Mexico City is in the mood for a fiesta and clearly has no intention of doing it by half. That has arrived in town is impossible to miss – the posters, the promotion and the beaming local fans are all too obvious. Better still there is a buzz – a throbbing sense of excitement and anticipation that is unique to venues where passion for the sport far outweighs crass commercialism or political agendas.
On Wednesday, while the teams were unpacking in the paddock, City was revelling in their arrival, as well it might. Amid the exaggerated caterwauling of the doom-mongers fearful of dropping attendances and viewing figures, this weekend’s race is part of an almost unparalleled success story from which F1 would do well to learn.
, the Mexican Grand Prix returned last year with a bang. That the race was a dead rubber in the championship mattered not a jot to the fans and 134,850 of them packed the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez. Only Silverstone could boast a bigger attendance in 2015 and then only by a few thousand. More impressively, the numbers could have been higher. The circuit is located in a public park – limited both by space and by having the equivalent of listed status – so organisers were unable to construct more grandstands.
To put the figures in perspective, the attendance at Bahrain in 2015 was 32,000; in Malaysia 44,611. It is what has happened here in Mexico City in 2016 that really stands out, however. New tracks traditionally suffer a second year drop-off on being added or returning to F1. Austria, for example, had a disastrous 20% fall in 2015 after coming back in 2014. In contrast, Mexico is already 99% sold out again and the numbers are set to be up on last year.
History has its part to play in this passion for F1 – the circuit is named in honour of the brothers Rodríguez. In 1961, in his first race at Monza, Ricardo was the youngest driver to qualify on the front row – a record he held until at Spa this year – and raced for Ferrari in 1961 and 1962, taking best finishes of fourth and sixth from six races and a second at Le Mans in 1960. He was killed aged only 20 at his home grand prix in 1962 when the suspension on his Lotus 24 failed on the high-speed banking of the Peraltada – the awe-inspiring and daunting turn now truncated for safety purposes.
His elder brother Pedro was even more successful, winning two grands prix, in South Africa and at Spa during an eight-year career in F1. He also won Le Mans in 1968, one of many victories in sports cars and was acknowledged as a master in the wet. Tragically he too died in an accident, at the Norisring in Nuremberg, in 1971. Both were formidable drivers and are still revered in Mexico, while the interest they engendered in the sport is palpable today.
The presence of two Mexican drivers on the grid – Sergio Pérez and Esteban Gutiérrez is, of course, also a factor, but not one that can be taken for granted. Daniil Kvyat’s presence at Red Bull did not send crowds rocketing in Russia after all. But perhaps most importantly of all is the way the race is being run. It is organised as a public-private venture between the federal government and promoters CIE and they have done so with both care and vision.
“We tried to assess the market to make it interesting for the local people,” Rodrigo Sánchez, the race director of communications, explains. “We also did a survey to try and understand the pricing situation locally and we have proved successful.”
A three-day general admission ticket costs around 1,500 pesos – approximately £66 – and rather than just offering the usual spot on a muddy bank or pressed up against a chain-link fence, it includes a place in a grandstand.
Crucially in terms of the local population, it is the equivalent price of attending around three football matches – something within reach of many people. “People are happy to save for the event,” says Sánchez. “We saw on digital platforms people’s opinion right after the first race they already wanted ticket information for this year.”
The result has not just been good at the turnstiles but also financially. The grand prix has been assessed to have contributed $232.8m to the economy with a further $277.8m worth of global media exposure.
The organisers will not reveal how much they paid for the rights to the race but even the top end of the usual prices will be dwarfed by these numbers. That F1 must endlessly cycle through half-empty, loss-making, white-elephant circuits is clearly not necessarily a given.
Nor is Mexico taking its success lightly. “We have to put in to keep growing the sport,” says Sánchez. “Growing the fanbase, keep bringing new people to the event, new generations in order to keep F1 growing. This is just the beginning for us. We need to keep building and working toward the future and thinking 10 or 15 years ahead to where we want to be.” Which is an approach new owners Liberty might appreciate having already stated their intent to expand the sport in the Americas.
On the track, for Lewis Hamilton this weekend is all about the battle for the championship – after , it is another race he must win and should he do so, will doubtless be roared home by tens of thousands of appreciative fans.
But Mexico’s ambition goes beyond the chequered flag on Sunday – a fiesta that can only be good for F1 should it continue long into the future.