HOCKENHEIM, Germany, July 21 (Reuters) - Where have all the German Formula One fans gone?
The glamour sport was asking itself that question after tens of thousands stayed away from a home grand prix that should have been box office gold in the land of Mercedes but instead left plenty of empty seats on Sunday.
Some pointed the finger at the country’s reigning quadruple world champion Sebastian Vettel, struggling for form at a below-par Red Bull this season and unhappy with the new rules and engine format.
Others blamed World Cup fatigue, Germany’s strict tax rules on corporate hospitality or the absence of Michael Schumacher - the most successful driver of all time who retired in 2012 and is still in hospital after a near-fatal ski accident.
Whatever the reason, the facts on Sunday were stark.
The dominant Mercedes team, with championship leader Nico Rosberg triumphant, had just won their home grand prix with a German driver for the first time since the 1930s.
Such a result had looked on the cards for months - Mercedes have now won nine of 10 races so far - and yet instead of queues of cars on the autobahns and crowds thronging through the turnstiles, the race at Hockenheim drew an attendance of just 52,000 on Sunday.
In total, 95,000 turned up over the three days - a small crowd in one of the world’s largest car exporting nations and home of sporting marques like Porsche, BMW and Audi.
The Sunday figure represented a 38 percent drop on the previous race at the circuit two years ago, when seven times champion Schumacher was in the last season of his comeback with a then-uncompetitive Mercedes team.
When Schumacher - the first German world champion and a four times winner in Hockenheim - announced his comeback with Mercedes in 2010, the circuit sold 10,000 tickets straight away.
Katja Heim, the circuit adviser who was involved in the race promotion, said the crowd was better than the 45,000 at the Nuerburgring last year but Hockenheim was always more popular.
She blamed Vettel, and the return of the Red Bull-owned Austrian circuit which hosted its first race in 11 years in June, in part for some of the empty seats.
Vettel told reporters early in the season that the new V6 turbo hybrid engines, which are much quieter than the old V8s, sounded ‘shit’. He was not the only one of that opinion, but his words had resonance.
“It certainly didn’t really help that Sebastian in his frustration about the new Formula One and his car gave loads of interviews about how bad Formula One is now and that it’s not worth going there,” Heim said.
“As a four times world champion from Germany, people believe him more than they would the sales people. So if he says there’s nothing any more for the fans, it’s not Formula One like it used to be, that was 100 percent quite damaging.”
Mercedes motorsport head Toto Wolff was inclined to agree.
“We’ve talked the sport down at the beginning of the year and we are all to blame, or many of us,” he told reporters on Sunday as he faced yet more questions about the poor turnout.
“The last couple of races were really good to watch. Lots of overtaking everywhere, so the sport is in good shape. We have to analyse properly why there are not more spectators in Hockenheim. It’s a shame,” he added.
“Is there a general trend that people just have many more options in what they do in the digital world? I don’t have an answer because from the sporting side all of us are doing it right.”
High ticket prices, with a category one weekend pass costing 515 euros ($700), were also seen as a factor - particularly with Austria offering a cheaper alternative as well as novelty value in the same German-speaking catchment area.
Austria was a sellout attraction, with tickets limited to 225,000 over the three days. An estimated 80,000 turned out on race day. Silverstone, home of the British Grand Prix, drew around 120,000.
Heim said Austria had probably taken six or seven thousand spectators away from Hockenheim, while seats that might have gone to corporate guests in the past were harder to shift.
Germany’s World Cup success, with the national team winning their fourth title in Brazil only the weekend before Hockenheim was also seen as contributing.
“Germany won the World Cup, and all the sports-mad people bought a ticket to Brazil,” Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper. “They’re just worn out after so many major sports events.”
Heim agreed that was a consideration.
“For Formula One, it would maybe have been better if Germany had done an England and gone out in the first round. I really believe that,” she said with a smile.
But there are also deeper concerns, one to do with demographics and the need for the sport to appeal to a younger audience with other demands on their time and attention.
“Someone asked me yesterday ‘Do you think all your spectators died away?'” laughed Heim. “They were referring actually to the point that we need to find a trick to get new, young fans. That is something the whole sport has to embrace. We need to get cooler.”
$1 = 0.7393 euros Editing by John O'Brien