Insiders reckon that the ultra-exclusive Formula 1 Paddock Club isn't quite what it used to be - a reflection of the state of the sport financially, explains Kate Walker.
Formula 1's finances have been a topic of hot discussion for years, the twin troubles of the loss of tobacco sponsorship and the global financial crisis that soon followed having made money a major factor for the duration of Jean Todt's FIA presidency.
That the sport has seen better times is clear from a look at the scantly sponsored cars themselves. McLaren's recent livery change prompted press room ribbing that, with its black and red colour scheme and lack of sponsor logos, the car could be mistaken for a Virgin Racing car circa 2010.
But there are other indicators of F1's financial peril, not least the complaints now emerging from those involved in the Paddock Club.
Once a byword for F1 luxury and glamour, the Paddock Club was the standard of corporate hospitality to which other sports aspired. Primarily designed to be a place where wealthy fans could relax and enjoy the weekend in five-star conditions, the Paddock Club became a business hub, a place whose mix of guests allowed for international cross-platform networking opportunities.
Tickets were (and remain) expensive, but the combination of excellent service, top shelf food and drink and the opportunity to rub shoulders with the international corporate elite meant that for many companies the Paddock Club represented value for money.
As European countries have tightened up corruption regulations in the wake of a number of national scandals relating to expenses, kickbacks, and corporate sweeteners, Paddock Club ticket sales took a knock.
Current mutterings within the paddock suggest that few expect the Paddock Club to return to its former status. The summers of 2012 and 2014 heralded changes to its management and supplier structure, and each was followed by a marked drop in the quality of the experience offered to the paying guests.
It was in 2014 that the whispers of a Paddock Club in decline increased to a roar, and when Austrian catering firm Do&Co stepped up to take over the business the roar became impossible to ignore.
Teams started complaining off the record that the standard of service had dropped dramatically, while guests began feeding back that a day in the Paddock Club no longer represented value for money. Sales slumped, and the number of official VIP ticket sellers was increased in an obvious attempt to keep the Paddock Club buzzing.
While few would complain about the opportunity to spend a race weekend drinking bottomless champagne with an excellent view of the action, those regular visitors who had once relied on the Paddock Club as a place to do business cancelled or reduced their orders.
There was no longer any point in doing so, the ticket sellers were told, as the business opportunities had become so rare as to be non-existent.
The situation mirrors F1's current fortunes. Sponsors no longer see the same return on investment that they once did, and have been turning away from the sport as a consequence.
More pertinently, the Paddock Club has failed to move with the times. Once the standard-bearer in corporate hospitality, much like the sport it supports the Paddock Club has failed to evolve in line with the expectations of its users.
F1 fans want to engage with their sport across a range of platforms; they want to be able to dip in and out of a weekend's racing at their leisure; they want to feel as though they are respected stakeholders, the eyeballs who make the sponsors keen to spend in Formula 1.
Paddock Club users have similar desires – as guests of the sponsors keeping the sport afloat, they want to feel a part of the F1 community, even if only for a day. They want to have more access to the paddock than their restricted tickets allow, and they want to be able to engage with the other businesses and influencers involved in F1.
But recent plans to create a bespoke business hub in the Paddock Club look to be dead in the water, while it is increasingly difficult for the guests of one sponsor or team to find and meet the guests of other teams and sponsors who might be of professional interest.
With business opportunities dying as quality standards drop, the Paddock Club is losing customers much as F1 itself is losing viewers.