For the last fifteen years, the centre of gravity in the F1 universe has been shifting slowly (or not so slowly) east, towards Asia. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, with F1 seeking to expand its global brand, but the execution has, in many cases, been sloppy: bland circuits with few spectators in countries with little or no motor racing history.
As recently as 1998, when there were 16 races on the calendar, only two were east of Europe: Japan and Australia (two countries with ample racing traditions, engaged fan bases, and numerous successful, or at least popular, drivers). The next year, the F1 circus travelled to Malaysia for the first time, in what must now be considered one of the few success stories of the great eastern experiment. The Malaysian Grand Prix has produced a number of exciting races, has respectable attendance figures, and the track has become something of a modern classic (its dual, long straights, connected by a slow hairpin, are a wonderful, unique feature).
Races in China, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, India, Korea, Singapore, and Turkey soon followed, at the expense of traditional races like France, Austria, and Argentina. Often, the only criteria which seemed necessary to obtain a place on the F1 calendar were deep pockets for an inflated hosting fee and a state-of-the-art (read: sterile) circuit (Turkey and India, which has other problems, are notable exceptions to the latter). Gimmicks like night-racing in Singapore, counter-clockwise racing everywhere, and racing in a post-apocalpytic landscape in Korea were used to build hype.
On the 2013 calendar, nine of the 19 races are scattered across the Middle East, Asia and Australia. It used to be fun to stay up all night (in North America) once at the beginning of the year for the Australian GP, and again at the end of the year for the Japanese; not so much to watch the cars and drivers battle through a smoggy haze in China.
Luckily, relief is on the way. The 2014 draft (not provisional) calendar does not include the Indian Grand Prix, but features the (hopefully) triumphant return of Austria and Mexico, along with newcomer Russia. Bernie Ecclestone is playing coy with the calendar in general, and the Grand Prix of America in particular, which may or may not be the 22nd race on the schedule. Either way, the teams have an informal agreement to limit the number of races during the season to 20, and it seems that one or two of the races will not go ahead.
The Grand Prix of America is most obviously in trouble, was not even listed on the draft calendar, and will almost certainly not happen next year. That leaves us with 21 races. Austria, with Red Bull backing it, is a guarantee. There are question marks beside Mexico (where the circuit needs several upgrades), Russia (where there seems to be a problem with the paperwork), and Korea (where there seems to be a problem with the money).
Bernie Ecclestone, master and commander of the F1 race calendar (and other things).
Photo credit: Pete Price via Flickr
It is difficult to predict which of these races will not make it, and different writers have proposed each of the three as the one that will drop off the calendar. No matter which one it is, we will be left with only seven or eight races (out of 20) in the Middle East, Asia, and Australia.
Although it would be nice to think that Bernie is returning to sport to its roots, he is really just chasing the money again. Oh well . . . as long as there are more races at traditional circuits, we won’t complain.