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Vive la Révolution? - What now for Formula 1 in Asia

Published by Ryan Gault

Marina Bay Circuit, Singapore
Credit: LAT Photographic

The greatest empires always feel the need to expand, no matter if its half way across the world for exotic spices and herbs, or exotic money. Formula 1 may not have command over one-fifth of the world, but it’s ever growing global expansion has had major effects on the sport.

The growth begun in 1999 with the inclusion of the Malaysian Grand Prix to the calendar, and since then the sport has lay claim to races in Bahrain, China, Turkey, Singapore, Abu Dhabi, South Korea and India. Indeed for 2013, roughly 40% of the races will be competed in Asia (eight in total, compared to seven in Europe, three in the Americas and one in Australia), a stark rise in 15 years, when the Japanese Grand Prix was the only time Formula 1 visited the east.

But like all empires, overextension ensues and things generally go horribly wrong. And like the British Empire reached its peak in the mid-1920s before independence became quite the phenomenon, Formula 1’s expansion into Asia is befalling a similar fate. Asia, to be blunt, hasn’t fallen in love with the sport, and every year the same issues arise and the same question begins to be asked. Will they be racing here next year?

And as the draft calendar for 2014 was leaked last week, Asia’s grasp on Formula 1 begins to slip as they seek a way out of Bernie Ecclestone’s empire. India had previously confirmed they would not be on the calendar, after only 3 races at the $400 million Buddh International Circuit. Korea may be listed on the draft but it’s only with an asterisk next to its name, it has yet to sign a contract and all accounts suggest that it may very well not do so. China continues to trundle along, despite low attendances and struggling finances.

Imperfect attendance

So has the Formula 1 experiment in Asia failed? As with most answers to a question of that nature, it’s a little bit in the yes column, and a little bit in the no column. I believe Abe Simpson articulated that better than me.

Malaysia, Singapore and Abu Dhabi are undoubtedly successes. For the faults with Malaysia (well, one, and that’s hosting it in the middle of the monsoon season), 123,400 people turned up over the three days (88,450 on the Sunday)[1]. Singapore’s main attraction of being the first night race has helped the race become one of the most glamorous events on the calendar alongside Monaco, and certainly one highly attractive for sponsors and fans. The race has drawn around 150,000 visitors in its first four years spending at minimum $114 million annually.[2]

Bahrain is perhaps the only circuit in the middle ground, and while Bernie and the FIA seem more than happy to share the stage with the Bahraini royal family, the rest of the world is decidedly not. Attendance at its peak in 2010 was at 100,000. Since the unrest in Bahrain and the financial crisis that has dropped to 73,000 in 2013[3]. Although that’s not an uncommon theme around the world either, 90% of ticket buyers are Bahrainis themselves, suggesting that maybe the conflict in the middle east has scared a number of people away.

Bahrain Grand Prix, Friday practice
Credit: LAT

Yet Bahrain seems essential to the F1 calendar, especially considering the efforts Ecclestone made to reinstate it in 2011 and 2012 despite the country remaining clearly unsafe. The situation has seemingly died down (although any conflict would no doubt still be overshadowed by the media's attention towards Syria) and it doesn’t look like Bahrain will be off the calendar again anytime soon.

That leaves Korea, China and India. India is one of the most notable absentees from the 2014 calendar, declaring a preference for an early 2015 spot and not wishing to host two races so close together. However this could just be a face saving excuse. It was well reported that the teams were facing huge tax bills just for racing in India, because the country does not recognise Formula 1 as a sport.[4] And the company that organises the event, Jaypee, is expected to have lost $35 million for every year it has hosted an event.[5] Despite claims that it will be back for 2015, I wouldn’t put my money on it.

Korea also seems to be on its last legs as well, again, despite only being in the sport since 2010. Yeongnam was supposed to turn itself into an extravagant seaside venue to match Monaco or Abu Dhabi. Instead it resembles a half finished construction site that still can’t sort out a safe place to put its pit exit. The planned city along the temporary section of the circuit has seemingly vanished and it struggles to even reach half of its 135,000 capacity. No doubt building the race track in the middle of nowhere didn’t help. Yeongnam has a crowded population of 66,000, and the nearest city of Mokpo is the only plausible place for accommodation. Other civilisation is so far away, even Google is too scared to tell me the difference. It has shifted up the calendar for 2014 between China and Bahrain but with an asterisk looming over it like the Death Star.

Easy come, easy go

Indeed it’s probably worth stressing that a 21 race calendar looks daunting, it’s doubtful it will stay at 21 for long. The inclusion of a new Formula 1 race these days is so haphazard and needlessly difficult that it often just doesn’t happen. You only need to look at how Korea wasn’t finished by the time Formula 1 cars were zipping around it, and by the wet Sunday in 2010, crashing into things. The doomed fate of New Jersey only adds to the belief that new circuits don’t have it as easy anymore.

Turkey lasted from 2005 to 2011 before the last five fans in the Grandstand could no longer support F1 at Istanbul. Valencia from 2008 to 2012. Korea has only had four races, India three, and they both look to be heading by the wayside. The likes of New Jersey, Donington Park, Zhuhai never got off the ground and spent a lot of money in doing so, while Turkey and Austria spent months negotiating to be the ‘20th circuit’ on the 2013 calendar, only for 19 to be the final amount.

The proposed revolution of nations within the Formula 1 empire had cranked its setting up to ‘French Revolution-esque’, an influx of new and returning venues in Austria, Mexico and Russia all coming in. But, are they necessarily safe? Mexico and Russia have the asterisk on the presumption that the circuits are completed in time. The Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez in Mexico City needs to be updated to allow for modern day safety regulations (which theoretically shouldn’t be especially time consuming, but, Formula 1), while Sochi needs time to prepare the track from the immediate aftermath of the Winter Olympics, which requires the layering of new tarmac and assurances that the money can be paid.

Would anyone be surprised if we had an 18 race season next year?

The main downfall in the British Empire, and similar empires across Europe, was the Second World War, which financially crippled Britain and, long story short, couldn’t afford to maintain its colonies. In a convoluted way, the Formula 1 empire faces the similar effects from the global economic crisis. And whilst it has affected nearly every circuit on the calendar (the German Grand Prix alternates because neither can afford to host it full time, Australia is often under pressure to reduce costs or get rid of the Grand Prix, efforts to restore the French Grand Prix are foiled by poor finances), the expansion into Asia has come at the wrong time.

The audience isn’t there and the general population couldn’t care less that 22 cars are vying to be the quickest

While, in some cases the audience isn’t there and the general population couldn’t care less that 22 cars are vying to be the quickest, in most cases they could arguably get away with it. However with circuits paying upmost $40 million just to host one race, and leaking tens of millions per year, the governments of the world simply have no justifiable reason to continue with the event.

Considering only two events have no sort of government aid (Britain and Japan), it would be intriguing to note the full benefits the rest receive based on tourism and such.

The unique way F1 is funded

The reputation of the new circuits could also be called into question. Every totally new circuit since 1999 has been designed by Formula 1’s Chief Butcher of Land, Herman Tilke. Pretty much every totally new circuit since 1999 has received mixed to negative reviews. Tedium prevails around the roads of Abu Dhabi, Buddh International Circuit and Yeongnam. Confusion reigns about whatever turn 1 at Shanghai is meant to be. Fans rejoice at no longer having the option to watch races in Istanbul and Valencia and remain baffled as to why Malaysia continues to be organised right when monsoons tend to be really popular (I just don’t get it).

Sepang, Malaysia, Caterham F1 rain light
Credit: Caterham F1

Yet none of this explains the one anomaly of Asia and Formula 1: Japan. Since 1987 it has hosted consecutive races at one venue or another, and for two years at two venues (Suzuka and Aida in 1994 and 1995). Arguably it could be related to the long history of car and motorbike culture in the country, with the team the home nation of Honda, Toyota and a nation that has produced a number of competitive drivers from Satoru Nakajima to Takuma Sato to Kamui Kobayashi. Compared to a lack of drivers coming in from the other Asian drivers, where they are usually proud of having a driver just compete in Free Practice 1. India, arguably, the only exception, although neither Karun Chandhok nor Narain Karthikeyan have ever achieved anything on merit.

Getting into a market early helped Japan, and has helped to make the sport fairly successful in other motorsport friendly destinations such as Bahrain. However the likes of China and Korea have no previous record of major support towards motorsport, making it highly difficult to get fans into the door. Add that to inaccessible locations, it becomes easier to watch a football match on the Moon.

The unique way in which circuits pay for the right to host Formula 1 events mean that many lose money. The even more unique way in which you factor in governments, sponsors and such things often mean that some are generally satisfied with their predicament. However the global financial crisis has put the circuits in the firing line. And if it isn’t pay drivers or teams struggling to pay their way (or, in the case of most, both at once), the circuits are next in line. Whenever Formula 1’s inevitable financial crash comes, the circuits simply can’t take it all. And Asia is just the first step on the downhill spiral.