Where have all the crowds gone?
The Formula One championship is closing in on its most thrilling finish in years, yet the Italian and Belgian races have far too many seats to spare. And the teams know they have to do something about it.
"We have spectators walk away from television. In the meantime, we have less spectators in the grandstands," Renault team leader Flavio Briatore said after his championship leader Fernando Alonso spent exactly one lap on the circuit all day to the disappointment of a rained-out crowd.
Over the past six years, when Ferrari and Michael Schumacher dominated the circuit, Monza and Spa-Francorchamps were hopping, with crowds reaching and exceeding six-figure levels.
In Belgium, talk is already rife for authorities to bridge a huge deficit for a second year running as organizers are struggling to scale the 50,000-mark, far below the break-even point. Next week, once all the data is collected, local authorities will assess how and if to further subsidize the Grand Prix.
A local paper had a cartoon Friday showing a government official offering fat checks to any fan wanting to show up for the race today.
"Francorchamps has a future, but only at a reasonable cost," Jean-Claude Marcourt, the regional economics minister, told Friday's edition of Le Soir. Lack of government support could be the death knell for the race at a scenic circuit widely recognized as the best in the world.
The reasons for the lack of interest over the past two weeks include skyrocketing prices, fewer laps by the top racers during the practice and qualifying sessions and a lack of excitement during the races where overtaking, the essence of spectator appeal, becomes increasingly rare.
Briatore misses the rough and tumble of the GP2 races, the feeder circuit for Formula One, where technology is not all-dominant.
"I see people enthusiastic for GP2," he said. "I want to see Formula One more human -- a better show for our public."
Director Norbert Haug of McLaren-Mercedes agrees change is necessary.
"At the end of the day, we need to communicate with the customer. Of course they like to see overtaking and we should investigate how to encourage it," he said.
It indicates the problems of the sport go beyond the debacle of Indianapolis, when a Michelin tire problem reduced the race to a mockery with six drivers, earning the scorn of tens of thousands at the oval.
Price is another issue.
The cheapest day-ticket for Sunday's race without access to an actual stand was 150 euros (US$185) and even some tickets at 365 euros (US$450) did not guarantee a roof in Belgium's notoriously wet climate.
Local organizers complain that the rule changes limit the time the stars are actually seen on the track, since being thrifty on engine use has become a premium and qualifying is limited to just one fast lap. Even on race day, the morning warmup has been canceled.
On Friday, championship leader Fernando Alonso failed to come out during the first practice session to protect his engine and came out for one perfunctory lap in the rain during the afternoon. Most top drivers limited themselves to just a handful of laps.
In the afternoon, thousands of fans stood in muddy banks, unprotected as the rain kept coming down hard. Camping sites stood half empty while they would have been filled with huge German crowds otherwise. Michelin-rated restaurants close to the track still had reservations open.