LONDON (Reuters) - The absence of Germany from this year’s Formula One calendar, confirmed on Friday, would have been utterly unthinkable a decade ago.
When Michael Schumacher was king of the ring, adored by an army of red-shirted Ferrari fans as seven-times world champion, Europe’s biggest economy happily hosted two races a year at Hockenheim and the Nuerburgring.
Even that was not enough for some, with Germans flocking to Hungary and Belgium and further afield to pitch their tents and watch the ‘weltmeister’ at work.
Even now, with Mercedes on top of the world and four-times champion Sebastian Vettel driving for Ferrari and following in Schumacher’s footsteps, there would appear to be all the ingredients to excite the home crowd.
Instead, for the first time since 1960, Germany has no race and alarm bells are ringing across the sport’s heartland.
As the news spread on social media, many fans felt the sport -- which started the season in Australia last weekend with just 15 cars on the grid and some of the 10 teams struggling to survive -- was plunging deeper into a crisis of its own making.
Others feared it was turning its back on its roots, even if Germany does return next year.
France, the cradle of motor racing that gave the sport so much of its vocabulary -- from chassis to grand prix -- as well as the champagne celebrations, was dropped from the calendar in 2008 and has failed to find a way back.
The last time Formula One had a season without a race in France or Germany was 1955.
Monaco, Spa, Monza and Silverstone all have some protection as key races in the heritage of the sport but even then there are no real guarantees in a world where lavish new circuits elsewhere offer far more to Formula One’s coffers.
“I don’t think we’ll do another contract,” Formula One’s commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone, who last year paid a $100 million fine to end a bribery trial in Germany, said of Italy’s Monza last year.
“The old one was a disaster for us from the commercial point of view. After 2016, bye bye.”
While new races in Azerbaijan and Russia, and relative newcomers Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, are prepared to shell out handsomely to host Formula One, European circuits have long struggled to pay the fees.
They depend on ticket sales but that means passing on the burden to fans, leaving families hard hit. A category one weekend pass to the German Grand Prix last year cost 515 euros ($557).
Hockenheim, which has alternated with the Nuerburgring, attracted just 52,000 race day fans in 2014 and suffered financial losses the circuit could not contemplate incurring for three years in a row.
The financially-troubled Nuerburgring meanwhile is under new ownership who baulked at paying what the contract stipulated.
Ecclestone, who represents commercial rights holders CVC Capital Partners, has a duty to maximize annual revenues that currently stand in excess of $1.5 billion and rising.
He had tried to buy the Nuerburgring himself last year and was rebuffed.
While losing Germany will be a blow, the 84-year-old knows where the money is. He already has Mexico returning to the calendar later this season after a 23-year absence and Azerbaijan coming in next year.
Qatar is pushing hard for a race, South Africa is interested and there is talk of a second grand prix in the United States. Ecclestone’s priorities have been clear for some time.
”Slowly but surely what I predicted about Europe is happening,“ he told the Daily Telegraph last year. ”What I said 10 years ago is that it would soon become a third world economy.
“Europe was built on Germany and France. That’s how it all started. France is gone and Germany doesn’t look good.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Martyn Herman