Will Gray

What do the new races mean for Formula One?

Will Gray

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The new races recently confirmed for Mexico in 2015 and Azerbaijan in 2016 represent the two poles of Formula One – but can the sport benefit from both emerging and traditional motorsport nations?

When Mexican driver Petro Rodriguez raced in front of his home crowd in Mexico City in 1970, 200,000 fans turned up to watch. The last time F1 turned up, in 1992, the grandstands were still as busy as ever.

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The people of Mexico have a passion for F1, with origins dating back to 1962, but it is the determination of Carlos Slim, one of the country’s most influential men, that has made the sport relevant in Mexico again.

Through his sponsorship investments, his driver funding and his political powers, the nation now has two drivers and an F1 race. And even two years ago, the same amount of people who turned up to watch Rodriguez back in 1970 lined the streets to see Mexican Sergio Perez drive in a Sauber show run.

Providing ticket prices are managed correctly, 180,000 fans should turn up for the Grand Prix next year. It’s pretty much a given.

The same confidence cannot be given to Azerbaijan in 2016 – but if it follows the right model it could deliver.

To survive and grow, Formula One does need to reach new territories but to make it work it needs to do so in the right way. As the British Grand Prix proved this year, it is easy to draw hundreds of thousands of fans to the middle of the countryside when the customer base is passionate enough to make an effort.

But as countless new venues have proven in the past, filling the stands in a remote location when there isn’t that desire is a lot harder.

South Korea built their circuit three-and-a-half hours from Seoul and it failed. Turkey’s track was on the wrong side of the Bosphorus for Istanbul and although it fared well at the start, attracting 185,000 spectators in 2005, the numbers dropped by two thirds over the next four years and organisers had to slash ticket prices before it was finally dropped from the calendar.

Bahrain’s circuit, in a desert wasteland, is closer to town but hopes that the race would pull in visitors from all around the Middle East have not been realised. Even India’s track, 45 minutes from Delhi with access to a local population of 10 million, struggled to fill its 95,000 capacity.

The challenge for Azerbaijan is not just to fill the seats in year one, it’s to keep them filled year after year – and for that they need to look to Singapore for inspiration.

The Marina Bay circuit runs right through the heart of a city filled with international residents, a ready made audience of ex-pats from all around the world. Its location also makes it convenient for ‘drop-in’ tourists. And being in one of Asia’s top global business centres, it is perfectly placed to be used as a platform for corporate entertainment.

And that is exactly why Azerbaijan wants a Grand Prix.

A former member of the Soviet empire, the country has been independent for 22 years and, with an economy built on oil, is aiming to become a global business and tourism hub between the Middle East and Far East.

It has used sporting events to build its global profile – hosing 36 ‘major’ events, from Taekwondo to Road Cycling, since 2002 and set to hold the first ‘European Games’ next year.

Just like Singapore, the race will run right through the heart of the capital city – with the Baku track layout flowing past the Azeri parliament building and along the seafront promenade.

Singapore has become one of the most spectacular races on the calendar, a true model of what modern racing should be – playing well to high-paying corporates and passionate fanatics alike.

As a result, the country claims a 12 percent increase in inbound air traffic due to the Grand Prix, with a total attendance of 260,000 across the three days.

Azerbaijan is nowhere near as developed as Singapore, but if it can use F1 to help it on its way, both could end up winners...

- Will Gray

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