Right now, we should probably be reading the 2015 German Grand Prix previews. The event was originally scheduled this weekend but had to be called off because the “the CRH [commercial rights holder] and promoter did not reach agreement”.
I believe that F1 fans already know the main reasons. F1 race hosting fees have become unbearably high and promoters without government support find it harder and harder even to break even, let alone make money. It means that they are increasingly outbid by wealthy dictators who do not care about profit and are willing to pay the FOM huge sums to get lots of airtime for themselves and their countries. At the same time, spectators cannot afford the expensive tickets and vote with their feet.
However, the situation is not the same in all countries as there are still some traditional races (such as Australian or British GP) that at least manage to get full grandstands. The level of people’s interest about F1 differs between countries, too. That is why I believe that there are more reasons for demise of F1 in Germany.
Why are the fans switching channels?
Despite the fact that Germany has certainly not lacked championship winning drivers, teams and engines over the last 20 years, it is not only the number of German Grand Prix visitors that has reduced. F1’s TV audience in the country has decreased from around 10 million viewers in the Schumacher’s heyday to slightly more than 4 million in 2014/15. Unlike the fans in the UK or France, Germans can still watch all F1 races live free-to-air in Germany. So what makes them turn away from F1? I can only guess but here are some of the possible explanations.
Firstly, almost every fandom needs their local hero. I believe that Rosberg has never been seen as a superstar in Germany and Mercedes have never been seen as German. Vettel has always been admired in Germany but his popularity still cannot be compared to ‘Schumania’. As Ecclestone has said, he is not “100 percent star material”. There are also doubts about Vettel’s true quality as many believe that he always won the title with the best car, unlike Schumacher. No part of the last sentence is necessarily true but, as the saying goes, perception is everything. It is also obvious that Vettel simply came after Schumacher. In other words, the first time is always special and everything that follows after that is just a sequel. Is it possible that the German fans are simply tired of winning or even F1 in general?
Secondly, the free-to-air coverage of F1 in Germany is relatively mediocre and often loathed by hardcore fans. RTL’s team of presenters and commentators has remained pretty much the same since 1997; it also still includes Niki Lauda, who is supposed to (but obviously cannot) provide the audience with unbiased analysis. I would not say that their coverage is outrageously bad but it is rather superficial and does not pay attention to details. It is also very focused on the German drivers. The leaders are not forgotten either but do not expect an interview with, let us say, Romain Grosjean there. Long story short, it fails to inspire and educate fans, who would want to know more than if Vettel is going to win the race or not and how many pit stops he is about to make.
Thirdly, could the general state of German motorsport be to blame? Don Dahlmann, a German F1 blogger, says that this is the case. He believes that DTM is too ‘clinical’, GT Masters too lost in their ‘balance of performance’ rules and VLN too unreachable. In his opinion, Germany misses series like the BTCC. The recent death of a spectator at Nurburgring definitely did further damage to the image of the local motorsport in the country.
High prices, low service quality
Several circuits offer spectators a lot of off-track entertainment, such as concerts or an ‘action zone’. There was little of that at Hockenheimring a year ago. I was there and this was their idea of entertainment:
As for tickets, the pricing model is inflexible and outdated, compared to Silverstone or Melbourne. What is more, I did not receive my tickets at first despite ordering them on the circuit’s official website. After a few months of waiting (they had promised to send the tickets in a couple of weeks) I contacted them. After two more weeks, they replied to me that “we get them back because the address where wrong” but I know for sure that I had indicated the right address. Luckily, I received the tickets after all.
Has Germany lost it?
It is pretty clear that Hockenheimring’s facilities need to be upgraded. Last year it was extremely hot on Saturday but you could not even find a place to hide from the scorching heat – the fans, who did not have tickets at covered grandstands, were desperately looking for the shades of the trees and bushes.
Unfortunately, Germans have not been very good at big building projects lately. Nurburgring is a well-known example of that in F1 fraternity. The renovation project ‘Nurburgring 2009’ was far too ineffective; it involved fraud and resulted in financial trouble as well as several prison sentences. The same thing is happening to objects that are not related to motorsports, such as the new Berlin airport or Stuttgart’s new railway station. So it is possible that the inability to properly upgrade Nurburgring and Hockenheimring to modern standards has something to do with the state of the German economy and bureaucracy, too.
Where do we go from here?
So will F1 remain free-to-air in Germany and will the German Grand Prix go on? We do not know. RTL’s agreement with FOM ends this year and the broadcaster is reportedly trying to reduce the yearly price of broadcasting the sport from around 50 million Euros to 30-35 million. The most recent reports claim that an agreement is close but there has been no announcement so far.
The same can be said about the German Grand Prix. It has been included in the provisional 2016 calendar but it does not mean the race will necessarily happen. Hockenheimring’s official website has not published any information about the event so far.
But there is no escaping the fact that the Germans themselves will have to try harder if they want to stop the downfall of F1 in their country. It is unlikely that FOM will lend a helping hand to keep the German GP alive and the successes of Vettel and Mercedes are most probably not enough to bring the lost fans back to the TV screens.