There’s been much discussion in recent days over future changes to the Formula 1 calendar. While it’s perhaps no great surprise that the demise of Germany and the return of France are again featuring on the rumour mill, a new – and somewhat surprising – contender has also emerged…
New players forcing traditional venues out?
While he may have relinquished much of his public responsibility following his formal indictment over alleged bribery, Bernie Ecclestone is still very much pulling the strings behind the scenes.
Thus it’s not surprising to see more countries being lined up as possible host nations in upcoming seasons, lest any of the existing players struggle to find the cash to keep their events going.
And it’s certainly not a surprise to see yet another mineral-rich country dangling its chequebook in front of Ecclestone, with the former Soviet state of Azerbaijan reportedly inking a deal to make its debut on the Formula 1 calendar, possibly as soon as 2016.
With its shores on the world’s largest lake, the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan is rich in oil and gas reserves, and eager to promote growth and employment outside of its fossil fuels sector. Its capital, Baku, has twice played host to rounds of the FIA GT Series on a makeshift four-kilometre street circuit along its waterfront district. Perhaps now its government feels that the time is right to expand into Formula 1 with a Tilkedrome of its own…
While all that sounds well and good, the facts remain that Azerbaijan has little, if any, motorsport heritage and the country’s government is – alongside its former parent state, Russia – hardly regarded as a beacon of good leadership, where bribery and corruption remain rife.
Given that Ecclestone is in his own strife over bribery allegations, one wonders what exactly he is dabbling with the Azerbaijanis at this stage – dogs, fleas, lying down, and all that…
Ecclestone’s motivations over the future of the German Grand Prix are rather clearer. Since his indictment over allegations that he paid a $44 million bribe to a now-jailed German banker, the F1 supremo’s position over the future of the country’s own race has become increasingly cool, even going so far as to recently suggest that the event could drop off the calendar entirely.
The race – which has alternated between Hocknheim and the Nürburgring to ease the cost burden on both venues – has run at a loss for a number of years, with none of the local, state and national-level governments willing to keep pouring money into propping the Grand Prix up. This position is held despite the obvious side income that a Grand Prix brings to the respective regions in the form of tourism spending.
Germany has been missing from the F1 calendar just twice since the modern era of F1 began in 1950, and its recent history – thanks in no part to the success of Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel – has been rather glorious for those of a patriotic persuasion.
Given his upcoming court hearing, it’s no great surprise that Ecclestone is outwardly playing hard ball: he has no real incentive to go soft now. But, having said that, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to see him have a complete change of heart in the final weeks leading up to his trial.
The fact remains that Germany has been, and will continue to be, a core event for the sport. I would certainly be surprised if it was dropped at all from the calendar.
Human rights concerns remain
Heading a little to the west out of Azerbaijan, and the world’s media attention is very much fixed on the ongoing stoush between Russia and its former Soviet state, the Ukraine, where ongoing border tensions could threaten to derail Russia’s long-term hopes of remaining on the F1 calendar.
For those not paying too much attention to the goings-on, the two countries are in dispute over the Crimean peninsula, and specifically the city of Sebastopol, which has long had a Russian military base despite being awarded to the Ukraine during the Soviet era.
Things ran along nicely for some time, even following the Ukraine achieving independence when the Soviet era came to an end in the early 1990s.
Russia continued to receive a steady supply of cut-price oil from the Ukraine, so long as the country’s government remained pro-Russian in its stance.
However, the Ukraine has steadily moved towards a closer alliance with the European Union, and a people’s revolt against pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych has now tipped things over the edge.
With its Olympic hosting duties now over, Russia moved quickly and started turning up the wick in Crimea, triggering a threat of an escalation into all-out armed conflict between the two countries.
Should the situation deteriorate, then Formula 1 will find itself hard-pressed not to cancel its maiden Russian Grand Prix later this year, when the travelling circus is set to head to the Winter Olympic host city, Sochi, to race on a Hermann Tilke layout around the Olympic facilities.
An extra complication is that the situation in Bahrain also seems to have flared up again, and earlier this year a consortium of NGOs sent a letter of concern to FIA President Jean Todt demanding that the FIA Ethics Committee investigate what impact the staging of the Grand Prix has on the country’s human rights position.
The letter – signed by a number of human rights groups and which has remained without a reply from the FIA – alleges that there is a distinct relationship between the staging of the Grand Prix and a sharp increase in alleged human rights breaches.
The letter cites evidence of increased restrictions on civilian movements as well as violent crackdowns on those holding political positions opposite to the government. The letter claims that the FIA will act in clear breach of its charter to safeguard motorsport’s reputation and integrity if it continues to allow a Grand Prix in Bahrain while these activities are alleged to occur.
But there’s a Catch 22: the Ethics Committee is only compelled to act if there is a complaint from an FIA-associated representative, such as drivers, teams, organisers, circuit managers or FIA member clubs. It would take a very brave soul to put their neck on the line and make that complaint official.
Images via Café Auto, Daily Mail, RT, XPB Images