Read between the headlines of Mercedes domination and boring repetitiveness and you will soon realise that 2016 has been a good year for Formula 1. Success stories, disappointments and controversies have all made 2016 the perfect recipe for a good season. Despite this, fans are not watching and are searching elsewhere for a Motorsport fix. To top it off the loyal fans who have stayed are using social media to slate the current format and reminisce about better times.
The fact is, in the last 10 years F1 has had a dramatic change in landscape. The Middle Eastern and Asian expansion is well underway and the European stronghold F1 once held is fading. The process of globalising F1 is understandable and a natural course for any sport but has F1 and particularly Bernie Ecclestone being doing things the correct way?
Let's start back in the 1980s/1990s. McLaren-Honda dominated the field and despite this the fans flocked in. The cars were simple, cheap and looked amazing, Despite this the phrase "if it ain't broke don't fix it" failed to once pop into the minds of the head of the sport as the favourite tracks disappeared, cars grew complex, electronics came, wings got aerodynamically advanced and perhaps worst of all the prices soared. High running costs and higher prize money meant an increase in every drivers' salary and teams' expenditure. Formula 1 also started more for license fee. Every single of these factors have contributed to higher gate tickets.
By the late 1990s cars looked much more advanced and equally more expensive. The calendar, too, looked incredibly different, Gone were tracks such as Kyalami (interestingly the only Africa-based track removed in an expansion effort which still to this day seems counterproductive), Portugal, Jerez and Mexico as well as a relocation of the US race from Phoenix to Indianapolis and the iconic motor speedway course. In their place came a second event in Germany. Austria returned too and a brand new track in Malaysia joined in.
The price hike continued towards the middle of the noughties. By 2005 new races were held in Bahrain (2005), China (2004) and Turkey (2005) and the season had undergone an expansion to 19 races, The improvements across the East were welcomed as the tracks created exciting and close racing which excited the fans and drew in the numbers both to the races and the TV sets the world over, This however would prove to be the tip of the iceberg for F1 as controversial decisions and wacky ideas were just around the corner.
By the new decade though some of F1's classic circuits were dropping, Magny-Cours, Fuji, Nurburgring, Montreal (in 2009 only), Imola and Turkey all vanished and were replaced by new builds, tacks with no historical significance with little in terms of fan base. The oil rich financial havens of the Arab countries were infecting F1 and moving the stronghold away from the European market. Circuits in Singapore, Abu Dhabi, India, Korea and other new builds such as Valencia, Baku, Sochi and Austin, Texas all appeared over a 6-8 year period.
While this seems no problem, few races have stood the test of popularity. Singapore and Abu Dhabi are still on the calendar despite proving unpopular with fans, particularly compared to the classics lost in Imola, Nurburgring and Fuji, Despite this others like COTA, Sochi and the returning Mexican Grand Prix have become fan favourites and have helped build careers for Sergio Perez, Daniil Kvyat and have seen large attendances from passionate fans desperate for a taste of the F1 train. Others however have vanished as quickly as they came and now lay redundant from F1 (in some cases derelict and ruined) and are unlikely to ever see the intense history of F1 ever again.
Perhaps the big question is why have they gone. The truth is F1 is not a cheap sport and in a country with big gaps in society and a large divide in the rich and the poor, the nature of the F1 price structure makes a race a luxury that cannot be afforded. Due to such large losses the lack of government subsidies can lead to a track deemed to not have enough financial clout to hold down a place on the calendar. The ones that are still here are America (a wealthy country), Mexico (where the fan base is huge), Russia (a track which is state sponsored and also has a big fan base) and finally the two wealthy oil rich nations of Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, which acts as the title decider by virtue of a big annual cheque.
By contrast the races which have fallen by the wayside are India (a nation where the have and have nots are extremely polarised) and Korea (again, a race with little to no fan base and no home driver loyalties).
This shows how the lack of business sense rages in F1. The expensive nature of F1 is fine in a lavish city in Monaco, however in a world where slum life is an extremely harsh reality and a place with no F1 heritage, history and home nation loyalty is not going to be a likely market for thousands of fans to pay good money for a sport which has a minute part of the landscape.
Another race which falls here is Baku, a deeply criticised track. The first race have left fans eager to see it demise and despite wealthy backing by the Azerbaijani government and businesses, where does the racing heritage, the fierce action and loyalty to F1 lie in the land of fire? Sure the 'bowser castle' section is iconic and historical but an F1 fans wants racing action, history and heritage. Not an actual historical monument which however beautiful adds nothing to the racing.
So with the new owners confirmed, fan favourites may return (France), new tracks in more logical places emerge and perhaps a more fan oriented calendar may emerge from the ashes of fledging audiences and F1 can truly re-establish itself as the pinnacle of Motorsport.
By Matthew Gannon