F1 Business Diary 2017: The Japanese Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton extends his drivers’ championship lead to 59 points after Sebastian Vettel’s cruel mechanical failure.

F1 Business Diary 2017: The Japanese Grand Prix

The three-race south-east Asian leg of this year’s Formula One season has been particularly kind to Lewis Hamilton. 

The 32-year-old Briton’s two wins and a second place have matched favourably against his championship rival Sebastian Vettel’s two DNFs and a fourth-place finish that occurred after an engine failure forced him to start from the back of the grid in Malaysia. 

Following his victory in Japan, Hamilton’s drivers’ championship lead has now stretched to a daunting 59 points with only four Grands Prix remaining in 2017. 

Hamilton, who broke Michael Schumacher's 2006 Japanese Grand Prix qualifying lap record by 1.365 seconds, was in a class of one on Saturday when taking his 71st career pole position, his first from ten attempts at the Suzuka International Racing Course. 

Title rival Vettel shared the front row of the grid but that was as close as the German would get on Sunday’s 53-lap race. 

Despite pre-event optimism about his Prancing Horse’s race pace, the writing was on the wall for Vettel even before the formation lap. Ferrari mechanics were seen manically trying to fix a spark plug issue on his SF70H with the car still sat on the grid, which meant that the German was forced to sit out the Japanese national anthem before the start - much to the chagrin of the race organisers.    

Vettel did nonetheless start the Japanese Grand Prix. The German held his second place ahead of the irresistible Max Verstappen in the early stages of the opening lap but had dropped to sixth place by the its end. Vettel slipped further back down the standings and a visible loss of power in his Ferrari forced the four-time world champion to retire from the race at the end of lap four.

While Vettel has sometimes been the architect of his own downfall this season, two engine failures in the past two races must be a bitter pill for the 30-year-old to swallow. That said, many observers in the paddock believe that Vettel had, at times in 2017, thought himself to be above the sport’s rules. Former Formula One driver Jan Lammers said of Vettel’s recent bad luck that “this is karma” following his aggressive driving earlier throughout the season.   

The Ferrari driver left the Suzuka track in an understandably downbeat mood before Hamilton took his fourth career win in Japan and eighth chequered flag of 2017. While the patience of Sergio Marchionne, Ferrari’s president, is certainly being tested as the historic Italian manufacturer strives to win a 17th drivers' championship, Vettel refused to be critical of his team.

"They've [the Ferrari mechanics] done an incredible job so far,” said Vettel, in an interview with Sky Sports. "It's just a pity in the two races with the reliability issues. But it's like that sometimes and of course it hurts and I'm disappointed, but now it's important to get some rest and give my all for the last four races and see what happens."

If Ferrari have ‘imploded’, as Tom Cary of the UK's Daily Telegraph believes, then team spirit at Mercedes is at an all-time high. This new camaraderie - the antithesis to the toxic atmosphere in the garage when 2016 world champion Nico Rosberg partnered Hamilton - was highlighted when Hamilton, who heaped praise on his mechanics all weekend, took his team ten-pin bowling in Suzuka on Saturday night. 

Red Bull are another team that have enjoyed improved results of late, especially the prodigious Verstappen. The Milton Keynes outfit have now scored back-to-back double podium finishes for the first time since 2013, and for the first time in Formula One’s current turbo hybrid era.

ESPN replaces NBC as US home of Formula One

Pay-TV sports broadcaster ESPN has acquired the US rights for Formula One from the start of next year.   

Under the terms of the multi-year linear and digital partnership, Disney-owned ESPN will show all 21 races from the 2018 Formula One season. In total it will show more than 125 hours of programming a year across its ESPN and ESPN2 channels, as well as its online streaming platforms.

ABC, the free-to-air network which is also owned by Disney and was the original US carrier for Formula One coverage in 1962, will show the US Grand Prix that takes place in Austin, Texas on 21st October 2018. 

ESPN and ABC replace NBC as the home of Formula One in the USA. NBC had been the exclusive American media rights holder since 2013 but, according to an official statement, it ‘chose not to enter into a new agreement in which the rights holder itself competes with us and our distribution partners’. This is understood to be a reference to Formula One's intentions to launch a new digital over-the-top (OTT) service.

In an interview with Autosport in June, Chase Carey, chief executive and chairman of Formula One, revealed plans for the Netflix-style streaming platform where fans can pay for dedicated Formula One content. The American described the OTT offering as a “tremendously important opportunity” for the organisation. 

Liberty Media further increases Formula One’s stateside presence  

The Formula One Group has also confirmed that it is establishing its first permanent office in New York in order to increase its commercial and marketing reach in the US.   

The specific location of the New York office and the number of executives to be based there has not been announced but Norman Howell, director of communications at Formula One, confirmed that “we are opening a small commercial office” that will be predominantly dealing with the “sponsorship side of things".

British Racing Drivers Club reveals revenue drop 

The British Racing Drivers Club (BRDC), owner of Silverstone racetrack, announced in July that it would activate a break clause in its contract with Formula One. BRDC blamed a rise in hosting prices - which rises by five per cent annually and reached UK£16.2 million this year - as the reason that it will end its agreement in 2020, as opposed to its contracted 2026 finish.

Despite the British Grand Prix being one of the most popular races on the Formula One calendar it appears that BRDC might be making the right financial decision.     

Ahead of its 2017 AGM next week, the BRDC’s chairman John Grant wrote, in a letter to its 850 members, that ‘revenue declined by three per cent, from UK£56.4 million to UK£54.9 million’. Grant attributes the fall in income to a ‘five per cent drop in British Grand Prix revenues, which again represented approximately 50 per cent of our total turnover for the year’.

The BRDC has increased ticket prices, with the cheapest ones now costing UK£165, and that hike has seen spectator numbers fall by 3,000 at the past two races at the Northampton track. 

The letter adds that the net loss for the year ‘increased from UK£0.2 million in 2015 to UK£1.1million’.

Hamilton does the Mobot

A criticism often levelled at Lewis Hamilton is that he wants to be centre of attention but after his comfortable win in Japan, he was happy to share the spotlight. 

As he basked in the glory of victory Hamilton executed his trademark trophy toss from the top of the podium. However, the Briton spied compatriot Sir Mo Farah in the crowd and pointed at the decorated Olympic long-distance runner.

The pair locked eyes and the Formula One superstar raised both hands over his head and touched them together on his scalp in a performance of Farah’s trademark celebration, the Mobot. Farah, grinning from ear to ear, responded in kind.