For a sport based upon the principle of uncompromising performance, Formula One certainly makes a lot of sacrifices for preseason testing. If you were at all aware of the sport during the hectic months of February and March, the overwhelming sentiment from the paddock was one of frustration.
This frustration was deeply rooted in the fact that over these two months, time that should have been dedicated to scrupulous examination of data was often, though not always, spent rueing freezing track temperatures, pounding rain and degrading track surfaces. If you were wondering why teams were so concerned about the tires going into the first race of the season, there is your answer.
Ever since these stressful two months, critics and enthusiasts alike have taken upon themselves the task of not only debating, but solving our testing dilemmas. A noble task, you might say, but don’t jump to conclusions. Recently, this hotly debated topic has turned into a competitive field of business.
Contracts to host Formula One tests may not seem like quite the lucrative deal, but you would be surprised at how many tracks have been mentioned in recent days. To hold the entire Formula One circus in one place for four days is to endure just as much, if not more, action on track for a longer period of time. Hosting a Formula One test is an extremely tough task, and the opportunities for a track to gain some credibility and publicity are ripe for the picking.
Take Magny Cours. It has hosted the now (unfortunately) obsolete French Grand Prix and established itself as a world class racing circiut. It hosted one of three young drivers’ tests last year, thus keeping itself in the Formula One loop even after its Grand Prix has been off the calendar. This could prove invaluable, especially since plans to revive the French Grand Prix have been on-going for the past few years. Could its recent test experience put it in good stead for a possible return to racing action? It is entirely possible.
One of the tracks the sport uses for testing, the Jerez circuit, has come under fire in recent years regarding its relevance to the season’s calendar. If you analyze the track itself, you will notice that the physical layout is quite dissimilar to a vast majority of tracks on the calendar. Its combination of medium to low speed corners and very short straights makes it an anomaly when compared to the tracks Formula One races on. This is definitely a con for a track that faces fewer and fewer pros as the years go on. Even the surface of the track is irrelevant. Ask anybody who has anything to do with Formula One, and they will tell you about the struggles of the Jerez test this year. Not only was the track so abrasive that a set of Supersofts would not last more than two laps, but the archaic quality of the construction was such that large chunks separated from the main body of the track. As if this wasn’t enough to put a damper on proceedings, red flags added to the stress.
All in all, Jerez offers the sport nothing. It probably offers Formula One a cheap deal on using the circuit, something that his hard to turn down these days, but is that really worth it when issues are so prevalent? Is it worth all the time spent complaining about how the track is useless and unreliable? If you need more proof, just ask Fernando Alonso about his real views on testing at Jerez. He skipped the entire test there this season, saying that he wanted to train some more before getting back into the car, but is that really the case? If there is anyone who doesn’t need to train any harder, it’s Fernando. I wrote about Fernando’s cunning in choosing to sit out the Jerez test. If a driver is willing to “sacrifice” these valuable testing days, it is time to take a good look as to just why he is willing to do that.
Don`t let the misery of Jerez fool you about the rest of the testing season in 2013. If you think anyone’s experience in Barcelona was much better, you would be kidding yourself. The track is certainly much better than Jerez, that’s for sure. General consensus does not say that “any car good at Barcelona is good anywhere” for nothing, does it? Indeed, Barcelona is considered the performance benchmark in Formula One. There is a mix of corners ranging from start-stop to 250 kmh+ that makes the track the ideal place to judge a car’s ultimate potential.
The only problem we ran into this year, though, was weather. If Jerez’s extremes in terms of tire destruction could be converted to temperature extremes, Barcelona would match them no problem. The temperatures were so extreme, that data gathered about the tires had to be taken with a rather gigantic grain of salt. Nothing could be fully relied on, thus adding to the already mounting uncertainty over Pirelli’s 2013 rubber. It may have lasting impressions on the season that, coupled with other things, may see the exit of the Italian firm from Formula One earlier than we expected.
Taking all these issues in should, in theory, make the big wigs of the sport stand up and gauge the situation. Luckily, for once, it seems they have. Along with the aforementioned Magny Cours, tracks such as Bahrain and even Qatar have been mentioned as potential testing locations. The two former options would be perfect if you ask me. The location, if a bit controversial of late, offers a largely untapped viewing audience the opportunity to see a sport at work. The increased emphasis on making Formula One a show rather than a sport has created a rather disenfranchised sector of the viewing audience, one which has faithfully and sometimes begrudgingly stuck with Formula One through thick and thin. Without getting too emotional, let me draw your attention to the aforementioned “largely untapped viewing audience”.
If you were to pick someone from Bahrain or Qatar off the street and stick them in the middle of the grandstands during a Grand Prix, chances are they would be slightly nonplussed. I don’t want to create controversy or tap into a stereotype I am unaware of, but you have to agree with me there, right? The sport is obviously not as popular in Bahrain as it is in, say, England or Italy. The fact of the matter is, is that Formula One is not a fixture in the public’s conscience. At least not like it is in other countries. Slapping races on the calendar is all well and good, but if there is no audience, and I say audience for a reason, then what is the point? I’m not saying that if Formula One tested in China or Korea it would solve their complete and blatant issues with viewer turnout, but it wouldn’t hurt. If potential ticket-holders can get a glimpse, a miniscule piece of insight into how the sport ticks, it could spark a major interest in the sport as a whole, thus increasing ticket sales and making operation a whole lot easier.
Obviously, Formula One is unlikely to test in either China or Korea, but the fact that The Bahrian International Circuit is in talks with Bernie Ecclestone to install track lights and potentially hold a night race certainly lays its intentions out in the open. Who is to say that the circuit doesn’t want to host a preseason test?
But why should this possibility be open only to tracks in the Middle East?
There will be a hint of bias in this next sentence, but bear with me. Why not have a preseason test in Austin? The track offers all the Formula One teams world-class facilities in a country just itching to catch the F1 bug. What is holding the sport back from testing at the Circuit of the Americas?
If you want to talk about temperature, just ask me what it’s like to live in Texas. I’ve been here for 16 years. If you want a lesson on scorching heat, just give me a call. Granted, Texas in February is not known for its 100+ degree highs, but I will put good money on it being much warmer in Texas in February than it is in Spain. These beautiful conditions alone should at least convince the teams to consider Austin for a testing role.
Without making this sound more like a “Visit Austin” promotion, I would like to make it clear that I believe Austin is an ideal testing facility regardless of my bias to the location. As mentioned before, the facilities are world class and the track itself and the weather are perfect for days of miles and miles of testing. But what makes holding a preseason test in Austin an even more irresistible possibility, is the exposure for the sport.
If you want to raise awareness for a sport many Americans find hard to relate to, let them see the cars testing. NASCAR testing is televised with commentary, for goodness sake. The one time I will advocate that Formula One learns a lesson from NASCAR is when ticket sales are involved. NASCAR knows how to fill grandstands like nobody’s business, which is exactly what Formula One needs to learn how to do in its untapped markets. Yes, the inaugural race in Austin last year was a resounding success and yes, expectations were not only met, but smashed. But go and ask the bosses of the Indianapolis Grand Prix how ticket sales did in the years succeeding that first race back in the early 2000’s and you’ll receive a rather frightening answer. Undoubtedly, the 2005 debacle at Indianapolis ruined any chance of Formula One’s success there, and Formula One is unlikely to make the same mistake again, but what we’ve learned is that one successful race does not guarantee lifelong box office-busting sales. Americans are not easily fooled, and we will know when Formula One has run its course at Austin.
For now, though, the sport has an opportunity, maybe even an obligation, to cater to another untapped viewer market just begging to be discovered. I don’t want to oversell this, but if Formula One allows new fans to come and see the sport at work, maybe, just maybe, it will prove to be the best decision the sport has ever made.