Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Wednesday, July 7, 1999

A French Region's Race for the Race


By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - After the race, a local government employee barged out of the VIP lodge and said, ''Did you see that?! It was the best race of the season, and it was ours!''

With six changes of leader, nearly 70 overtaking maneuvers, the French Grand Prix before a record crowd of more than 106,000 spectators had just done a lot for the sporting image of a series criticized for boring races and under fire for its business practices.

But how long the race will remain in the Nievre, an agricultural region in central France, is in doubt. Like Silverstone, which hosts the British Grand Prix on Sunday, Magny-Cours is desperate to hang on to its race in the face of competition.

The fans might have enjoyed the race, but the drivers and teams are not so sure about Magny-Cours. Michael Schumacher, who has won four times in Magny-Cours, expressed a common feeling when he said, ''I'd rather race somewhere else.''

The teams dislike being so isolated in this countryside, 235 kilometers (145 miles) south of Paris, and blame everything on the location, including the rainstorms that contributed so much to the racing excitement.

Schumacher's comments had a subtext. In May, Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's commercial promoter, bought the rival Paul Ricard track at Le Castellet in the south of France where the race was run before it came to Magny-Cours in 1991. The same week, Nicola Foulston, the owner of the Brands Hatch circuit in Kent, announced an agreement with Ecclestone to run the British Grand Prix there, after the contract with Silverstone runs out in 2001.

Silverstone, owned by the British Racing Drivers Club, says it will fight back, but the Magny-Cours organizers and local population fear their race too may move after its contract runs out the same year, depriving the area of a valuable asset, which has received heavy state investment over the past decade.

Research suggests that Formula One races, unlike North American sport franchises which often demand huge investments in facilities from host cities, are well worth holding on to.

''Unlike the glamour sports of baseball, hockey and football, this sport does not beggar the community,'' said William Lilley 3d, a former Yale economics professor and the author of several studies on the economic impact of sports events on local economies. ''Its characteristics are different in that you have a multiday event which draws predominantly nonlocal spectators that come from many miles away. And when they're there, they spend money outside the facility.''

Earlier this year, Lilley published a study analyzing the 11 European Union races among the 16 Formula One races. It found that the more than 2 million spectators spent nearly $500 million on everything from tickets to lodging to food, gas and souvenirs.

Both the French and British Grand Prix are located far out in the countryside. The French race, in a rural region with a population of 260,000, has the largest economic impact area about 100 kilometers in all directions around the track. Of the total spending, 98 percent is nonlocal, compared to 90 percent in the English south Midlands. (The lowest figure for a race in an EU country was 60 percent for the Spanish Grand Prix.) The report estimated that 328 million francs ($51.25 million) were injected into the local French economy during the race week in 1997. That year, however, only 75,000 spectators attended the race.

A study commissioned by the Nievre regional council last year came up with lower, yet still attractive, figures: between 90 million and 110 million francs were injected into the region during the race weekend. But nearly 50 percent of that, noted the report, was swallowed by costs and by the approximately $4 million that Formula One charges for the right to stage the race. The track itself made a profit on the race this year.

But there are disadvantages to staging races. Brands Hatch is in a highly residential area with strict noise level laws that may not be compatible with the racket of a modern Formula One car. In the Nievre, millions of taxpayer francs have gone into the development of the track and the region.

''People were somewhat frightened a few years ago, essentially for the costs that the track would incur,'' said Patrice Joly, vice-president of the regional council that owns the track. ''But when they saw that they were maybe going to lose the race, little by little they started playing the game and saying it was theirs and they appropriated the track.''

But some local people are still of two minds.

''We're happy to have the Grand Prix here,'' said Beatrice Vagne, who lodges spectators at her farmhouse 30 kilometers from the track during the race weekend only. ''But we're not sure that it really helps the region. What we fear the most now is that after all the investments that have been made, we're worried about losing it. This is not a growing region, it is a dying region.''

As to a move to Ecclestone's new track, local officials wonder about the legality of owning both the track and the show. But while last week the European Union demanded changes to what it considers Formula One's monopolistic business practices, Ecclestone has made threats to abandon all the sites that stage Grand Prix in the European Union and move the lucrative races elsewhere. The first Malaysian Grand Prix runs in October, and Formula One is negotiating for races in China, South Africa and the Middle East.






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