Will Gray

Gray Matter: F1’s calendar conundrum

Will Gray

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Some tough decisions need to be made on next year’s F1 calendar in the next few weeks – but with the teams unlikely to back more than 20 races Bernie Ecclestone has a challenge to fit in all his suitors.

The F1 calendar is always in constant flux but next season is shaping up to be one of the most altered seasons in recent years, with four new races jostling for position on an already cluttered schedule.

Mexico has just become the latest venue to be added to that list, with a billionaire-backed bid that is almost certain to go through if the Autodromo Hermano Rodriguez track, which last hosted a race in 1992, can be readied in time.

That adds to a Red Bull-backed race in Austria, the promotion costs of which Dietrich Mateschitz is personally funding, alongside a Russian race at Sochi, which has been on in pencil for several years, and the second US race, in New Jersey, which missed its date for this year but still has a chance to make it in for 2014.

With 19 races on this year’s calendar, and Ecclestone contractually obliged to seek teams’ consent and pay them additional fees for more than 20 (both of which are extremely unlikely) that has made constructing next year’s calendar a bit of a nightmare.

Especially as all four of the new venues he wants to fit in are still not yet 100 per cent certain of making the grade.

Austria is the most stable, already given a July 6 date and already an active racing venue with an F1 heritage, albeit a shadow of the former Osterreichring.

There are still negotiations to be had with the local government over spectator numbers and other restrictions that need to be lifted to make the event financially stable and although they are unlikely to be deal breakers (it is a small drop in the ocean for Mateschitz and he is so desperate to have his own Grand Prix he will no doubt handle the difference), they do add some level of uncertainty.

Next most realistic, it seems, despite its late arrival on the scene, is Mexico. It is financially strong, has good political support and makes absolute sense in terms of F1’s current fan base - with Sergio Perez at McLaren and Esteban Gutierrez at Sauber, the country has two drivers and, with a latent passion for motorsport, would create an immense atmosphere at what is another classic F1 venue.

The Mexican project, which has developed after proposals for a race in Cancun collapsed, is being driven by Tavo Hellmund, who did a great job with the USGP at the Circuit of Americas, and his Mexican equivalent, Alejandro Soberon, chief executive of CIE live entertainment.

The F1 ambitions are backed by Mexico’s new young president Enrique Pena Nieto and the event claims to be fully funded, with financial backing likely coming from world’s richest man Carlos Slim, whose son sits on the F1 decision board. Ecclestone said earlier this week he was “going to try to make it happen” and with all that behind it, surely it should do. Expect a decision within the next two weeks.

So, it is the two all-new venues that have the biggest question marks.

Ecclestone signed up for a Russian Grand Prix in Sochi in October 2010 and although the country’s deputy Prime Minister suggested back then that the first race could be in 2015, not 2014, due to the challenge of managing F1 and the Winter Olympics, Ecclestone visited in February this year, said he was pleased with progress on the 3.7-mile circuit, and gave a provisional date of October 19.

Bizarrely, however, at the start of this month the Russian Automobile Federation (RAF) missed the deadline to submit a formal application for the race and failed to pay their hosting fee.

The RAF and Sochi promoters JSC Omega are believed to be in dispute over funding of marshalling, amongst other things. That could be just a small sticking point, but it could be more serious.

The RAF has said it is ready and happy to submit the application “as soon as promoter fulfils all necessary formalities” but it will now need to prove ‘Force Majeur’ to get on the calendar.

New Jersey, meanwhile, is in trouble over finances again having already had to ditch plans to run this year due to missed payments.

Leo Hindery Jr, the multi-billionaire managing partner of InterMedia private equity fund, initially funded the 10-year contract but the organisers hired UBS earlier this year in a bid to raise $100m to actually run the race.

Progress on the Hermann Tilke designed Port Imperial street circuit is still moving forward but it appears the required funds have not come in and this week Ecclestone admitted he has concerns over the race.

He said the same about the Austin race, however, and that overcame its issues to become a great success – so it could be he’s just playing hardball. The mayor of West New York, Felix Roque, insists the race will still go ahead while Hindery said this week “the only obstacles in front of us now are execution, not structural”. It is that execution, however, that could prove its downfall.

Meanwhile, Bahrain is angling to host the season opener, as it is their 10th anniversary, and with F1 teams almost agreed on two pre-season tests in Dubai, that could fit well. But it remains undecided.

Ecclestone has already confirmed that India will skip 2014, but return for the start of 2015, claiming the move from October to March would mean it would be too much of a challenge to fit in two races in six months.

That must mean he is at least certain that two new venues will make it across the line – and that currently looks like Austria and Mexico. But to fit in Russia and New Jersey, there are two spaces left to find.

Korea is the most likely race to be dropped, as it is unpopular with the teams and drivers, struggles to draw in the crowds and is believed to be in significant financial difficulty.

Even if that happens, it’s only down to 21 – so if New Jersey and Sochi both come through with their promises, Ecclestone could have quite a dilemma...

F1 calendars

Current 2013 | Possible 2014*
1 Australia       Bahrain
2 Malaysia       Australia
3 China             Malaysia
4 Bahrain         China
5 Spain             Spain
6 Monaco         Monaco
7 Canada          Canada
8 Britain           Britain
9 Germany      Austria (N)
10 Hungary     Germany
11 Belgium       Hungary
12 Italy            Belgium
13 Singapore   Italy
14 Korea          Singapore
15 Japan          Japan
16 India           Russia (N)
17 Abu Dhabi  Abu Dhabi
18 USA            USA - Austin
19 Brazil          Mexico (N)
20 Brazil

* India drop confirmed; assumes Korea to be dropped and USA New Jersey to not make it on the calendar

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