We have a German World Champion. We have a German Constructors’ Champion. Next year, we will have a German driver in each of the three factory teams: Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault. We have a new young German hotshot on the rise. But we won’t have a German Grand Prix.
The race has long been one of the core events of the Formula One World Championship, but in fact it has been a major event on the international sporting calendar since 1926 and there have been only a few years when the event could not take place. In 1955 it disappeared as a result of the dreadful accident at Le Mans, which had killed more than 100 spectators. In 2007 there was political fighting, but there was still a race in Germany, under the European GP title, and in 2015 the Nürburgring failed to honour the terms of the contract with Formula One World Championship Ltd.
How does any of this make sense? How does F1 intend to cash in on German enthusiasm for the sport, if the sport does not go to Germany? Yes, Germans can drive across the border in their camper vans to go to Spa or Austria, as they used to do in the days of Michael Schumacher, but German F1 fans seem to have little interest these days. Whether that is because the ticket prices are too high or because they cannot get excited about Nico Rosberg, Sebastian Vettel, Nico Hulkenberg and Pascal Wehrlein is an interesting discussion. Michael Schumacher was the catalyst for Germany to become a leading nation in F1 in the 1990s. It was not simply because he was so successful, but also because of some hard-to-define sociological undercurrent in the German working classes, which identified Schumacher with national pride and confidence at a time when the country was going through the difficult and destablising process of reunification. Perhaps one day academics will properly define that impact, but there is no doubt that Michael was bigger than the sport and German GPs were engulfed by waves of new fans.
The Commercial Rights Holder will tell you that the race is off the calendar because no-one wanted to pay for it. This is true. In part it is because the fees are expensive and in part, in the case of the Nürburgring, because the Rhineland-Pfalz state government got itself into an awful mess over the circuit, agreeing to match private funding in an expansion project in 2009 that aimed to turn the track into a year-round tourist and business destination. The problem was that the private money never arrived and so the politicians were left with a half-finished project that they then had to completein order to avoid claims that they had wasted public money. Alas, the finished result was a complete waste of money and the Nürburgring went bankrupt and the asset was sold to Russian in what amounted to a fire sale. This was followed by European Commission investigation into anti-competitive behaviour for providing the circuit with too much funding.
The state president Kurt Beck had to resign as a result of the shenanigans at the Ring. He was replaced by Malu Dreyer, but her coalition refused to provide any funding to the new owner. That is not going to change any time soon as Dreyer’s hold on power is tenuous and she cannot afford to make any mistakes after only just winning a no-confidence vote this summer (52-49). It clearly does not help that corporate Germany is not interested in being linked to Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone since his legal troubles in Germany in 2014. He was not found guilty, but nor was he ruled to be innocent and that is a problem. To be fair, Mr E is also not much bothered about being nice to Germans after that whole affair. There is further legal action going on at the moment which will bring the story back into the newspapers again next summer, with a six-week trial scheduled for next June at the High Court in London, as German bank BayernLB and Ecclestone try to work out whether the latter is liable for damages in connection to the sale of its shares in the Formula One group 10 years ago. This is not what the sport needs, but it seems to be a personal issue rather than one that involves the business. Nonetheless, it is all bad publicity.
There was a contract in place for the German GP to take place this year at the Nürburgring, but the Russian owner has little interest and no money to fulfil the terms of the contract. The Hockenheim track is planning to host the race again in 2018 (as contracted), but after that the contract is finished (as the 2019 race was due at the Nürburgring) and a new deal will need to be negotiated. One might imagine that Mercedes-Benz might be rather keen to see a German GP and might even be willing to pay for one, but it seems that the Formula One group is not keen for a manufacturer to agree to cover any losses incurred by a race promoter. As I understand it, Mercedes-Benz was offered the chance to pay the Formula One group directly, in exchange for trackside signage and VIP hospitality, on the basis that this would then lead to a reduction in the fees being asked, but it seems that the Stuttgart firm was not very keen on that proposal, presumably because of the rules of corporate governance in Germany.
Whatever the case, the lack of a German GP is not good for the sport and while explicable, it is not logical.