Mix of old and new venues vital

Updated: September 24, 2004, 3:26 PM ET
By Dan Knutson | Special to ESPN.com

SHANGHAI, China -- It's one of the oldest civilizations on earth, but China becomes the newest country to host a Formula One Grand Prix this weekend.

The huge new Shanghai International Circuit cost well over $200 million to build, and some reports peg the figure at $325 million. Clearly, it has set the benchmark for the rest of the tracks on the Formula One calendar.

Yet the new SIC circuit lacks something that money cannot buy: soul. That only comes with time. True, none of the classic European F1 tracks can match the new facilities built in recent years in China, Bahrain and Malaysia. But then the new tracks can't match the mystique of the older venues.

With more and more high-buck tracks posturing for Grand Prix races, F1 has to be careful that it doesn't sell its soul for a shiny new piggybank.

"We can't have 20 Chinas or Bahrains," said Jaguar driver Mark Webber.

He means that the F1 calendar should not consist exclusively of 20 brand-new tracks.

"You can't buy the soul overnight," Webber said. "Michael Schumacher winning here in China or in Bahrain is different to Michael winning in Monza in Italy. We have to keep those older circuits on the calendar because that is important for the foundations of our sport. We can't push the old circuits away and we can't push [away] the new tracks that want to help us either.

Part of the problem, from owners of the old tracks' perspective, is that many of these new venues have massive government funding. Even the European tracks that get government backing can't match what's being spent in places such as China.

F1 needs to find a balance between old and new.

"You have to make sure that you keep putting the level of the benchmark up," said team owner Eddie Jordan, "and this (China) is at the highest point now.

"What is happening, unfortunately, is that the -- as we call them -- flyaway races seem to have that much better edge to them at the moment and there's more excitement. People talk about them and this is a big race. Next year we're going to Turkey and then there's talk about a race in Northern Africa or one in Russia."

Tony Purnell, boss of Jaguar Racing, says the solution is to expand the number of F1 races during the season so that both the old and new venues can be accommodated.

"Whether the teams find that arduous or not," Purnell said, "I think the future beckons with more races so that the great European races are kept alive and the great new world racetracks are used to their fullest extent. It's actually a good problem to have."

Renault driver Fernando Alonso wants a mix of classic and new tracks on the schedule.

"I think it is a good combination what we have now," Alonso said. "All the new circuits are safe and are nice, with good facilities. So it's good to come here, out of Europe, to show F1 to everyone, to open the doors of F1 for the Chinese people, or those in Bahrain or Malaysia.

"At the same time we drivers like to race on the historic circuits, like Monza or Silverstone or each driver's home Grand Prix," Alonso added. "I think what we have now is a good combination of both. More old circuits mean that it's maybe less safe, less money and less facilities. More new circuits I think are a little bit less feeling for the drivers and less legend for F1."

Williams BMW driver Ralf Schumacher likes the challenge of the old tracks but would like to see them upgraded as soon as possible.

"I have nothing against the mixture (of tracks) but obviously as soon as the budget could be found to improve even the older circuits, concerning the safety," he said.

Eddie Jordan warned that the European tracks will lose their F1 dates if they don't improve their facilities. It's a case of supply and demand, he said, with the new countries that want to stage a Grand Prix willing to pay well for the privilege.

"You will find that there will be more flyaway races because these countries see that there's a huge economic value for it," Jordan said, "which may be because the European people have got a little bit lazy or tired with that. Or maybe there are too many other sporting issues: football, rugby, golf. In China and these other places, maybe this is the biggest sporting event on their calendar every year, so they're making sure that they put a huge effort into making sure that they get full recognition and value for that."

But every new track eventually gets a few dents and scratches.

"Don't forget that this is the newest track in the world," Purnell said of the Shanghai circuit. "It should be the best track in the world. The European ones are 20 or 30 years old. One day this place will be 20 or 30 years old. It's very attractive now, it's the benchmark but the European tracks were built a very long time ago. You can't really redo them every week."

The oldest European track on the F1 schedule is Monza, which was built in 1922. England's Silverstone dates back to 1948. Belgium's Spa goes back to the 1920s. They've all undergone changes and face lifts over the years, but tired as they may look when compared to the shiny new circuits, it is vital that they remain as part of F1's heritage.

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.