MONZA IS FORMULA ONE’S high temple of speed, the fastest and oldest circuit on the trail, home to red-clad tifosi, those rabid racing fans named after a particularly virulent strain of typhoid. The North Italian venue, situated deep within Ferrari’s heartland, is an easy drive from France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and various emerging eastern bloc states and is served by four major airports, while the surrounding scenery and local delicacies are to die for. Yet, during September’s grand prix, vast swathes of empty seats were visible throughout race weekend, with the main stand opposite the pits being just 60% full. This despite 1) Fernando Alonso comfortably leading the drivers’ championship for the Scuderia following a magnificent fight back after a slow start, and 2) no less than three former champions – powered by Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault – being very much in the running for season honours.
This situation is not unique to Monza. In Germany in July, Hockenheim, which in 1998 hosted 120000 fans on race day, was forced to massaged its numbers to hit half that, while in Spain, Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya dreams of ever again hitting the 137000 punters it feted in the mid-noughties. Monaco, too, was empty this year, while Turkey dropped off the calendar after attracting just 20000 fans for three straight years. Yes, the world lives in the midst of an economic crisis – arguably the worst such in 50 years. Yes, an increasingly connected globe offers myriad entertainment options. Yes, London’s Olympics saturated TV screens for a month. But the bottom line remains that F1’s stands are no longer packed to the gills with passionate fans who sold their grandmothers simply to be within earshot of 24 shrieking V8s, to experience the sport they love, live.
An explosion in ticket costs, which have more than doubled in 10 years, is regularly cited as the reason for declining numbers. Belgium’s Grand Prix, held at the classic Spa-Francorchamps circuit a week before Monza, charged €424 (R4600) for the dubious pleasure of sitting on an open grandstand in an area known for capricious weather, while Monza’s top price ran out at 10 per cent over that.
That said, the cost of flying 24 cars, all their kit and 3000-odd F1 personnel across the globe to 20 races per annum is simply enormous (this journalist spends close on R250000 a year on travel/accommodation for flying/sleeping cattle class), but the 12 teams get to share just 50% of the income, with the rest going to Ecclestone Inc.
F1 tsar Bernie Ecclestone and his venture capital cohorts charge an astronomical – €20m (R215m) on average – race-hosting fee, which, in turn, manifests itself in ticket prices of anywhere up to €600 (R6400). Such, though, are the proceeds that last year his two daughters spent a combined €75m (R810m) creamed off the back of the fortune he amassed through controlling F1’s commercial rights since 1998 on real estate, while his ex-wife walked off with a stipend of R10bn when she recently deserted the 81-year-old.
So, race promoters – whose only income is the gate while Ecclestone takes income from circuit advertising, hospitality, TV revenues and suchlike – are squeezed from the top by a greedy commercial rights’ holder, and from the bottom by increasingly cash-strapped race fans who simply cannot afford to the pay the going rates, and by a host of alternate entertainment options on each side. By way of comparison, take MotoGP or music – both compete with F1 for entertainment dollars. A top grandstand seat for a two-wheeler round scheduled for Italy a week after Monza comes in at half F1’s going rate, while premium seats at supergroup concerts are half MotoGP prices. Cirque de Soleil, a world-class circus extravaganza, charges just €200 (R2200) for a group ticket – the family being guaranteed a full two-hour spectacle.
But reductions in admission prices are unlikely to alleviate the situation any time soon, for the total cost of attending grands prix is generally at least double ticket cost – even for ‘home’ grands prix. A fraction of F1’s massive 600-million global fan base lives within easy distance of a grand prix venue, thus travel, accommodation and other costs need to be factored into the equation. This is where even bigger rip-offs start. Hoteliers not only hike prices by up to 500% but invariably insist on five-day stays, while airlines increase prices as flights fill up – as they do over grand prix weekends. Car rental rates explode, with food and beverages costs both in and about circuits increasing in direct proportion to drops in quality. Add in cap, parking and programme and fans can easily blow R12000 on a grand prix staged within a two-hour flight from home – and likely get drenched as the Safety Car leads the field for umpteen laps.
To put this into perspective, take an average European family of four: for the combined price of a quartet of grand prix experiences the group could take itself on a luxury all-in fortnight vacation on Spain’s coast, then watch a race (even two) on HD TV in air-conditioned comfort in their holiday apartment. No-brainer, that – as Spa/Monza so vividly illustrated…