May 12, 2012 / 5:46 PM / 5 years ago

INTERVIEW-Motor racing-Economic woes weigh on Spanish GP

BARCELONA, May 12 (Reuters) - Economic crisis has infected the prestigious Spanish Formula One Grand Prix, with the track's director saying it faced a disaster financially as cash-strapped locals stay away.

Crowds at the Circuit de Catalunya just north of Barcelona are down to barely half the peak of 140,000 in 2007.

Those were happier economic times before Europe felt the full force of the global financial crisis and after Spanish driver Fernando Alonso had won successive world championships.

Salvador Servia, director general of the circuit, said ticket sales had matched last year's figure of 78,000 but that would still leave local organisers nursing a sizeable loss.

"It's not enough. Here for things to go well, we have to have 120,000 people and if it's under 100,000 it's a disaster," Servia told Reuters in an interview after final qualifying on Saturday.

"Our problem is that the circuit is 80 percent owned by the Catalan government," he added. "The government does not have money and does not know when it will have it."

Spain is a great sporting power, home to the world soccer champions and having produced tennis great Rafa Nadal.

But with the country mired in recession and almost one in four people unemployed, Spanish sport is feeling the chill wind of economic crisis.

Many of the country's soccer clubs are deep in debt and it looks like its days of staging two Formula One races a season are over.

TOO EXPENSIVE

Formula One venues pay the sport's commercial rights holder a fee of millions of dollars to stage races.

As Europe has struggled, Formula One commercial head Bernie Ecclestone has increasingly taken races to faster growing economies in the Middle East and Asia.

Ecclestone indicated on Saturday that Barcelona and Valencia, further down the Mediterranean coast, would start alternating races from next season. Valencia hosts the European Grand Prix next month.

The Catalan circuit has staged the Spanish Grand Prix every year since 1991 and is used extensively for testing by teams. Whoever wins in Barcelona is often seen as a strong contender to go on and claim the title.

Servia, a former rally driver and politician, said Barcelona would host next year's race but plans after that were less clear.

"We have a contract until 2016 - but things can change," he said. "We want to continue but the circumstances are not simple. We've already started sales for 2013 - 2013 is ours," he added.

Tickets for this weekend's race range from 120 euros ($160) to 450 euros. The lowest price has come down from 140 euros last year but is still out of the reach of many.

"The crisis is hitting us very hard," said driver Pedro de la Rosa, a Catalan who races for the Spanish-owned HRT team.

"I have a lot of friends who couldn't come to the grand prix. It's too expensive. As simple as that." ($1 = 0.7726 euros) (Reporting by Keith Weir; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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