Depending on what you read, the announcement of a Formula One for New Jersey last week should have Canadian fans either hoping the sky won’t fall on their heads, or completely unconcerned that the new addition will have any affect on their annual grand prix.
The truth is likely somewhere in between.
It would be folly to think that a race just six hours from Montreal won’t have some kind of influence on the Canadian Grand Prix. When the Grand Prix of America in New Jersey runs its first event a week after Canada’s race in June 2013, it will certainly draw many U.S. fans who would usually make the trek to Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
New Jersey will join Austin as the second U.S. venue for F1, which last had a grand prix in 2007 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Austin makes its debut next season.
With F1 promoters only making money on the gate, a significant drop in the number U.S. fans through the turnstiles could be the difference between black or red ink being used on the balance sheet by the Octane Racing Group that puts on the race.
But more importantly, F1 these days is a numbers game in two important areas. First there’s the calendar, with the teams insisting that 20 races is the most they will allow. McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh restated the teams’ concerns in this area in India over the weekend where the 20 stops on the 2012 schedule will push the F1 crews to their limits.
The second and more significant factor is money – specifically the amount of cash a venue can throw at the sport’s ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone. Unfortunately, Montreal got a great deal from Ecclestone when the race was reinstated in 2010 after a one-year hiatus due to a contract dispute.
The Canadian race pays Ecclestone $15-million annually in government money plus an undisclosed amount coming from Octane. While a significant amount, the fee Formula One Management gets from Montreal pales in comparison to several races on the calendar that pay upwards of $50-million annually for the privilege of hosting a race.
In addition, having two events in the U.S., where the manufacturers and teams desperately want to have exposure, makes Montreal a nice race to have, but no longer means it’s a necessity. Fans might recall that one of the main reasons Canada got back on the F1 calendar after being cancelled in 2009 was a massive push by the sport’s manufactures to have a North American presence.
To make matters more complicated, F1 is going to have to drop one race in 2013 to make room for New Jersey’s street race debut, since it has 17 stops already under contract for that year along with three other successful events not yet signed but likely to be renewed.
The loser in 2013 may well be Korea, which has been complaining to Ecclestone about the size of its sanctioning fee and wants to renegotiate its deal. That kind of hard ball with F1’s commercial boss usually results in a hammer coming down and a race being axed.
By the time the Canadian Grand Prix’s contract expires following the 2014 race, a new grand prix in Russia will have joined the calendar and another venue axed to make room for it. The likely candidate there would be one of the Spanish stops in Valencia or Barcelona, as the sport could cut a race, but still not lose a country.
Ironically, the fate of the Montreal’s F1 stop may come down to whether or not the two U.S. races can finally give the sport its long-coveted toehold south of the border. The U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis initially showed promise after its debut in 2000, but interest faded after a few years before it disappeared following the 2007 event.
It certainly wasn’t helped by the fiasco in 2005 where tire issues with Michelin supplied teams saw only six cars start the race and caused many of the remaining fans throw up their hands and walk away in droves. In the end, the Speedway boss at the time, Tony George, felt Ecclestone’s was price too steep and the Brickyard walked away too.
Suggesting that U.S. fans have missed F1 would be a stretch at best. The sport gets abysmal ratings on television in the U.S. and only gets its grand prix broadcast on specialty racing channel SpeedTV. And that makes having two U.S. races beginning in 2013 more than a bit ambitious.
With the New Jersey race apparently being paired with Montreal in June, Canadian racing fans might want to cross their fingers that it’s a success. Having the Canadian Grand Prix as part of a two-for-one fly away just might be the best way to ensure it stays in the mix, since the teams would rather have back-to-back races a week apart to help them save money than a one-off in New Jersey. The sport is taking the same approach with Austin, which will be a week before the race in Brazil.
Should the New Jersey race fail, it might also spell the end of Montreal, since it would be unlikely that the teams would want to come to North America twice for single races months apart. Moving Austin to June would not be desirable due to the temperatures in Texas that can push the mercury will above 38 Celsius. And anyone who recalls Gilles Villeneuve putting on a parka for the podium ceremonies after his maiden F1 win in Montreal in October 1978 understands that a fall grand prix in Canada is ill-advised.
Add that it seems unlikely that Montreal would be able to compete with other venues on price, which means keeping the Canadian Grand Prix beyond 2014 would be a long shot at best without the added value of a second flyaway race to lower costs to the teams.
All this should have Canadian F1 fans a little worried because the sport has never taken the time or put in the effort to figure out the U.S. market and, until it does, it will never be more than a curiosity in the world’s biggest and most lucrative market.
Anyone thinking differently only needs to know that reigning F1 world champion Sebastian Vettel strolled around Times Square in New York City in the days following last June’s Canadian Grand Prix — and no one noticed.
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