Five years ago, the future of Formula 1 was in limbo.
The Liberty Media Corporation had acquired the motorsport series from Bernie Ecclestone, who had ruled it with a viselike grip for almost 40 years.
Observers said the sport needed to modernize, move into new markets, attract a younger audience and increase its presence on social media.
Mission accomplished. Formula 1’s popularity has now soared to such an extent that there is more interest from new venues than there are available dates on the calendar.
“If we had the chance, it would be easy to fill the calendar with 30 Grands Prix,” Stefano Domenicali, president and chief executive of Formula 1, said in an interview.
“It’s not that I want to do 30 Grands Prix, but it really shows the level of interest that Formula 1 has all around the world.”
A binding contract among Formula 1, the FIA, the sport’s governing body, and the 10 teams, known as the Concorde Agreement, limits the number of races per year to 24.
This season there will be a record 23, with a new race in Miami in May. Next season, Formula 1 will return to Las Vegas after a 41-year absence, with the city’s Strip to form part of the circuit.
“The first meetings with the officials in Las Vegas were a little bit cautious,” Domenicali said. “But they have embraced the project that will really show the potential of our business.
“It was very important to do this deal because Vegas has a global footprint, and it’s another step in the right direction of the think-big approach F1 needs to have for the future.”
With three Grands Prix in the United States, including one in Austin, Texas, the next major hurdle for Formula 1 is a return to Africa.
Kyalami, a circuit north of Johannesburg, hosted Formula 1 from 1967 to 1985, and again in 1992 and 1993. A new deal is close to being completed.
“Johannesburg is definitely on our list,” Greg Maffei, chief executive of Liberty, said in an interview. “You’d love to have one in Cape Town, but I’m not sure that’s doable, so Johannesburg is the most likely.”
Lewis Hamilton, the seven-time champion, said South Africa was a race “I want to hear announced next.”
“Ultimately, my ancestors are from there, so that’s why it is important for me personally,” he said. “It’s important for the sport to go there. If they’re in every other continent, why not? ”
Hamilton may not have to wait too long. Domenicali said: “We have two options for a new race, and the most likely to hopefully happen soon is South Africa. It’s part of our agenda, and there is a commitment to see if this could be on the calendar as soon as possible. ”
Since Liberty took over, races have returned to France and the Netherlands, home of the reigning champion Max Verstappen, as well as the new additions in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United States.
“There’s a desire to do another Asian race potentially,” Maffei said. “We’ve had interest from places like Indonesia, going back to Malaysia, and there’s been interest in other South American countries, Argentina and Columbia.
“Stefano’s point about doing 30 races is valid. There is clearly plenty of demand, but it’s about maintaining that global audience, not saturating it. ”
The problem for Formula 1 is if the calendar expands to 24 races, either next year or in 2024, a more traditional event in Europe could be dropped.
That could be the French Grand Prix because its contract expires after its next race in July. There have been discussions with Formula 1 over an extension. It is also possible the race could alternate in the future with another European venue.
Domenicali wants to preserve Formula 1’s heartland in Europe, but has warned that races there have to keep pace with the rate of development of events in other countries.
“For those who say we are pushing too far and not being respectful, in a way, to racing in Europe, this is wrong,” Domenicali said.
“What we are doing is pushing the system for a different approach, to force the promoters to think big because the level of events we are building is getting bigger.”
Domenicali said Formula 1 had “a duty to ensure there is a higher level of professionalism, of business, of interest.”
The drivers and team principals feel it is important that Formula 1 finds a balance between welcoming the new and preserving the old.
“I can definitely understand we need more races in the US to increase F1’s popularity, and we are happy to go there,” Verstappen, the Red Bull driver, said.
“Of course, it is also important to keep a few historic tracks on the calendar, which are really enjoyable to drive.”
Daniel Ricciardo of McLaren said some tracks hold a lot of nostalgia.
“Whether it’s Monza, Spa or Silverstone,” he said, “these are tracks we’ve competed at our whole life, so there’s a lot of history.
“For the home fans, it’s very special to them. There are probably generations who have been going to races at those venues, so there are definitely some special places I would obviously want to keep continuing to go to. ”
Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal, praised Domenicali for “doing a brilliant job” of balancing the sport’s venues, but also, from a financial standpoint, for tapping into new audiences.
“Being in the US with a second and third race is fantastic, especially in Miami and Las Vegas,” he said. “It doesn’t get any better.
“The truth is, I think most of the fans who are watching Formula 1 through TV or social media really don’t mind where we’re racing.”
The Las Vegas race will run at 10 pm on Saturday to showcase the city at night. It will also allow the European audience to watch the race Sunday morning.
Otmar Szafnauer, the Alpine team principal who moved to Detroit when he was 7 years old, said he had enjoyed visiting Las Vegas over the years and believes “it will be great racing around midnight on the Strip.”
While he is really looking forward to the race, he said, “We do need to strike a good balance between tradition and where the sport started, with some of the tracks in Europe and the new ones.
“I think F1 will do that job, do it well, and we’ll have a good balance in the end.”
Changing the rotation of races, with two countries alternating a date on the calendar every other year, is being considered by Formula 1 as it attempts to cope with its supply and demand problem.
“It is incredible to see the space Formula 1 is at the moment and the excitement around the sport,” George Russell, the Mercedes driver, said.
“It’s brilliant for all the teams, for the drivers, and I guess it’s put Formula 1 in the luxury position where it can almost cherry-pick the races it wants to go to. Whether in the future there’ll be a rotation of races, I think that’s a really great idea. ”
With soaring attendance – a record three-day crowd of 420,000 attended the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, for example – the addition of Miami and Las Vegas, and the near-certainty that Formula 1 will return to South Africa, there is a sense the sport has cracked the big time.
“I want to be humble, but I would say these are the signs we are heading in that direction,” Domenicali said.
“If you look around, and I’m not being at all disrespectful, of course, in terms of the international sporting platform, but I don’t see any other sport with such great momentum as we have at the moment.”