Circuits in Crisis

2011 is gearing up to be one of the most exciting seasons yet. A plethora of new rules, new tyres, new drivers, new parts are all coming together this year and with so many unknowns it’s hard to call a frontrunner this early. Although a safe bet would be Red Bull, no? Or would a fool overlook Ferrari, Mclaren, or the radical new Renault (even without Kubica)?

Bye Bye Bahrain:

The cancellation of the season-opening Bahrain grand prix has obviously escaped criticism, with all teams and vocal drivers lauding the decision to postpone (or cancel, we’re yet to find out which one) the year will start in Melbourne, which some seem to prefer. Demonstrations in Bahrain originally began on February 14th in several Shiite majority villages, but were soon broken up by the police. The deaths of 2 demonstrators sparked a mass uprising and thousands descended on the capital city Manama to demand an elected prime minister. However it was the violence instigated by the police and military that captured the media’s attention, world leaders called for restraint as the death total rose to 7. The atrocities that were broadcast across the globe highlighted the struggle for democracy Westerners can’t grasp.

Regal Bahrain will have to wait (Getty)

With the fight for balance and representation of the Shiite majority in Bahrain was further complicated by the soon approaching Formula One season. It shouldn’t have even figured on their radar, but for a dangerously long time everything pointed towards business as usual. Bernie Ecclestone’s sources in the stricken nation allowed him to believe there weren’t any issues for the last round of winter testing to go ahead. I mean, seriously!

This oversight and the delay on the official announcement from the FIA afterwards, has soured efforts that have been made to give Formula One a softer image. For haters, the sport came across as dithering and out of touch with the real world, but for fans it was embarrassing and frustrating.

Going to the place Down Under:

Preparations are underway at Albert Park (Australian GP)

When the Crown Prince made a statement regarding the fate of his highly anticipated grand prix, the industry exhaled a collective sigh of relief. “At the present time the country’s entire attention is focused on building a new national dialogue for Bahrain. After the events of the past week, our nation’s priority is on overcoming tragedy, healing divisions…”

It was a slither of good news in a dark time, but it left us with a predicament as to where the last round of testing was going to be held. Barcelona stepped up to the plate, having already hosted the most recent session, leaving Australia with the honour of starting the 2011 in style. Ecclestone has been praised by the Crown Prince for allowing him to come to the decision about the race by himself. And in an act of rare generosity he has waived the $40 million staging fee for the circuit, only charging it if they manage to squeeze them in. In terms of logistics, the only slot it could possibly fill is the weekend between India and Abu Dhabi. “If everything is peaceful, which we hope it will be, then we will try our best to fit it in.” Says Ecclestone.

This boon for Australia coincided with calls by local government to forgo renewing their contract to host races at Albert Park after 2015. It  also garnered a few choice words from the man himself, Bernie Ecclestone, suggesting that there are better tracks out there to include. The inclusion of USA in 2012 and Russia in 2014 leave the calendar rather crowded, and with Albert Park running at a loss it seems a prime candidate for the cull.

Another one bites the dust:

With the Bernie sharks circling Australia, organisers of the Malaysian grand prix in Sepang are worried about the low ticket sales compared to their race neighbours in Singapore. The glamorous night race has buffed the shine off the older circuit, which is prone to leaks and lacklustre fans. Maybe the latter is due to monsoon weather, a leaking roof and the comfort of watching it at home with air-conditioning. Unlike Silverstone which can rely on domestic sales.

The famous hibiscus roof (Steve Etherington/LAT Photographic)

Their current contract runs until 2015 (the same as Albert Park), and like the Aussies, they are reluctant to commit to an extension if it continues making a loss. Running against the ‘jewel in F1’s crown’ has proved difficult for Sepang and without worthwhile ticket sales, the impetus to improve facilities is low.

The rain in Spain mainly falls on the…track:

And if it couldn’t get any worse, Barcelona have now chipped in with their financial woes regarding their contract to host the Spanish GP. In 2007 they decided to keep the paddock doors open until 2016, but doubts are flooding in over whether they could manage it past 2012. Catalunya’s president Artur Mas explains the situation for the circuit, understanding the prestige surrounding an F1 race he said their involvement would “depend on how the economic situation develops and on the results we have over these two years.” Having hosted the event since 1991, Mas wishes to retain the honour but acknowledges his government’s desperate need to cut budgets and secure the area’s economic viability.

DEFCON 1?:

Inevitable questions are being directed at Bernie and his decisions to take Formula One into territories with little history in motorsport and seemingly bottomless pockets. And with hosting privileges being a known loss leader for the country, sentimentality is not a word Formula One holds in high esteem. Can’t afford to host? Then you don’t, simple. Silverstone was only saved after long negotiations and promises of huge investments. So are circuits in crisis? As it stands today we’re far from full panic stations, but it highlights the need to balance history with the need of Formula One to increase its reach across the world. And while it’s fantastic to see new fans being brought to the sport through the news tracks, the powers that be can not afford to forget the fans who have been there from the start.

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