It's all been going well for Germany this year. Football world champions, Mercedes built the fastest car, Rosberg is leading the Drivers Standing, and three other local heroes fill up the grid. Add an international venue like Hockenheim, spectacular races throughout the season and great weather, and everything should be set for a perfect F1 weekend. And yet, Hockenheim had a record low of visitors this year.
52 thousand people made the journey on Sunday, and a total of 95 thousand spectators were present over the whole event. 14 years ago, in the high of Schumacher Mania, 120 thousand people populated the grandstands on Sunday alone. 2010: 65k on Sunday and 165k over the weekend. 2012: 59 and 150k respectively. What is happening?
Theory I: Motorsport not popular in Germany anymore
It's the obvious one. No people at the prestige event = decline in interest. DTM also suffers from a steady drop in TV and track spectators and is far away from early 90s popularity. But how come that the Truck GP at the Nürburgring, held on the same weekend as F1, had over 200.000 people in attendance (over the whole event)? The same point could be made with the annual Sachsenring MotoGP race, where the number of people partying on the Ankerberg has been constant, and with VLN, the prime amateur racing series.
There must be some attraction of Motorsports in general then if people come out to watch trucks and pseudo production cars do their thing.
Theory II: The product that is modern F1 sucks
Another obvious thought. The current F1 regulations must be the source of all evil. True?
It's a fact that numbers have been dropping since 2005, even when 2010 and 2012 had close racing, screaming V8s and finger boy in a competitive car as the designated Schumi successor. The new regulations can't be it.
Also, dominance didn't make people stay at home between 2000 and 2005. This year, the car to beat is silver and the driver in the lead is as German as Michael. Hell, even the car is deutsch. Basically, the current situation is nothing new, and there have been vigorous complains about the noise V8 engines made compared to the mighty V10s.
The racing has been better than ever. Cars make contact without falling apart, are harder to drive at the limit, the two Merces are going head to head, and everything behind them is a grand spectacle. A far cry from processions à la 2004. Hard to believe that people would stay at home under these circumstances alone.
Theory III: Spielberg was everyone's race of choice
Austria made a spectacular return to GP racing, financed as a present to himself by Mr. Red Bull. But the market analysis done by Hockenheim shows that only about four to five thousand people had to chose between Spielberg and the German GP. Maybe the addition of another GP in the German speaking area causes a slight drop, but we are talking of a few thousand people. It doesn't explain the whole dilemma.
Theory IV: The supporting program is not exciting
Even the most hardcore racing fans love a bit of diversity. Sure, F1 and the feeder series are quite fun to watch, but not for 12 hours straight. Give the fans a reason so stroll around the whole day. Red Bull had great variety, with concerts and historic cars taking laps at the hands of legendary drivers.
I have to partly agree. "My" team, Mercedes, could also be blamed here. They had half their museum rolling in Goodwood a few weeks earlier - what was the harm of making a slight detour to Hockenheim before returning to Stuttgart and let the legendary cars do some show runs for the fans (and great TV pictures)? Now that they beat Red Bull in racing, beat them at their own game: action marketing. Let a 2012 Schumacher Mercedes run alongside the legendary W125.
But to be fair, Hockenheim is a public track, and therefore their promotion and investment budget is very limited as they can barely afford the 20 Million Euro fee for F1 to race in the first place. Red Bull on the other hand has billions in the bank, ready to spend. However, I doubt that the program surrounding the GP in the early 2000s was more fun than it is now. Maybe the public's demands changed and the German GP didn't adapt quickly enough.
Theory V: All that negative hype
Is negative hype a term? If not, it should be. This year, a strange phenomenon has been taking place in F1: many of its main actors talk down their own product. Imagine Mark Wahlberg appearing in a Transformers 4 ad with and saying "nah, don't watch it, it's shit and anyway, what is Transformers with out LaBeoef and Megan Fox - oh yeah, Megan".
So why on earth has Bernie been talking smack over the new regulations since mid 2013? Why is Vettel calling what's going on not real racing anymore (I doubt he would say that if the W05 Mercedes would have the outline of a bull jumping into a yellow circle painted on it), and how come Ferrari joins in? Sure, I can understand Villeneuve doing his usual PR stunts, but he generally assumes everything pre and post 97 is crap. But the people profiting from a good selling, popular F1 series?
Silverstone can rely on the motorsport-mad brits to show up, and it has that classic myth. Spielberg was pushed through the media, and it also had the return bonus. Hockenheim lost its unique character - super high speeds through the forest, tricky infield - in favour of Tilke based modern generality. Even the architect admits that the rebuilt version of HH was a hack job. And it also does the alternating thing with the Nürbugring, something that certainly doesn't help with building a constant image.
I believe there's something about it. Tickets don't sell on their own, and they need some bits of pushing. It can be Schumi, a legendary track or excellent marketing, but this time, none of these possibilities was present.
Theory VI: It's expensive to the point of ridicule
Pick a good seat in the grand stands. A full DTM Weekend? About 35 euros. F1? 400. Is it ten times the value? No.
The problems don't stop here. Camping right at the track is very limited. It leads to prices of over 100€ for a sport at a designated camping site, and hotel rooms are overpriced as usual when F1 visits town. Where to go for the casual fan? Spielberg set a high standard here, with low prices (they can afford them, plus offers to just sit on a green field and watch the race) and a lot of space for the cheap option of camping. Red Bull also owns many hotels in the area around the track and could keep them just about affordable by F1 standards - Hockenheim couldn't.
And even paying a nice amount of cash doesn't get you really close to a) the action and b) the drivers. High prices for a mediocre product, even higher prices for a good product. That's the key. Then again, F1 was nearly equally expensive two or four years ago.
I really can't pin it down, and the people in charge can't either. My guess would be that the mix of it all came down hard on the race event. Maybe the new cars need another year to be accepted by the public again, maybe Rosberg will become the new people's hero by winning the title in a silver arrow. But what's sure is that things can't continue like this. It hurts the track, the sport and the sponsors.