Is a night race in Europe key to success in the US?

 

With the inaugural Austin Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas just over two months away, what could be done to increase not only the following of Formula 1 in the United States, but the awareness of the sport too? There is a strong crowd expected for the first US Grand Prix in 5 years when the Formula 1 circus arrives in Texas in mid November, with organisers even having to build extra grandstands to deal with an unexpectedly high demand for tickets. Many are expected to arrive from Central and Southern America to watch the race, probably because of the lack of current races in that part of the world (just Canada and Brazil).

So would an increase in the number of night races lead to an increase in audience viewing figures, awareness and following, not only from the fans, but the sponsors as well. You look at a few of the teams on the grid this season and wonder how they're still operating given the lack of apparent sponsors and associates on the cars themselves. The US market has seemingly always been untapped and unexplored, especially when it comes to funding and sponsorship. If races were at more friendly times for a US audience, would we see an increase in sponsors from North America?

Since its introduction to the calendar in 2008, the Singapore Grand Prix has been run as a night race. One decisive factor in making that race a night one was to ensure that the European audience would be able to view the race at lunchtime to early afternoon, as per norm with the majority of the other races on the calendar. Now for live viewing numbers (which is really what I'm basing this discussion around) in Europe can only have benefited from the race being run at night. If the race had been run during the day, as it is in Japan, Korea and Malaysia, then the number of people watching the race live in Europe would not have been as high. Yes, you'd have the core fan base that would get/stay up at any time of day to watch the race, but that doesn't equate to the whole of the audience.

Now could the same argument be used for an American audience? What if we added a second night race to the calendar, but instead of it being in Asia, it's in Europe? Would that help to increase the viewing figures on the other side of the Atlantic?

Of course there are many factors to consider here when deciding to run a race at night. As visually stunning as Singapore looks at night, there are problems away from the circuit that cannot be ignored. Increased night time traffic bringing certain parts of the city to gridlock, reduced custom for taxi drivers due to travel times, road closures, diversions etc all contribute to what can be a bit of miserable time for the locals over a Grand Prix weekend. That being said, the circuit is within a densely populated area of the world, and as it is a street circuit you would expect some of these issues to arise when hosting such an event.

With all this being said, the Singapore Grand Prix is actually one of the few races on the Formula 1 calendar to make a profit. The national tourism board expect the revenue from a Grand Prix weekend to reach S$200 million, S$50 million more than it costs to host the race each year. Local businesses don't lose out from the increase in traffic and congestion, and instead see income increase. Despite the problems that do exist with hosting a street circuit race at night, you'd have to say that the Singapore Grand Prix has been a success, especially away from the racing itself.

So, could one of the European races be switched to an evening or night time slot? Now obviously there'd have to be many things taken into account before any such switch could be made. Is the track ready for night racing? Does it have the facilities already in place? If not, could it get them in place soon? How would all the travel arrangements work? Are the local airports/stations capable of handling thousands of people at that time of night? Let's not forget, many fans from around Europe attend several European races per season, and will frequently travel back home the night of a Grand Prix. So if the required infrastructure was in place, then why not go ahead and have a night race in Europe?

We've seen in both Formula 1 and MotoGP how a racetrack in any location can be turned into a suitable venue for a night race. The Singapore track is within a very built up and metropolitan area, whereas the MotoGP round in Qatar is situated way out in the desert. Basically what I'm saying is that any type of track could be turned into one suitable for night time racing. Both the Singapore and Qatar circuits are fairly recent and modern, so would turning one of the recent added European tracks be the best option? Given the recent lack of European additions to the calendar (well, the increased removal of European circuits) it only leaves us with one option; Valencia.

Until this season's dramatic and frankly crazy race Valencia was seen as somewhat of a dull, predictable and an unsuitable track for hosting Formula 1. Several factors lead to what we saw that day; retirements from Vettel and Grosjean, safety cars, late collisions and tyre wear all lead to what became one of the strangest races I've ever seen. But in the previous year's Formula 1 has been to Valencia the racing has been stale and practically not existent. Now would a night race improve the racing? Not necessarily. What it would do though is increase the spectacle and drama of the occasion. A night race around a seaside street circuit, now what's not to like about that?

Ticket sales have never been particularly for the Valencia Grand Prix, so would this change of start time encourage both locals and others overseas to watch the race more? Going to a race day often involves sitting out in the hot midday/early afternoon sun (or rain if you're at Silverstone), which isn't necessarily a great thing to be doing for a whole day. This of course wouldn't be such an issue at night, and because of the location and culture of the locals, watching a race from say 8-10pm local time wouldn't be such an issue, as being out at that time is almost the norm.

This morning the provisional 2013 calendar was released, without Valencia on it. This doesn't really help with my argument that Valencia should be switched to a night race (as it appears it has now gone), but the same arguments and reasons could still apply to a different circuit. Why not Monaco? Why not make arguably the most spectacular race on the calendar even more spectacular by running it as a night race? The glitz and glamour of the occasion would increase ten-fold and make it a race to truly never forget. There have been increasing groans and grumbles about whether Monaco still has a place on the F1 calendar, so could this change reinvigerote the interest for the Monaco Grand Prix? Again, it's hard to say as this is only an idea and we'd have no way of knowing unless it were to actually happen. We've seen how incredible Singapore looks under the lights, so just think about how utterly superb Monaco would look.

As for the overseas audience, what effects would it have? Well as mentioned in the opening part of this article, I was aiming to look at ways in which we could increase interest in the United States. You'd expect that if there was an American driver or team in the sport then interest would grow rapidly, but as that doesn't look likely at the moment, making race times more US friendly seems like the easiest and maybe most sensible and practical way to go.

A move to more audience friendly times can only be good for viewing figures, and if this were to happen then you'd think (in all likelihood) that US companies would see this as a good opportunity to get involved in the sport. If more people are watching it in their own country, then more people are likely to use or buy their products. If a company or product can build a partnership with a Formula 1 team and that team performs well in front of an increased US audience, then that can only be a good thing, right? If the fans then start to follow that team because of its US sponsors and carries on that on to the other races in the year, then surely we'll see an increase in interest from across the pond.

With the addition of the Austin Grand Prix this year and a potential race in New Jersey/New York to maybe follow in 2013/2014, it's clear that Formula 1 is increasingly realising what an untapped and unused market the United States is. I'm aware that for 20-30+ years teams have been trying to get Formula 1 to work in the US, but have seemingly failed. I'm not saying that moving one race per season to a more viewer friendly time is the answer, but it could certainly start something. Something needs to change.

Some would argue that there isn't room for Formula 1 in the US, but I'd argue there is. Yes it'd have to compete with the established NASCAR and IndyCar series', but having competition is healthy and needed. By having it at this time of day you can only help increase the profile and awareness of the sport, so why not try it? It'd be on in the prime Sunday evening slot for European viewers and the lunchtime slot for the Americas. Win win?

So what do you think? Would moving one of the European races to a night time slot be good for Formula 1 in America? Is it worth taking a chance in the short term for the long term benefit of the sport globally? Let me know by commenting below or getting in touch with me directly (see the Contact page). Thanks!

Sources:
The National
ESPN F1
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