success but the track is too short for F1 and in any case there is a contract with IndyCar which runs until 2013. There is a tradition of racing in the downtown area that dates back to 1985, but after 1990 complaints about noise stopped the race until 2003.
As previously explained, the timing of the races is important for the live TV audiences – which is what sells a sport to the sponsors. The major audiences these days are in Asia and so F1 needs a time zone that will allow Asians to watch races, without having to get up in the middle of the night. Thus the West Coast is difficult. That would work if there were four or more races a year in the time zone (ie, two in America, one in Mexico, one in Canada and one in Brazil). This would create regional prime time interest and then more fans might watch the races in Europe and Asia. It is really a two-way equation. A US F1 race needs an audience in Asia and Europe and in order to grow the sport there need to be follow-up possibilities for fans. It would help to have a team and drivers, but one cannot hope for everything at the same time!
The West Coast has a number of great venues, some of which might work well for F1: Sears Point is within easy reach of San Francisco, the wine country of Sonoma and so on. It would be good, but the facility is a little basic in F1 terms. Laguna Seca would be terrific, but the same applies. The circuit needs better infrastructure. The Monterey Peninsular probably has the accommodation for the F1 circus, but it would not leave much room for fans. The area is close enough to the Bay Area to draw crowds but the roads could use improvement, but access from the south and Los Angeles is a long haul, unless there is some serious improvement done. Tourism is already the peninsula’s main industry. With the exception of Long Beach, I think Laguna is the one place that might work, but only if there was financial help from the region.
Long Beach would have been perfect for Formula 1, but when the opportunity to buy the race came up in 2005, Formula One did not move. That was a sign that the sport really had no interest in getting into the United States if that involved investing money. Instead the race was acquired by Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerald Forsythe, ensuring that the circuit would continue promoting US open-wheeler racing. In March 2008, the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach signed an agreement with the City of Long Beach to continue running races until 2015, with an additional five-year option. So F1 is locked out there. The price of that transaction was $15m, which is peanuts in the world of Formula One. To put that into perspective, for the year ending December 2008, the Long Beach Grand Prix’s turnover was $15.5m so the 2005 deal was a real bargain. And a huge opportunity lost for Formula 1.
The other project that has been discussed of late is one in the desert region to the south of Palm Springs where attempts are being made to build up tourism, mainly related to casinos, as California is losing much trade to Las Vegas. The plans have been plodding slowly along but it seems that funding is needed if the area is to get a Grand Prix and the state of California finances are not good.
Las Vegas has always attracted Bernie Ecclestone, because there is so much cash flowing about there, but all attempts to take racing into Vegas have flopped. The city exists to feed the casinos and anything that disrupts that business is bad for business. The only way that could work now was if a casino owner decided to put a race track inside of its facilities. The only man who might have done that was Steve Wynn, but he decided not to do that when he revamped the old Desert Inn golf course. That was an opportunity lost.
The Pacific North West might offer some kind of potential particularly as IndyCar has turned its back on Portland International Raceway. At under two miles this is really too short for F1 and has a crowd capacity of only 86,000, but there is room for expansion in the infield and it has the advantages of being a long established race, a well-located circuit and it even has a light rail station and freeway access next to the venue. The parkland setting means that it has the potential to develop in much the same way as Albert Park. The Portland metropolitan area boasts a population of two million and there is easy access to the cities of Seattle and Vancouver, just across the border in Canada. Portland is also known as a technology town, with the biggest employer being Intel and something like 1200 technology firms clustered there. In many ways, with enlightened government, Portland is perfect for Formula 1.