Formula One’s midseason break is now just 12 days away, and after running five races across six weekends, the mandatory factory shutdown will give the sport’s overworked staffs some hard-earnt rest.
In some respects it’s hard to believe F1’s summer holidays haven’t already arrived, such was the lethargy at the conclusion of the British Grand Prix, the final leg of an unprecedented triple-header of races beginning in France and Austria, but this year’s record-equalling 21-race schedule requires the Germany-Hungary back-to-back be programmed before the August recess just to fit the entire season into the year.
This intense run of races has served to highlight just how burdensome the sport has become for those who work behind the scenes. They’ll be thankful that Formula One, having felt forced into arranging the triple-header to avoid a clash with the World Cup final, has now realised that it is an unsustainable proposition, but cause for further concern is that its thirst for calendar expansion remains unquenched.
Force India chief operating officer revealed in the lead-up to the British Grand Prix that Formula One has made a strategy group-level proposal to increase the calendar by 10 per cent, meaning a schedule of around 23 grands prix is in the sport’s medium-term future.
Some of the hurdles to expansion — in particular the toll on teams and the varying levels of sustainability of the current race contracts — were expanded upon here last month, but there is a further philosophical question to ask when growing the calendar: how much is too much?
“We are already way above what should be the figure for something special,” Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul suggested to Autosport. “It is almost becoming routine. It should not be a day-to-day job.”
That feeling of regularity was already biting hard in Austria and Britain, the second and third legs of the triple-header. Topics for discussion were rapidly thinning in the rhythm of a grand prix weekend, and the repetition was at times painful, with little for drivers to talk about in preview of a race on Thursday afternoon when they’d been interviewed on similar topics on the preceding Sunday.
In some cases there was so little to talk about that regular press sessions with drivers were pre-emptively cancelled. This is no critique on the media or teams; it’s merely a reflection of the fact that only so much can happen in the 72 hours between back-to-back race weekends. There’s little with which the sport can build hype for its next event.
“With the calendar that we have now, the enthusiasm is not the same as when we were only travelling 15 times per year,” Abiteboul continued. “If we don’t have that energy, it is going to be very difficult to convey that externally.”
So rather than asking how much value can be extracted from beefing up the calendar, the question should be: how much is each race being devalued by the addition of yet more events?
There is an interesting parallel to be considered with the debate about the format of the race weekend itself. When raising the idea of adding another race to a weekend — a Saturday sprint race, for example — the response normally comes that it detracts from the main event of Sunday’s grand prix.
The same can be said of the number of races on the calendar — fewer grands prix deliver more importance to those that remain on the calendar, too many causes the championship to lose focus.
To put it another way, when F1 CEO Chase Carey says, “We have 21 races — we should have 21 Super Bowls”, consideration should be given to why the Super Bowl is such an event — it is not simply that it is a spectacle; it is because it is a once-a-year spectacle. The Super Bowl’s scarcity gives it import other games don’t carry.
The risk is that Formula One would feature so many race weekends that are void of defining narratives that audiences no longer feel the need to follow each one, if indeed that threshold is not already being breached with this year’s hectic 21-race schedule. In this way Formula One’s quest to add value by creating more races ironically decreases the value of each event and the championship overall.
It’s time the sport seriously considered a hard and reduced cap on the number of races. For 30 years — between 1973 and 2003, when the sport experienced significant audience growth — Formula One raced between 15 and 17 times per season. An increasingly extra-European focus in the last decade might put the ideal number at somewhere between 17 to 19 races to accommodate for new markets and experimentation.
In seeking to saturate the year with only more races, F1 risks diluting itself to the point it becomes nothing more than another weekend afternoon sport.
You really can have too much of a good thing.