Home Society Drive to Survive: Inside Belgium’s fight to save its grand prix
Drive to Survive: Inside Belgium’s fight to save its grand prix

Drive to Survive: Inside Belgium’s fight to save its grand prix

by host

STAVELOT, Belgium — As American greenbacks and Gulf petrodollars pour into Formula 1, little Belgium is fighting to save its iconic motor race.

This Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix at the historic Spa-Francorchamps circuit in the dense Walloon forest — scene of numerous legendary F1 moments — could be one of the last as new owners, moneymen and TV executives steer the traditionally European sport in a new direction.

Luckily for underdog Belgium, it’s got an ace lobbyist: Prime Minister Alexander De Croo. 

De Croo has personally made Belgium’s case with the head of Formula 1 twice since 2022, bidding to keep the country’s grand prix on the annual calendar in part to drive the flagging Walloon economy. Next year, as the sport grows globally, F1 will go from 22 to 24 races, but the number of events in Europe will stagnate — pitting the Continent’s historic rallies against countries with deeper pockets.

On May 31 this year, De Croo sent F1 chief Stefano Domenicali a hand-signed letter, which has been obtained by POLITICO, lobbying hard for the grand prix to stay in Belgium for at least another year. 

In the letter, Flemish liberal De Croo highlighted Wallonia’s “numerous financial investments” in the grand prix, including in “off-track activities and events.” He added: “Belgianness, the art of partying and sharing, without (too) much fuss, are assets that we want to continue to put at Formula 1’s disposal.”

De Croo asked that “the need for you to set up a balanced calendar between Europe, the Far East and America/Middle East will not happen to the detriment of Belgium,” and ended his letter with a promise: “Rest assured that our respective governments will remain attentive to your requests.”

In the summer of 2022, according to a statement from the Belgian PM, De Croo and Domenicali also met in Brussels, where “they discussed Belgium’s assets, its emblematic Francorchamps circuit and how to make it even more attractive in the current era, drawing inspiration from the success of Tomorrowland,” a massive electronic music festival held every year in Flanders.

De Croo’s overtures were ultimately successful. In both cases the Belgian Grand Prix contract was renewed by Formula 1 for another year shortly after his interventions. The prime minister’s latest letter received a positive response from Domenicali in mid-June. A few weeks later, it became official: The Belgian Grand Prix was confirmed for 2024. Formula 1 declined to comment.

Other countries, however, have seen the checkered flag come down on their races. The French Grand Prix disappeared in 2023, after its contract with F1 ended. In an interview with French sports paper L’Equipe in May, Domenicali complained about the lack of “interlocutors” to help negotiations in France.

“The day President Macron tells me he wants to talk about France’s return [to F1], I’m there,” Domenicali said.

Walloon worries

Belgium’s desire to save the grand prix long-term stems from a need to generate revenue for Belgium’s French-speaking Wallonia region — a former industrial heartland now plagued by high unemployment compared with Dutch-speaking Flanders.

This Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix at the historic Spa-Francorchamps circuit in the dense Walloon forest could be one of the last | Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images

One of the country’s largest sports events, the Belgian Grand Prix plays a crucial role in the local Walloon economy while allowing Belgium to hog the spotlight for a weekend via a sport that has hundreds of millions of fans across the world. According to a Deloitte report commissioned by the Wallonia region, the Spa Grand Prix generated €55.1 million for Belgium in 2022 — including €41.8 million for Wallonia.

But after 2024, the Belgian race’s future remains uncertain — and among the rolling hills of the Ardennes forest, that ambiguity is cause for concern.

“For a few weeks here, I was very worried about the grand prix’s continuation,” said Thierry de Bournonville, mayor of the town of Stavelot near the racetrack, who said the event brings in “10 percent” of his town’s yearly income.

When it comes to the Belgian race’s potential demise, one local entrepreneur is more circumspect.

“We’ll deal with it,” said Claudio Sorbi, manager at the Saint-Remacle inn, while sipping on a latte. He believes that the Spa circuit will find “other ways to invest” — such as in the potential return of a motorcycle grand prix — but remains realistic about the area’s dependence on the track. 

Sorbi says he “live[s] by” the circuit’s yearly calendar, which lays open on the inn’s counter, and is used to organize staffing depending on the events taking place at the track, which is open from March to November.

“If there’s no circuit, half of the hotels in the area would close,” Sorbi said.

“There would be no [Belgian] Grand Prix” without the Wallonia region, which is both the event’s owner and the main financial backer of the circuit, according to Vanessa Maes, the race’s director general.

Walloon authorities have invested tens of millions of euros in the circuit in recent years — which included footing the bill to add 10,000 spots in the stands, allowing the Spa circuit to welcome 380,000 fans over four days for this year’s edition.

“In this highly competitive context, our spot is not guaranteed, which requires making a case every year to safeguard Belgium’s spot on the world motorsport stage,” Wallonia’s Economy Minister Willy Borsus said in a written statement.

The fight continues

The Belgian Grand Prix has traditionally been a totemic event in the calendar of a lucrative sport which — regardless of where the superstar drivers hailed from — traditionally considered Europe its center of power and influence.  

But since Formula 1 passed into American hands in 2017, the sport has gone increasingly global.

In the letter, Flemish liberal De Croo highlighted Wallonia’s “numerous financial investments” in the grand prix | Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

This year, the 20 F1 drivers — who will be followed by Netflix for a sixth season of the hugely popular “Drive to Survive” show — will race on five continents, with nine out of 22 grand prix in Europe. Next year, F1 will have a 24-race season — and a new Hollywood movie featuring Brad Pitt as a fictional F1 driver, with some scenes shot at Spa.

But the number of events in Europe will remain the same.

“We’re fighting to keep the grand prix every year,” Director General Maes told POLITICO.

In F1 racing, each grand prix pays a fee to Formula 1, in exchange for signing a contract with the championship’s promoter to host a race for a number of years, while its governing body, the Paris-based International Automobile Federation (FIA), is not involved in the negotiations.

Since the change of ownership, new races have been added in places such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Miami and Las Vegas.

Since the Belgian Grand Prix’s multiyear contract ended in 2022, it has only been granted one-year extensions — for now until 2024, thanks in part to De Croo’s lobbying operation.

“Of course, having a longer-term contract would make our lives a little easier,” Maes said with a chuckle. “But we’ve already started the fight for after 2024.”

Barbara Moens, Camille Gijs and Ivo Oliveira contributed reporting.

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