Seeing its place on the Formula 1 calendar threatened by the sport’s expansionism, Spa’s Belgian Grand Prix is grabbing its last chance to try and convince Liberty Media it too belongs on its new-look calendar.
Belgium was one of six grands prix on Formula 1‘s first world championship in 1950, along with the likes of France and Monaco.
All three races are now under threat, their contracts running down as the sport’s marketing savvy owner Liberty Media is prioritising commercial considerations over history or prestige.
While Monaco might like to argue its legacy makes it indispensable, Spa-Francorchamps is not willing to make the same mistake.
With Qatar, Las Vegas and China (re)joining a provisional 2023 calendar that maxes out at 24 races, and plenty more interest around the world to increase that number even further, keeping a spot on the calendar has become exceedingly difficult for traditional races outside of the so-called destination races as Liberty likes to call them – races in major international markets, close to or inside the heart of major metropoles.
Riding the wave of Formula 1’s new-found global appeal, the Americans are determined to turn every grand prix into a mini-Super Bowl, bling and all, whether that suits traditional race fans and venues or not.
In contract talks with Spa Grand Prix, the government-backed organisation behind the Belgian GP, F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali and his team have made it crystal clear that Spa is expected to follow the same entertainment driven concept if it wants to have a future. And Spa is willing to buy into that idea.
“It’s true that there has been a request from F1 to bring more entertainment,” says Spa Grand Prix’s commercial director Stijn de Boever.
“They said history is great, but we need more. We have decided to listen and follow their new way of delivering F1 events. The American way, with all the entertainment that goes with it.
“We are planning all sorts of entertainment, with DJs, exclusive events, fans zones and activations around the circuit. You can say our legendary grand prix will also get the necessary bling. If we want to continue hosting races in the future, we have to modernise.”
While Spa acknowledges it also needs to make up for its farcical 2021 edition, which was called after three rain-soaked laps behind the safety car, its new push to win over the fans and the commercial rights holder stems from concerns about the future rather than the past.
The long-term 80 million euro renovation project of the track, which allowed the return of the Spa 24 Hours for bikes but also benefits car racing and spectators alike, is also a key piece of the puzzle, as is a concentrated effort to stem the woeful traffic problems that plagued last year’s race, with torrential rain turning car parks into mud baths.
“The new Raidillon grandstand offers incredible views and the circuit itself has also been working hard on improving its facilities and becoming more sustainable,” de Boever points out.
“As far as traffic goes, we have been working with the local police to add car parks further away from the track on solid ground, near Malmedy, with shuttle buses transporting fans to and from the track. In 2019 it went quite well when it was dry, but now we have more options to provide better parking on hard soil.
“Of course, it’s still Spa. We don’t have trains that can take care of tens of thousands of people.”
Whether all of that is enough to wow F1 and be awarded with a new contract remains to be seen. Spa has been in regular talks with F1, with event director Vanessa Maes travelling to Imola and de Boever present in the Barcelona paddock, while chairman and Walloon politician Melchior Wathelet has also been in close contact with Domenicali.
The Spa camp’s optimism that a new agreement will be reached isn’t shared by every observer in the paddock, but it wouldn’t be the first time in recent history the race’s obituary has been prepared, only for a new deal to be signed.
“F1 has been very pleased with our plans,” said de Boever. “They are happy we are continuing to invest in a better fan experience, despite race day being sold out since December.
“It’s happened before that we headed into a grand prix without having certainty about the following year, so it’s not a big issue. We’re looking for a yearly race, not alternating with another GP, but we’re going to listen to what F1 proposes.
“Liberty Media clearly has found a new way to organise F1 races and we are going to follow them.
“Yes, we have something to prove. We don’t have petrodollars, but we can show that we are a legendary grand prix that can entertain 100,000 fans per day. It’s a big plus that they’ll be able to experience it first-hand in August.”