German Grand Prix at F1 crossroads

The German flag printed on the Hockenhemring.

The German Grand Prix’s return to the F1 calendar after a year’s absence this Sunday, 22 July, could prove the historic race’s last.

Unlocking the viability of the Grosser Preis von Deutschland has proved a riddle undecipherable by Formula One and the German race promoter alike.

The raucous crowds emblematic of the days of Michael Schumacher stand in stark contrast with the current era of Sebastian Vettel, who idolised his great predecessor but who for reasons undetermined has been unable to enthuse local crowds in the same way. Reigning four-time constructors champion Mercedes has similarly failed to elicited any feelings of national pride sufficient to stimulate ticket sales.

Some suggest that the German audience was willing to buy into the sport only once, when Michael Schumacher became the nation’s first successful Formula One driver. German tennis experienced a similar boom with Boris Becker, for example.

Others point to the fact that Mercedes is only nominally German given it’s based in England and run by Austrians, while Vettel’s ferocious guardianship of his life away from the racetrack makes him difficult to relate to.

Whatever the reason, crowds have dwindled while hosting costs have escalated — indeed the F1 sanctioning fee is so significant that Nürburgring and Hockenheimring began alternating hosting duties from 2007 until the former finally succumbed to a lack of finance in 2014. The German Grand Prix has since been a biennial affair, with the Hockenheimring unwilling to foot the bill for the missing 2015 and 2017 years.

But now the owners of the last circuit standing have reached the end of their fiscal tether, and with no contract yet agreed to extend the race beyond this year’s running, the historic German Grand Prix seems destined to drop off the calendar from 2019.

The race’s expiration comes at a testing moment for Formula One Management, which is attempting to balance the desire to dip into the sport’s pockets to fund start-up races that offer potential long-term benefits while continuing to profit from more established events, which are an important income stream constituting reported revenues worth US$1.5 billion last year.

This is aptly demonstrated by concurrent negotiations for a Miami street race next October, for which Formula One is prepared to shoulder some of the financial burden, and for an extension to the British Grand Prix contract beyond 2019 after the Silverstone Circuit’s owners gave notice that the sport was no longer sustainable.

“We do want to grow globally, particularly in some of the markets where there are opportunities,” F1 CEO Chase Carey told Sky Sports last year, “But the foundation of the sport is western Europe and we want to make the races in western Europe as strong as they can be.”

The meaning of “as strong as they can be” is key, and German Grand Prix organisers said earlier this year that they’re seeking a risk-free deal like that on offer for Miami.

“We cannot prolong under current conditions,” Hockenheimring marketing director Jorn Teske said in May. “We would like to have a contract which will take the risk away from us … this could be track rental, but it could be also sharing of ticket income and sharing of costs.”

In offering Miami favourable terms Formula One has opened the floodgates to similarly beneficial claims from its bevy of longstanding races. On the one hand it can’t afford to slash race hosting fees across the board, but nor can it afford to drive the away the backbone of the calendar.

The solution to this billion-dollar problem will be crucial.