Racing News

Who cares about budget caps and engine regs? How is Liberty Media going to make Formula One popular? Hint: Go back to the Glen . . .

Written by Norris McDonald

Liberty Media, which purchased Formula One from Bernie Ecclestone, made some vague announcement about the future of the sport last weekend at Bahrain (see photo of Lewis Hamilton there, in full flight).
Most of the talk, it seemed,  was about budgets (a cap on spending, more-or-less) in 2021, after the current agreement runs out, and the future configuration of the engines. The new owners want those to be fast, cheaper, environmentally friendly and loud. Ross Brawn was interviewed by ITV about the engine and he continued with the vagueness.

Here we go again. F1 is not club racing – although you’d think it was. Let’s bore people to death by talking about the engines, er, power units. Don’t want anybody getting too excited.

Yes, F1 should be economically sustainable but it is the highest form of motor sport in the world and I want to know how Liberty Media is going to go about marketing it, promoting it and growing it. The teams might be concerned about the nuts and bolts but the rest of us want to know how they plan to make it the No. 1 sport in the world, starting with the U.S.

Chase Carey, who is the new Bernie (yes, there are three or four at the top of Liberty Media but Carey is the spokesman), has given individual reporters and select media some idea of how they plan to sell the sport in the United States but, to my knowledge, he has never announced the grand plan to the world.

Maybe the reason is because it is going to be a lot tougher job than he envisioned.

First, NASCAR and IndyCar are entrenched in the American psyche and it will be a tough job to move them over. In fact, it will probably never happen.

Next, when Carey or Brawn or any of the others say surveys indicate that many people in the United States are not aware of F1, or not aware in any great numbers, I think it’s more likely that they’ve heard about F1 and simply decided it’s not their cup of tea. They know of it, but not about it. Why?

Formula One has been around the United States since the 1950s. For a time, there were two GPs held annually but, with the exception of the races at Watkins Glen and Long Beach – plus the first one at Indianapolis – none were particularly successful.

And why was that? Except for Phl Hill and Dan Gurney in the 1960s and Mario Andretrti, who won a world championship in the 1970s, American drivers have been few and far between in F1. There are none at present and Carey, et al, were not helped in this regard by American F1 team owner Gene Haas who was famously quoted this winter as saying there aren’t any U.S. racing drivers good enough to compete in F1.
Then, just as New York baseball fans would not attend games featuring an entire lineup of Japanese stars wearing Yankee pinstripes, Americans – in the numbers envisioned by Liberty Media, anyway – are not going to embrace a racing series made up entirely of offshore drivers. So while Carey talks about working with promoters to guarantee success, I’d suggest he start working with the teams to get an American driver – or drivers – into a quality seat.

Ecclestone, before being bought out and then moved out, tried to get a second U.S. Grand Prix going after the first one found a permanent home at Circuit of the Americas outside Austin, Tex.  One was to be held in New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York, but that one died a slow death before it even got off the ground. And when Bernie dispatched Chris Pook to Long Beach to see if IndyCar could be elbowed aside, the city told them to buzz off when they discovered how much an F1 race was going to cost them.

Carey is now suggesting that New York, Miami and Las Vegas could be suitable sites for a race but I think he’s dreaming – for a variety of reasons. Costs, for starters, and sponsorship. And just try closing down a section of a city for a car race these days. Long Beach and Toronto have been around since the Seventies and Eighties, so have tenure, but look what happened with IndyCar in Boston? And Montreal mayor Denis Coderre lost his job over the Formula E race there, which essentially shut down an entire section of the downtown. People who lived near the temporary course were not amused.

So here’s a radical idea: why not go back to Watkins Glen? It was the home of F1 for years and years before the idea of racing through cities took hold (and look at how that’s worked out? When F1 raced in places like Phoenix and the parking lot at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas, so few people showed up it would have saved time to introduce them to the drivers instead of the other way around).

They race on circuits in Europe – Spa, Monza, the Red Bull Ring, etc. – so why not in the States? I suggest an F1 race at the Glen would be welcomed back with open arms and I guarantee that you wouldn’t be able to get near the place, so many people would show up.

It would be a colossal success that F1 could then build on. Taking a flyer on something like the streets of Miami that might not work would set F1 in the U.S. back forever.

Go with strength, I say. Go to the Glen.