It is no great surprise to hear that Bernie Ecclestone is saying that the German Grand Prix could drop from the Formula 1 calendar. The government (at national, regional and local level) does not wish to pay the Formula One group to hold a race each year and so any promoter must try to make an event pay by other means. This is virtually impossible in the modern age. One can argue that such an approach is unreasonable given what an event brings to a country, but that is the way it is in Germany, despite the fact that the country has had a rich history in the sport in the last 25 years. One of the most important players in F1 is Mercedes-Benz and both BMW and Volkswagen are German and both could get involved in F1 if the circumstances were deemed to be right. The World Champion for the last four years has been a German and there are four German drivers in F1, more than any other nationality. The German GP itself has existed since 1926 and has been held in all but two years since the World Championship began in 1950. It is a core F1 event. On a personal level, it is clear that Ecclestone has no reason to be nice to the Germans. He has been put on trial there and could end up in jail in the country if the courts decide that he is guilty. It is hardly surprising that he would be less than helpful. Having said that perhaps in a few weeks – just before the trial begins – he will offer them a cheap deal…
Equally, it is no great surprise to hear that Ecclestone has done a deal to take Formula 1 to Baku in Azerbaijan, probably in 2016. The country is one of the former Soviet republics, but is an overwhelmingly Shia Muslim state, although it does not have good relations with its neighbour Iran, which is also Shia. The country is rich (and getting richer) thanks to oil and gas. The country’s exports are 90 percent reliant on energy products but the government wants to use its wealth to promote growth and spur employment in non-energy sectors. This all makes sense enough. The bad news is that the country does not score well when it comes to corruption. Transparency International ranks it 127th out of 177 countries, on the same level of perceived corruption as Russia. The Sarajevo-based Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) last year named Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev its person of year – which is not an award anyone actually wants to win.
The vast sums of money available mean that the government can afford to pay for a Grand Prix in a country that has a population that is only slightly larger than London. Two million of the nine million people live in Baku, which is seven times larger than any other city. The city bid for the 2020 Olympic Games but was rejected by the IOC. However it has held a couple of international motor races, the FIA GT Series visiting the city in 2012 and 2013. The race took place on a 2.5-mile street circuit close to the dramatic Baku Crystal Hall arena, next to Flag Square, part of the developing Caspian waterfront in the city.
Money may be the ultimate goal for Bernie Ecclestone and those behind him but it is worth noting that the Russia and Azerbaijan are the lowest ranking countries to have been included in the F1 World Championship in the last 20 years. The lowest before that was India (94th), China (80th), Brazil (72nd) and Italy (69th). Given the damage that is being done to the sport by Ecclestone’s adventures in Germany – whether they prove to be true or not – it is perhaps not wise for the sport to be reaching lower and lower down the list… Big multinational companies look at these kind of things when they consider whether to get involved in sponsorships.