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F1: Las Vegas GP reminder of German absence

November 17, 2023

There are now three F1 races a season in the US, while the likes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar have signed long-term deals. But former Mercedes motor sport chief Norbert Haug told DW the German Grand Prix will not return.

 A screen shows Charles Leclerc driving a Ferrari, during a news conference announcing a 2023 Formula One Grand Prix auto race to be held in Las Vegas
F1 has returned to Las Vegas for the first time since 1982Image: John Locher/AP Photo/picture alliance

The glitz and glamour of Las Vegas was always likely to appeal to Formula One's US owners , given the sport's long history of luxury and excess. The fact a farcical first practice had to be abandoned because of a loose maintenance hole cover is unlikely to deter them. 

A third annual grand prix in the United States, to go along with races in Austin and Miami, also means traditional European races are being squeezed out, with the push into new lucrative markets such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar lessening their chances even more.

Former Mercedes motorsport boss Norbert Haug believes F1 seeking new frontiers heralds the end of hopes that a German Grand Prix might one day return to the F1 calendar. Germany was once a powerhouse of the sport, but the last proper race in Germany outside of the COVID pandemic was in 2019 — and there are no signs it will reappear.

"The European heritage of Formula One will not be lost, but the German one will," Haug told DW. "In the first decade of the 2000s, there were two German Formula One races per year, each with 100,000 spectators and always over 5 million viewers for...live broadcasts. Today, perhaps 10% of this number watch Formula One on TV in Germany, there have been no races in Germany for a long time and there is no German winning driver in sight."

'99% show and 1% sporting event'

American conglomerate Liberty Media bought Formula One in 2017 for $4.6 billion (€4.25 billion) and despite the IndyCar series dominating motor sport in the US, the firm felt it could make inroads in its home market with F1, as well as raking in the money from Asian nations desperate for the prestige of holding a race. Critics say the likes of Saudi Arabia are only hosting grands prix in order to sportswash — boost their image through sport and attempt to deflect attention from domestic problems such as human rights abuses.

The inaugural Las Vegas race along the famous Strip — in stark contrast to 1981 and 1982 races held in the car park of the Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino — might not count as sportswashing, but world champion Max Verstappen has no doubt about the real motives.

"It''s 99% show and 1% sporting event," the Dutchman told reporters in Nevada. "I guess they still make money if I like it or not, so it's not up to me. But I'm also not going to fake it, I just always voice my opinion on positive things and negative things. That's just how I am. Some people like the show a bit more, I don't like it at all."

The practice lasting only 8 minutes because of safety fears after Carlos Sainz's Ferrari drove over the loose drain cover seemed to back up Verstappen's point. But a 10-year deal with Las Vegas shows F1's trend is clear. Indeed, of 22 races on this year's calendar, 14 are outside Europe. In the 1990s the vast majority of races were in Europe, where most of the teams are still based.

F1's turn away from Europe is best demonstrated by looking at Germany's fortunes.

Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg were all German world champions, winning 12 titles in 22 years between 1994 and 2016. The sport had as many as seven German drivers in 2012.

Now the only real German presence in F1 is driver Nico Hülkenberg, from US also-ran team Haas. The Mercedes F1 team — all-conquering before Red Bull and Verstappen stole their crown — are actually based in Britain despite the car company being one of several famous German auto brands. Team principal Toto Wolff is Austrian.

There was the so-called Eifel Grand Prix held in 2020 on Germany's Nürburgring but it was only a one-off stopgap because teams had difficulty flying out of Europe during the pandemic. There was never a concrete suggestion that it would remain on the calendar in normal times.

Red Bull's Max Verstappen celebrates on the podium
Max Verstappen is not impressed by Las Vegas, but the world champion is the main factor behind the Dutch Grand Prix's successImage: CLAUDIA GRECO/REUTERS

The French Grand Prix has suffered a similar fate, yet there are two European races which were added to the calendar again relatively recently. Austria has been a mainstay since 2014 and the Netherlands since 2021, but F1 only likes going there because Red Bull owns the Austrian track in Spielberg and can guarantee a party while Verstappen ensures hordes of orange-clad fans splash the cash at the Dutch race.  

"Germany owes a large part of its prosperity to the automobile and every German Formula One race has always generated over €10 million in taxes for the state coffers," said Haug. "But small countries such as Austria or the Netherlands are now Formula One strongholds. The older ones among us remember that Germany was once by far the most successful Formula One nation."

A record 24 races are planned in Formula One in 2024, with China returning after a four-year hiatus due to COVID. F1 has tried to take a race to Vietnam and while grands prix in India and South Korea failed, four races in the Arab world and five in North America tell their own story.

'There will certainly be none in Germany'

It's not all bad news for Europe. The Monaco Grand Prix — F1's most iconic event through the twisting streets of Monte Carlo and past the yachts of the super-rich — did look to be in some danger a few years ago, with F1's owners seeing the race as antiquated. But a new deal was signed until 2025, with the Belgian Grand Prix at fabled Spa — a favorite track of the drivers — also having a contract for two more years at least.

Haug believes these grands prix are too important to F1 to be ditched, meaning there is no space for some other European destinations.

"These races are secured for the long term and as certain as it is that these races will be held in the next 10 years, there will certainly be none in Germany," he said.

The extravagance of Las Vegas would seem to fly in the face of F1's goal to be greener. The sport aims to reduce CO2 emissions generated by operations, events, logistics and race cars to net zero by 2030. Flying to the other side of the world from European bases is an issue which has to be overcome, but Haug thinks street races like those in Las Vegas might actually help F1 with its target.

"I'm sure there are fewer cars in Las Vegas on a Formula One weekend than on an average weekend, so the environmental impact is only a fraction of what it would otherwise be," he said.

It's another mortal blow to Germany's hopes of an F1 return.

mm/mp (AP/AFP)