Formula 1’s American avarice

Formula One (F1) is as about as international as sports get. Yes, tennis has got its foot in the door on three continents, and sure, the World Cup sees as many international teams competing in one place as possible. But Formula One is the most international when it comes to competing across both a unified category and the globe. Naturally, therefore, its promoters are bound to want to break into one of the biggest economies and consumers of sport, the promised land, the home of the American Dream. The USA.

That being said, F1 is no stranger to both American drivers, nor to racing in America itself. Indeed, a race in the US has been a staple of the Formula One calendar for the majority of the sport’s illustrious 70 year existence. The concept of different tracks being used to stage the event is hardly a new one either; in fact, 11 tracks have hosted the US Grand Prix in some format since the sports inception. Aside from a five year hiatus between 2008-12, (along with COTA’s unsurprising absence on the 2020 calendar), the US Grand Prix has enjoyed its fair share of success at both Indianapolis and, more recently, the Circuit of the Americas, for most of the last two decades.

However, the 2016 season was one of change. Not only did Nico Rosberg disrupt Lewis Hamilton’s streak of dominance in ‘equal machinery’, as he so vehemently likes to remind us all. It also saw the end of Bernie Ecclestone’s tenure as top dog, and the introduction of a fancy new owner – Liberty Media, an American media conglomerate that handed over an eye-watering US$4.6 billion for the Formula One Group in its entirety.  

Unsurprisingly, the intervening seven years have seen a wealth of changes to both technical regulations, and to the ‘watchability’ of the sport. From new in-helmet camera angles to TV-graphic revamps (love you AWS), Liberty Media has transformed what has historically been a peripheral sport for rich-kids, techies and neeky petrolheads, to a palatable octane-fuelled and attractive experience for novice and veteran fans alike. For this, the Liberty Media era can only be praised.

The precedent had been set – F1 was ready for multiple races in the same country.

However, the view westward to the coast of the eastern seaboard and beyond looks to be stretching further than Austin’s one race a year. The turning point came in the chaotic 2020 season where, for the first time in the modern era, multiple races were held in the same country, and often, track. The usual 20+ race calendar was hastily rearranged with a mere 18 fixtures where local restrictions would allow, but the season went ahead nonetheless. The precedent had been set – F1 was ready for multiple races in the same country.

But those were decidedly unprecedented times. Despite the success Chase Carey and co. brought about in 2020, they should operate with caution. On the one hand, it would be unfair and, ultimately, hypocritical to criticise the budding phenomenon of ‘regional hot-points’ for race destinations – just look at the Middle East which now serves as host to three races on the calendar after last season’s addition of Jeddah. Money talks. Especially the sort of sums that Saudi Aramco can offer in exchange for turning a blind eye to the country’s less-than-stellar human rights record.

Though the races in Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain are not without their problems, with Abu Dhabi having been consistently criticised by drivers and pundits alike as ‘boring’, the sums of money promoters offer (not to mention lucrative sponsorship deals) affirm these races as attractive prospects nevertheless. The oil-rich Arab states enjoy essentially infinitely deep pockets when it comes to motorsport, and so, F1 must be vigilant when approaching America if it is to succeed in a similar manner.

That’s not to say however, that the recent addition of the Miami Grand Prix in 2022 was without its success. Instead, it proved to be quite the contrary, with an alleged 243,000 spectators attending over the 3-day event, and an apparent ‘broadcasting success’ of 23 million US viewers. These numbers are still a little way off the roughly 400,000 fans that descend on Silverstone every July, but are an encouraging start for the race in what was its inaugural year.

The effect the race’s resounding success has had on promoters’ confidence is undoubtedly partly responsible for the revival of the Las Vegas Grand Prix from the 2023 season onwards, bringing the total to three races on US soil this season. The blazing neon glitz of the iconic strip is to play host to the penultimate race of the season, and looks to be doing so until at least 2025. With elite hotel packages ranging from $1 million to $5 million having been announced ahead of time, the race organisers certainly look to be seeking inspiration from their Monegasque counterparts. Whether the event ultimately stacks up against both the glamour and racing pedigree of the Monaco GP, remains to be seen.

But what fans need to accept is that Formula One is evolving. What was once a sport defined by its devotion to racing over affectatious glamour, by definition, limits itself and its potentially global audience. What Liberty Media has done with the sport has, on the whole, been good for it. They have injected it with a new life force, narrowed the margins between the top teams and brought in waves of new fans of which the US contingent has served as a significant proportion. Though that being said, however good races like Las Vegas might be for the pecuniary interests of the owners, they would be foolish to forget their original fans and risk alienating them from a sport many grew up with. By all means extend the calendar and attract more American interest, but should the sport abandon its roots, then its future looks very uncertain indeed.

Image description: A Formula One Race with a Red Bull driver in front

Image credit: Photo by Morio via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)