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The Circuit Circus

I see that the Imola authorities are going ahead with their plans to improve the circuit in spite of the San Marino GP being dropped from the calendar for 2007. The hope is to get the race back in 2008 but I cannot help but feel that it is a forlorn hope at best.

Imola

BMW Sauber at Imola

With Bernie Ecclestone trying to get the Silverstone organizers to agree to an alternating race with France (and, of course, the BRDC is not interested in such a plan), things look pretty bleak for Imola’s chances. There is a limit to the number of races that can be run each year (18 seems to be the maximum) and Far Eastern countries are lining up with money in their hands, desperate to get into the game. India is next to get a GP, in 2010 we’re told.

Simple mathematics indicates that, if you add a new race to the calendar, somewhere another has to be dropped. And it is Europe that suffers, inevitably, since it has by far the most races. No circuit in Europe can be confident that the ax will not visit at some time in the future.

Traditionalists (like me) can bemoan the loss of old and great circuits but the facts of modern life dictate that the oldest and best are the most likely to go. “Safety” is invariably the excuse to get rid of them because that is their greatness – they present a challenge to the driver and demand a higher level of skill to achieve good lap times.

But we all know that the real reason is money. It is costing the owners of older circuits millions to keep their tracks updated to the latest FIA specifications and this makes it almost impossible to balance the books. Already it costs a small fortune to go to watch a GP – in the future the gate fee will only increase. And that means many potential spectators will stay away – after all, they can see the race on television for a fraction of the cost. The resulting squeeze on the organizers’ finances gets worse as a result.

So how do the new circuits manage? The answer has to be that a GP is seen as a status symbol for the nation and the government helps with cash injections. Notice that half of the Turkish GP’s FIA fine this year was paid by the Turkish government – they want to retain their race because it has benefits beyond mere money; there is national pride to be considered.

In Europe, F1 has been around too long for its subsidiary benefits to be recognized by governments. It’s a case of familiarity breeds contempt. It would be hard, too, for a European government to justify huge expenditure on a GP to its constituents – too many of them could not care less about the sport.

So the spread of F1 to far corners of the earth will continue and fewer old circuits will be used in the future. But, just occasionally, the traditionalists get the last laugh – and here’s an item that made me smile:

F1 Racing-live reports that practice for the A1GP race in Beijing has had to be suspended because the cars just could not negotiate the hairpin. Total chaos ensued on the first lap, it seems. How ironic that all the money and hype has been insufficient to produce a circuit that cars can actually drive around…

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Drivers and Circuits

Huh, glad I didn’t touch the Fontana confession of yesterday – Peter Sauber has denied it already. And anyway, there is plenty of anti-Schumacher/Ferrari press around already, with Coulthard coming out in support of Alonso’s charge of bad sportsmanship.

Coulthard

David Coulthard

Instead, let’s talk circuits. Imola looks set to be included in the schedule for next year, although it seems Bernie Ecclestone may be squeezing a bit more money from the organizers for the favor. With the announcement that improvements to the circuit will commence in October, the circuit has cleared the major obstacle to the race’s inclusion, however.

In contrast, Suzuka has accepted that it will not hold a Grand Prix in 2007 and is hoping for 2008 instead. So F1 loses its only figure-8 circuit, even if just temporarily. I do sometimes wonder why it seems to be only the good circuits that come under threat of exclusion; maybe “interesting” equates to “dangerous” in the minds of the FIA delegates.

And then there is Turkey, of course. Amazingly, the organizers are now muttering about appealing against the $5,000,000 fine imposed on them for politicizing the awards ceremony. I would have thought their best plan was to pay up and shut up, especially as the Turkish government will foot the bill. They are insisting that it was not planned that Mehmet Ali Talat present a trophy but that makes it seem that the dignitaries drew lots after the race to see who would do the job. Doesn’t seem very likely to me.

Perhaps someone should warn them that the FIA does not take kindly to its decisions being questioned and are more likely to increase the penalty on appeal than to forget the whole matter.

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Imola 1982

Some may think that the farce of the Indianapolis Grand Prix last year, when the Michelin runners withdrew from the race after the warm up lap, was the first time such a thing had been seen in F1. In fact, the events were similar to what happened at the San Marino Grand Prix of 1982.

That was the year when it became apparent that the teams were going to have to have a turbo engine to stand any chance of winning races. Renault had demonstrated the enormous power available from turbo engines and Ferrari had seized upon the idea and looked set for the title as a result.

Gilles

Gilles Villeneuve in the turbo-engined Ferrari of 1981

Other teams, mostly the British-based ones, had been unable to find turbo engine suppliers and were soldiering on with the Cosworth. But they were also finding some clever loopholes in the rules to keep up with the turbos. At the time, the cars were weighed after all liquids had been replaced and so some bright spark (it was Brabham who thought of it first) invented “water-cooled brakes”. The idea was that you topped up the water tank before the race, the water promptly ran out during the first few laps, thereby allowing the car to run at less than the legal minimum weight. Top up the tank before the post-race weighing, and everything was legal again.

In classic style, the FIA stepped in and banned the idea by insisting that the cars be weighed without liquids being replaced after the race. Since topping up had been allowed for years, this amounted to a mid-season change in the rules and the British teams objected. The debate became so acrimonious that there seemed a chance that the FOCA (Formula One Constructors Association) teams might even split from the FIA to start their own championship. And, to show how serious they were about the matter, the FOCA teams boycotted the Imola GP that year.

Seven teams turned up for the race but only two, Renault and Ferrari, stood any chance of winning; the others were tail-ender teams. So the race was really between four cars, and this became two after the Renaults had self-destructed. Gilles Villeneuve led Didier Pironi in what was becoming a Ferrari demonstration.

Until Pironi passed Villeneuve, that is. There had been a pre-race agreement between the drivers that whoever was leading after the first few laps would win the race. Villeneuve assumed that Pironi was putting on a show for the crowd and he willingly joined in, passing and being overtaken again and again. Then came the final lap and Pironi unexpectedly passed the Canadian one last time and took the flag.

Imola 1982

Pironi wins by stealth

Villeneuve was furious and refused to speak to Pironi from then onwards. And the argument may have had some part to play in Villeneuve’s crash and death at Zolder two weeks later.

The cause of this non-race disappeared in the meantime. Realizing that the FIA was not going to retreat from its position, the FOCA teams gave in and accepted the rule change. And, incidentally, that is why even today the teams are not allowed to touch the cars after the race. Funny how such long forgotten incidents shape the world we live in.

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Imola, Hockenheim and Istanbul

With the release of the FIA’s timetable for 2007, the focus has changed to circuits. Imola and Hockenheim are missing from the schedule, as expected, but both are still hoping to stage Grands Prix one way or another.

The organizers of the San Marino GP are pinning their hopes on the completion of required renovations to the Imola track before a race date in April. The existence of a four-week gap at that point in the schedule makes this seem possible. Although it would seem to contradict the FIA’s intention to reduce each participating nation to one GP, it may be that Imola will get a reprieve until some other country (India?) is ready to host one.

Imola

Imola

Things look much bleaker for Hockenheim. In its new, truncated form, it is not the most popular of circuits and the organizers’ attempt to alternate the GP with the Nurburgring seems more optimistic now that the circuit has been omitted from the FIA schedule. Increasingly, it appears that the circuit will just be quietly forgotten in the future.

Politics appears likely to do for the Istanbul race. The Turkish selection of Northern Cyprus’ leader to hand the trophy to Felipe Massa on the podium was both a deliberate political statement and a monumental blunder. Circuits have been dropped for less.

The FIA is taking the matter seriously after protests from the governments of both Cyprus and Greece, and is investigating the matter. With their determination to remain politically neutral, the banning of the Turkish GP seems inevitable, and rightly so. F1 should never be used for the political purposes of any country.

The wonderful new circuit at Istanbul Park may be lost to F1 therefore. That will be a great shame but is more than compensated for by the return of Spa-Francorchamps, indisputably the greatest circuit on the modern calendar. And it gives additional impetus to Imola’s prospects for survival. The loss of the Turkish GP would reduce the schedule to 16 races only and there would definitely be a good reason to keep the San Marino GP in that case.

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