ALARM BELLS RINGING: F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone is trying to keep countries and fans interested. Image: AFP / Christof Stache
LONDON, England - The absence of Germany from the 2015 Formula 1 calendar, confirmed on Friday, would have been utterly unthinkable a decade earlier.
When Michael Schumacher was king of the ring, adored by an army of red-shirted Ferrari fans as seven-times F1 champion, Europe's biggest economy happily hosted two races a year – one at Hockenheim and the other at the Nurburgring.
Even that was not enough for some, with Germans flocking to Hungary and Belgium and further afield to pitch their tents and watch the 'weltmeister' at work.
PLUNGING INTO CRISIS
Even now, with Mercedes on top of the world and four-times F1 champion Sebastian Vettel driving for Ferrari and following in Schumacher's footsteps, there would appear to be all the ingredients to excite the home crowd.
Instead, for the first time since 1960, Germany has no race and alarm bells are ringing across the sport's heartland.
As the news spread on social media many fans felt F1 - which started the season in Australia a week earlier with only 15 cars on the grid and some of the 10 teams struggling to survive - was plunging deeper into a crisis of its own making.
Others feared it was turning its back on its roots, even if Germany does return in 2015.
France, the cradle of motor racing that gave the sport so much of its vocabulary (from chassis to grand prix as well as the Champagne celebrations) was dropped from the calendar in 2008 and has failed to find a way back.
The last time F1 had a season without a race in France or Germany was 1955.
'BYE-BYE TO MONZA'
Monaco, Spa, Monza and Silverstone each have some protection as key races in the heritage of the sport but even then there are no real guarantees in a world where lavish new circuits elsewhere offer far more to F1's coffers.
F1's commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone, who in 2014 paid a $100-million fine to end a bribery trial in Germany, said of Italy’s Monza that same year: "I don't think we'll do another contract. The old one was a disaster for us from a commercial point of view. After 2016, bye-bye."
While Azerbaijan and Russia and relative newcomers Abu Dhabi and Bahrain are prepared to shell out handsomely to host F1 the European circuits have long struggled to pay the fees. The latter depend on ticket sales but that means passing on the burden to fans, leaving families hard hit.
A Category 1 weekend pass to the 2014 German GP cost the equivalent of nearly R7000.
Hockenheim, which had been alternating with the Nurburgring, attracted only 52 000 race-day fans in 2014 and suffered financial losses the circuit could not contemplate incurring for three years in a row.
The financially-troubled Nurburgring, meanwhile, has new owners that baulked at paying what the contract stipulated.
BACK TO MEXICO
Ecclestone, who represents commercial rights holders CVC Capital Partners, has a duty to maximise annual revenues that currently stand in excess of about R18.2-billion - and rising. He tried to buy the Nurburgring himself in 2014 but was rebuffed.
Losing Germany will be a blow but the 84-year-old knows where the money is. He already has Mexico returning to the calendar later in 2015 after a 23-year absence and Azerbaijan the following year.
Qatar is pushing hard for a race...South Africa is interested and there is talk of a second GP in the US.
Ecclestone's priorities have been clear for some time: "Slowly but surely what I predicted about Europe is happening," he told the Daily Telegraph in 2014. "What I said 10 years ago is that it would soon become a Third World economy.
"Europe was built on Germany and France," he added. "That's how it all started. France is gone and Germany doesn't look good."
European automakers said in Milan, Italy that the region's fragile economic situation was responsible for a depressed economic future.
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