Fernando Alonso may not have won the Spanish Grand Prix this weekend but his effect on the sport in his home country was evident for all to see. Alonso’s championship victories have made as much impact off the track as they have on it.
The Spanish Formula One Grand Prix has always been a fairly dull race on the F1 calendar. Part of that is due to the circuit, and part of that is also due to the regularly poor attendances. Crowd numbers in Spain have always been low and the circuit usually appears quite desolate. The empty grandstands and bare trackside viewing areas result in a meagre atmosphere.
The problem facing race organisers is that Formula One is not the most popular motorsport in Spain. The country is passionate about motorcycling, which is barely surprising given the immense depth of two-wheel talent (Spanish riders have won 30 Motorcycling World Championships since 1950). A few years ago, Spanish Grand Prix organisers televised the Moto GP on big screens around the circuit in an effort to woo more patrons, although it still wasn’t enough to attract a large crowd. They needed something special.
A young man from the town of Oviedo has been exactly that.
140,000 people crammed into the Circuit De Catalunya this weekend to watch Fernando Alonso go to battle against Ferrari. Extra grandstands were built to accommodate the fans and the event was a total sell-out.
Thrown into all that excitement was the announcement that the Spanish seaside city of Valencia will host the 2008 European Grand Prix.
Spanish F1 fans rejoiced in the news they will now have two races a year to cheer on their local hero, and it was rather surprising that Alonso didn’t join them in celebration.
Fernando was fairly luke-warm about the prospect of racing twice a year in his home country, saying â€œfor me, it’s not going to be a big differenceâ€. He pointed out that drivers will race wherever they are told to and although it will be nice to drive in front of his home crowd, it doesn’t matter either way.
He also seemed rather bemused that he would be racing through the city streets of Valencia.
â€œNow to have a race on the streets when we have a circuit only 20 or 30 kilometres away in Valencia, that is a little bit difficult to understand, what the Formula One bosses want.â€
It is a little bit strange when you think about it, but the trend in modern Formula One is a move towards street circuits.
Singapore was also announced as a Grand Prix venue during the week, and just like Valencia it will also run through city streets.
Road circuits are great for countries that can’t afford to invest in multi-million dollar facilities like Sepang or Sakhir. There are minimal construction expenses and the main cost will be the fee paid to Formula One Management. Not only that, but there are no issues like accommodation or transport to deal with. There are many advantages for race promoters to create a city circuit, and that explains why they are suddenly growing in popularity with Grand Prix organisers.
For many years Monaco has been the only ‘street’ circuit in Formula One. Although Melbourne and Montreal use public roads they do so in parkland and not around a metropolitan roadway. In 2010 there will be at least five circuits running in part through a city. Joining Monaco will be Singapore, Valencia, Abu Dhabi, and South Korea. Each new circuit with the exception of Singapore will feature a permanent section of track, although most of the racing will be through city streets.
Along with these new locations there has also been talk of a street race in India. Circuit guru Herman Tilke has already visited New Delhi and marked out a possible layout.
Street races themselves are not uncommon in motoracing. They have been a regular part of American open wheel championships for many years, and most recently A1GP has embraced new city circuits in Durban and Beijing.
Now it’s a trend that Formula One also seems to be adopting, and it was a move anticipated by Herman Tilke at the start of the year.
Tilke noted â€œI think, there is a trend to get the tracks to the fans and not the other way around, and closer to the fans naturally suggests racing in the cities. And for obvious reasons you can hardly build permanent racetracks in the middle of a town, so you then come logically to street circuitsâ€.
The subsequent announcements this week have confirmed Tilke’s vision for the future of F1.
Monaco is the jewel in the crown of Formula One. It has an atmosphere like no other Grand Prix and has always been the race that attracts the most attention. Every driver wants to win at Monaco and every fan wants to travel there. It is that sort of atmosphere that new venues are trying to cash in on. In a blatant attempt to recreate Monte Carlo, each of the new circuits will feature a section of track that runs alongside a harbour.
The experiment will almost certainly work. Taking Formula One to new parts of the world and racing around beautiful city locations will be exciting to watch on TV. Anything that increases the sports popularity and earning power is good for F1.
One question remains though. Will it be good for racing?
Street circuits have not been traditionally great places to drive Formula One cars. They are usually narrow, twisty, and boring. It is always difficult to overtake on street circuits and the tiniest driving mistake is harshly punished. Many races are broken up by regular safety car periods and the racing generally suffers.
The list of sites that have hosted street circuits is particularly uninspiring. Some of the tracks are regarded as the worst that Formula One has ever visited.
Thankfully the sport has come a long way since 1981 when the Las Vegas Grand Prix was held in the carpark of Caesar’s Palace Casino. The small track was dreadfully unimaginative and was disliked by drivers and fans alike. The US street circuits that followed in Detroit and Phoenix were not much better.
A Grand Prix at Valencia might be a great event for Formula One but it might not be such a great race. If fans had the choice of watching Formula One cars around the streets of Korea, or watching them race anywhere else with regulations that allowed for overtaking, most of us will choose the latter. New destinations are great for F1 but they aren’t the best way to improve ‘the show’. However, that seems to be the direction Formula One is currently taking.
Singapore will be making a further effort to improve ‘the show’ when they bear the enormous cost of floodlighting their track to host Formula One’s first night race.
This has raised a whole heap of exciting new questions and unknowns, although many of them have been overshadowed by safety concerns.
There are two main safety issues with racing at night, the first being the need for consistent lighting. The American Champ Car series has contested three races at night and after the first event drivers complained of ‘dark spots’, or parts of the track that were unevenly illuminated. We often hear this from Formula One drivers when they talk about adjusting their eyes in the Monaco tunnel. As soon as their eyesight has adapted to the darkness they are back out in the bright sunshine. It has caught out more than one driver in the past and a whole circuit of variable light would pose a serious safety concern.
It wouldn’t be a problem if the cars had headlights that would evenly illuminate the road in front of them at all times. Open wheel racing does not have this luxury and it leads to the second major safety issue.
What happens when it rains?
Rather than having headlights that shine through the rain, drivers will have to rely on lighting from above that will have a reflective affect on water droplets. It is already difficult enough driving into spray but when it also happens to be incandescent there will be a genuine danger.
I’m sure these issues will be addressed in due course, and no expense will be spared to ensure the new Grands Prix are successful events.
It certainly bodes well for Spanish Formula One fans that look like having two races throughout the duration of Fernando Alonso’s career. When he eventually does retire, and the crowd numbers drop again, only one race will be sustainable and there is little doubt that will be the race at Valencia.
Grand Prix racing in the city is the future of Formula One.