Is Formula 1 Dying in Europe?

Vive la France! The French Grand Prix is back!

The oldest grand prix of them all—first held at Le Mans in 1906—will return to the Formula One calendar in 2018 after a 10-year absence, according to an announcement this week from Christian Estrosi, president of the regional council for Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (h/t BBC). The Circuit Paul Ricard, about 45 kilometres east of Marseille, will host the revived event.

This is fantastic news for the sport. France is F1’s ancestral homeland and grand prix racing without it is like Major League Baseball without the New York Yankees or the World Cup without Brazil—it’s still the same sport, but something is missing.

However, the news of France’s resurrection was coupled with the FIA’s release of the 2017 F1 calendar, which does not include the German Grand Prix for the second time in three seasons.

One historic race returns, another disappears. Are we just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?

That is a bit overdramatic, as there are plenty of positive stories in F1, from Liberty Media’s purchase of the sport to the successful return of the Mexican Grand Prix to the increasing applicability of F1 engine technology to road cars.

Still, there is something ominous about the lack of a German Grand Prix.

The race in Germany is not much younger than its French cousin, as it was first held in 1926. Three different German drivers have won 10 of the 17 world championships since 2000 and Mercedes have won the last three constructors’ titles. There will be at least two German drivers on the grid in 2017 (Sebastian Vettel and Nico Hulkenberg), but despite all of that history and success, German fans will have to travel to Belgium or Austria to see a race live next year.

Yes, the German Grand Prix is set to return to Hockenheim in 2018, but that is the final year of its contract and right now it seems doubtful it will be renewed unless the attendance increases dramatically next year.

Now that everyone has come to their senses and acknowledged that Azerbaijan is not in Europe, just eight of next year’s 20 races (40 percent) will be held on the continent that gave birth to the sport and remains its heartland. In 2008, when the French Grand Prix was last on the calendar, nine of 18 races (50 percent) were in Europe—and that is not counting the Turkish Grand Prix in Istanbul.

It is important for F1 to expand its horizons and reach new potential fans, but not at the expense of its traditional base in Europe. And historic races should certainly not be cast aside for a few quick bucks and yet another failed experiment in a country without a significant motor racing culture, whether it is Korea, Turkey or India.

Losing races at familiar, popular circuits where fans have warm memories of past races erodes interest in a certain segment of fans—particularly when they are replaced with bland circuits that do not lend themselves to exciting racing.

While the return of the French Grand Prix is no doubt a boon for Renault, who have struggled since the change to hybrid V6 engines in 2014, how will Mercedes feel about the potential loss of their home race?

The racing team may be headquartered in England, but the company—and the decision-makers on its board—are German and even when Mercedes was only making engines, rather than a full constructor, the company was a big supporter of the German race. If there is no German race when it comes time to renew the company’s commitment to F1, what effect will that have on the decision?

You could argue that Mercedes is targeting a global market and whether there is a race in Germany or not doesn’t matter in that context. But there is still something special about racing at home. Don’t believe me? Here’s what executive director Toto Wolff had to say before the 2016 race at Hockenheim:

It’s no secret that this is a big weekend for us. We are just a small part of a large global organisation and we take great pride in representing the three-pointed star out on track. I’m sure our rivals would take great pleasure in beating us on our home turf, so the pressure is on.

And his counterpart Paddy Lowe:

It’s great to go back to Germany after not having raced there in 2015—which was a huge omission from the calendar. It’s also a fantastic opportunity for our colleagues from Stuttgart to see their Silver Arrows close up—and a fantastic privilege for us to represent the 280,000 Daimler employees worldwide at this home event for the company.

Clearly the German Grand Prix is not “just another race” for Mercedes.

And now a moment of triumph for a German driver and manufacturer is being overshadowed by the confirmation that there will not be a race in Germany in 2017.

Maybe a saviour will step in and save the German race or maybe, like France (and others such as Austria and Mexico), the German Grand Prix will take a hiatus and then return.

In the meantime, France is back, Belgium is riding the coattails of Max Verstappen’s meteoric rise and if Ferrari could ever get their act together, rumours about the Italian Grand Prix being in jeopardy would surely cease.

No, F1 is not dying in Europe, but neither should the powers that be take European fans for granted.

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