Online Sport Editor Harry Scott-Munro looks at the finances involved in Formula 1 and whether the money a country can offer to stage races matters more to the sport than any political or human rights issues that that country may have.
For all of Formula 1’s insistence that ‘We race as one,’ in the fight for equality, the decision next season to race in Saudi Arabia for the first time has bought criticism from many corners, due to the country’s human rights record, that has been described by Amnesty International as “heinous.”
They went so far as to state that “The Saudi authorities apparently still see elite level sport as a means of rebranding their severely tarnished reputation,” asking drivers to speak out against human rights offences within the country before the grand prix.
It is not the first time Formula 1 and has drawn criticism for its choice of race location and it certainly won’t be the last. The provisional grid for next season sees the F1 circus return to Bahrain and China, countries that have become staples of the F1 calendar, despite their somewhat dubious records on human rights.
Indeed the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix was cancelled in the wake of the Bahraini protests that took place in the run up to the event, former world champion Damon Hill stating that “we will forever have the blight of association with repressive methods to achieve order” if the race went ahead.
Despite these controversies, money talks, especially in Formula 1. In 2019, the sport turned a profit of US$17 million, with fees charged to circuits for hosting races attributing to 30% of that profit. Along with broadcasting charges, this makes up the majority of the sport’s annual income.
In such a high-octane sport, with technological development and speed at the forefront of its thinking, the necessity to secure its financial status year on year, remains the one of the highest priorities for the sport’s major shareholder, Liberty Media.
With many circuits and promotors struggling to find the finances to host events, the average cost of hosting a grand prix weekend dropped to a seven year low of $29.4 million in 2018, leaving Formula 1 reliant on circuits in countries such as China and Bahrain, alongside heritage circuits such as Monaco, Silverstone and Spa-Francorchamps to boost the sports annual income.
For all of the messaging Formula 1 pushes in search of equality, money certainly talks. The current globetrotting nature of the sport means that whatever way you look at it, the current business model would simply not survive were it not for the guaranteed race fees provided by these countries. Formula 1 can bang the equality drum as much as it wants but that pales in significance to the financial gains of racing in these countries.
As a sport, Formula 1 has always aimed to be non-political, trying its best to not get involved in social issues within any country it may race in. However, the hyperbole surrounding the claims of equality within the sport cannot be ignored when it continues to race in the likes of China and now Saudi Araba. Formula 1 is a business and has to be treated as such, however those who claim or feel that the sport only pays lip-service to the causes of equality it champions, would be well within their rights to think this.
The question really, and one that only the senior figures in the sport can decide upon, is whether Formula 1 has a moral duty to take a stand against such regimes and human rights abuses. If the conclusion they arrive at continues to be that they remain impartial in a political sense, that the money does really talk, they are perfectly within their rights to. However, the sport as a whole must then accept the accusations of lip-service to equality causes that will continue to come their way.