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Is Germany still a Formula 1 nation?

March 15, 2023

While the Formula 1 is experiencing a global boom, Germany seems to have fallen out of love with the world's most prestigious motor-racing circuit. This is the result of a combination of factors.

F1 cars on the track in front of a crowd
When Sebastian Vettel (right) was winning championships, big crowds turned out to F1 races in GermanyImage: HOCH ZWEI/picture alliance

After an absence of two years, when she last competed in the DTM (German Touring Masters) and the European Le Mans Series, Sophia Flörsch is back in Formula 3. 

"It feels very good," the 22-year-old German told DW. "For the past two years it was always my goal to return to Formula-class racing. I'm really happy to be racing in Formula 3 again." 

Not only that, but Flörsch is now on the junior squad of Renault's Alpine Formula 1 racing team. 

"This brings me a bit closer to my goal of Formula 1, but I still have a long way to go," she said. 

It would be a good thing for motorsports in Germany if Sophie Flörsch one day realizes her goal of making it as a driver in Formula 1, a circuit that is currently enjoying a global boom – with a year-on-year increase in revenue of 20% in 2022. 

But this boom is happening without Germany. In fact, TV ratings for F1 races in the country are falling; there hasn't been a Grand Prix race in Germany since 2020; and Niko Hülkenberg is the only German left behind the wheel of an F1 car.

"If something doesn't change, one day there will be no German F1 drivers at all," Flörsch said. "There is a lack of support in Germany, be it from the association or corporate sponsors. And that's despite the fact that we are a country with many carmakers."   

Price explosion at lower levels 

Financial considerations are a major stumbling block for many aspiring young drivers. 

"The sport is extremely expensive. And the higher the level, the more expensive it gets," Flörsch said. "If you aren't able to pay for it out of your own pocket, the biggest difficulty is getting the funds together."

The cost of driving in Formula 3 for one season is estimated at as much as €1.5 million ($1.6 million).  

"There are probably a lot of highly talented boys and girls, not only in Germany but all over the world, who never get the opportunity to pursue motorsports. Even in karting, the sums required are out of reach for the average person."  

The German motoring association, the ADAC, has been sponsoring German racing drivers through its Sports Foundation for almost a quarter of a century. Flörsch is among those who have benefited from this support. So far, 17 drivers sponsored by the ADAC have made it to Formula 1, including Hülkenberg and retired world champions Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg. However, young drivers are now having a hard time getting a foot in the door. 

"Years ago, there was a thriving junior scene in Germany with Formula BMW ADAC through to the Formula 3 Euro Series to the Formula 3 European Championship. Unfortunately, these series have been discontinued," the director of the ADAC Sports Foundation, Wolfgang Schattling, told DW. 

"One of the reasons for this is that FIA [motorsports' global governing body] has reorganized the junior categories so that Formula 3 and Formula 2 are now forced to operate under the umbrella of Formula 1. This has led to a price explosion that has discouraged many in Germany from starting a career in Formula racing," added Schattling, who previously spent two decades working for the Mercedes-Benz F1 setup.  

Corporate support lacking 

"Of course, money is the main factor. But a career cannot be financed solely through a family budget, support is also needed from the industry," Schattling noted. 

Sophia Flörsch's F3 car
Sophia Flörsch is back in Formula 3, racing for the PHM teamImage: Xavi Bonilla/DPPI media/picture alliance

Formula 1 has "not been taken seriously enough in Germany in recent years," he continued, echoing the sentiments of former F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, who once criticized German organizers for only being willing to host "small, nice local races" and not "international races of world championship" caliber. 

"I think it's shameful for a car country like Germany that, unlike smaller countries like Belgium or the Netherlands, we can't manage to host our own Grand Prix," Schattling said. "Unfortunately, people still think too small in this country." 

Major financial risk  

Officials at the former Formula 1 venues Nürburgring and Hockenheimring reject this accusation.  

"We are a successful racetrack and are in the black. But we can't buy into a format that we can't refinance in its current form," said Alexander Gerhard, head of communications at the Nürburgring, referring to the high entry fees demanded by Formula 1.  

"The Nürburgring is a privately owned company. We can't compete with state-subsidized organizations, like the racetrack operators in Bahrain or even Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. They don't have the private-sector pressure and don't have to turn their entire business model upside down to host a Formula 1 race." 

F1 car on Nürburgring
Could Formula 1 return to the Nürburgring one day? Image: Roland Weihrauch/dpa/picture alliance

The management of the Hockenheimring also decries the high financial risk associated with hosting a Grand Prix race: 

"There have been a number of Formula 1 races in the past two decades that resulted in losses in the millions for racetrack operators," it said in a written statement to DW. "The so-called 'small local races,' which have a large following and, by the way, have been growing steadily for years, make no small contribution to offsetting the financial burdens of the past." 

The Nürburgring and the Hockenheimring both said they would be prepared to host Formula 1 races in the future, but as the management of the Hockenheimring put it: "Only if the financial risk, which is still in the tens of millions, does not rest solely on our shoulders." 

Poor image of the car 

Sophia Flörsch hopes the popularity of F1 will increase again one day, but she sees the generally poor image of the automobile in Germany as a major problem.

"If, in the eyes of many, simply driving your own car is a bad thing [for the environment], then of course motorsport is way worse – although that's not really the case," she said, pointing to progress being made on the issue.

Sophia Flörsch
Sophia Flörsch hopes to make it as an F1 driver one dayImage: Thomas Fuessler/Eibner/picture alliance

"In Formula 3 we run on 50% biofuels, and in the endurance race at Le Mans the figure was as high as 100% since last year. Formulas 1, 2 and 3 are becoming CO2-neutral as quickly as possible; as a high-tech sport, we want to set the best possible example as quickly as possible." 

Flörsch has also not given up on her dream of one day making it as an F1 driver.  

"I firmly believe in it, otherwise I wouldn't be in the sport," Flörsch said. 

"But I also know that it doesn't depend on talent and ability alone, but also on other factors. For me, this year is all about doing as well as possible, learning a lot and then making the jump to Formula 2."

This article was translated from German.