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Trouble in F1 paradise? 

Asia is the new found love for Formula 1. Lots of new venues were inducted into the Formula 1 calendar in the recent years with many of them being in Asia. Although most of the Asian Countries are termed as developing countries, Can the ecosystem of these countries satisfy the Formula 1 Universe? [...]

SENIOR ANALYST
21 Dec 2012, 00:07 IST
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Asia is the new found love for Formula 1. Lots of new venues were inducted into the Formula 1 calendar in the recent years, with many of them being in Asia. Although most of the Asian countries are termed as developing countries, can these countries satisfy the Formula 1 universe?

File Photo: Malaysian Formula One Grand Prix.

File Photo: Malaysian Formula One Grand Prix.

A couple of days back it was confirmed that Bangkok is on the course of hosting an Formula 1 race for the 2015 season. Although it was assumed that there will be an event in 2014, it was more or less formally confirmed that the year 2015 might see the F1 fraternity visiting the popular south Asian country.In the current season, 8 of the 20 races were held in Asian countries. Traditionally, it has always been Europe, as most of the teams are in fact based in and around England, while teams like Toro Rosso and Ferrari have their headquarters in Italy, while Sauber have their base at Switzerland. All the teams incur major costs in transportation of their cars, its components and the crew members. It’s a well known fact that the shipping of the packages takes a lots of toll on the finances of these teams and traditionally the major sponsors for much of these teams were in Europe.

Not many teams complained about their schedule or the finances as their costs have been lower, mainly due to limited travel time to those years. But with the funds drying up and the revenues taking a drastic hit, it was impossible for the F1 universe to hunt for new exotic locations. So they looked to the Asian continent, where many countries are strong in the economic front and some of the organizers in these countries are ready to sign up for a lucrative deal.Yesteryear’s have seen the majority of the action happening in Europe and there were pleas across major circles for holding the races at other parts of the world. Things have taken a drastic turn in the last few years as the top brasses of FIA and most specifically, Bernie Ecclestone, has been vocal about the need for the Asian countries in the F1 Calendar.It’s understandable, Europe suffered from much of the recession and a global event like Formula 1 shouldn’t be stalled.

The presence of the Asian countries in the F1 Calendar will obviously increase the exposure of Formula 1 in these parts, which means that additional revenues are certainly on the cards for the teams as well as the FIA. Anyone willing to be a part of Formula 1 in some way or another will gain tremendous exposure to their market value. It certainly is the win-win situation for all but we have to wonder how long a situation like this can prevail and whether it’s beneficial for the world of Formula 1.

File Photo: F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone.

File Photo: F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone.

The ecosystem of these Asian countries in the field of Motorsport hasn’t been impressive. Malaysia, Singapore and Japan are the exceptions with Japan and Korea being home to the many automobile manufacturers and some of them were even part of the Formula 1. Malaysia and Singapore are slowly emerging as automobile hubs; as well or most specifically a hub to the budding Motorsport enthusiasts.

It was almost a bold step for Formula 1 when they stepped into the Malaysia. Lots of support was required and now more than a decade after the first race at Sepang, Malaysia has certainly emerged as a lucrative market. An Anglo-Malaysian team is on the grid with few Malaysian drivers are in the striking distance of the Formula 1 grid as well. Petronas along with Alex Yoong were responsible for the growth of Malaysia’s interest in the field of Motorsports. Petronas owned 40% of Sauber Engineering from the 1995 season to the 2006 season and continued to be a part of the team when BMW took over the reigns from Peter Sauber. Although they currently sponsor the Mercedes team, the demo events that Petronas conducted across the many locations of the country were the prime cause of the spike in interest of the Malaysians in the Motorsports. It should also be noted that Petronas is the main sponsors of the Malaysian Grand Prix.

Alex Yoong likewise was the first Malaysian driver to drive for an Formula 1 team and despite his limited presence at the pinnacle of the Motorsport, he is widely regarded as someone who is a keen promoter of motorsports in the region. Singapore became the inaugural event to host a night race and like its neighbors, has developed a keen interest in the field of Motorsports. There are talks of a certain businessman to pilot a third track in this region.

Of the 326 Companies that has its headquarters at Japan, nearly 60 of them are related to automobiles and 8 of them are associated with motorsports with more manufacturers expressing their interest in the field. Needless to say Japan has a strong connection in the world of motorsports with many people promoting various motorsport events across the country and the globe.

With 20 tracks across the country and two of them hosting the Formula 1 event, Japan is one of the major Asian country in the field of motorsport and is said to stay in the similar way for an foreseeable future. Although the lack of a Japanese driver and a Japanese team might hurt the interest among the fans at least in the near future, it might just be a matter of time before we see the return of a Japanese manufacturer into the pinnacle of the motorsport.

Disappointments of Asian Motorsports:

The following three Asian countries arguably are the disappointments in the Asian motorsports category. They have the huge reputation and have the high resources for the development of motorsports but failed to capitalize the momentum that they get and it has the hurt the growth of an interesting and exciting category.

China:

Of the two administrative regions of the Republic of China, Macau Grand Prix holds a prime importance for many, it is often considered as an important event for the motorsports fraternity and also the people of Macau. The Macau Formula 3 Grand Prix is famous for its being held in an exciting and the most demanding circuit. Many Formula 1 drivers who hailed from that category have won the event and it normally is stepping stone for many aspiring drivers. The Macau Grand Prix is being held from 1957 although the first Formula 3 race was held in 1983 which was won by the legendary Ayrton Senna, and from which many drivers including Schumacher, David Coulthard and others have won the event.Despite being the fact that the Chinese automobile market is the world’s largest, motorsports hasn’t been widely accepted. Ma Qinghua became the first Chinese driver to participate in a Grand Prix weekend and he was tipped as the future of the HRT until the team succumbed to its financial owes. There were talks that a certain manufacturer from China was about to take over the struggling HRT but it was then understood that the talks have failed due to contrasting interests between the associated parties.

Asia, far less affected by recession, helping F1 shift base.

Asia, far less affected by recession, helping F1 shift base.

China has 14 recognized tracks including the street circuits that has hosted events like DTM, A1GP, Superleague Formula and Formula 3. Shanghai International Circuit hosts the Formula 1 and at the time of its inauguration was tipped to be the most expensive circuit.

In such a large market as China, definitely things would have been expected to be different than what we witnessed until now. Formula 1 needs China and China needs Formula 1 but does the people of China have enough interest at the pinnacle of the motorsport?

South Korea:

South Korea is one of the exciting countries in the South East Asia, despite being watchful of their neighbors, South Korea has certainly excelled in many industries and automobile is one of them. Of the 4 prominent players in the South Korean automotive market, none of them has taken forward the initiative to develop motorsports on the grand scale as one would aspire.Certainly the interest is in the air, Hyundai a prominent automotive manufacturer was expected to play a big part in the motorsports but having competed in F2 Class of WRC from 1998, they had to withdraw from the event in 2003 and planned to return to the sport on more than one occasion but unfortunately this did not happen. As of 2012, it was again announced that they will be competing with their version of i20 but there hasn’t been any signs from them to expand to other categories in the field of motorsports.

KIA Motors likewise sponsors wide range of teams across various sports but hasn’t indicated any major plans in the field of motorsports.Apart from the Yeongam International Circuit, Changwon Street Circuit has hosted the International Formula 3 Korea Super Grand Prix from 1999-2003 but after that the circuit has seen Technical issues which meant that no major sporting action was held, Changwon Street Circuit has witnessed some of the Formula 1 drivers race for victories with the likes of Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, Narain Karthikeyan, Tiago Monteiro, Robert Doornbos and Nelson Piquet Jr. Meanwhile Yeongam Circuit which faced extensive delays has been getting a lukewarm response and its contract is under scrutiny.

With the Circuit hosting some of the lackluster races, it is widely expected that this circuit will have to alternate with another Asian country sooner than later although these are only rumors and talks, it looks highly likely.Keisuke Kunimoto and Sung-Hak Mun are two of the exciting and young talents in the country who might knock at the doors of the certain teams in the next few years and will be eager to make their country’s presence felt at the pinnacle of the motorsport.

India:

India is said to be a superpower in the next decade or so, the country is home to several automotive players and was actually a significant player in the Motorsport arena in the yesteryear. However what caused the downturn of interest in this country is unknown.

File Photo: F1 Grand Prix Of India.

File Photo: F1 Grand Prix Of India.

The Sholavaram track near Chennai has hosted several motorsport events in the country in the 1960’s but then was inactive and was taken over by couple of other tracks namely Kari Motor Speedway and the Irungattukottai Race Track, which of late is tipped to be expanded into the Grade 2 Circuit. The country’s major track currently is the Buddh International Circuit, which was hailed by the drivers and the teams.

Motorsports has certainly seen a spike in the interest following the debut of Narain Karthikeyan and the Force India team. Both of them have played their part in turning the cricket frenzy nation into a strong hub of motorsports. There are several national series that are currently happening at this country including the Volkswagen Polo Cup and the upcoming Etios Liva Cup. There has been significant buzz about the Motorsports and Formula 1 has certainly excited many youngsters in the country.

With no proper support from the Government, India’s date with the pinnacle of the motorsport actually lies in the personal interest of the people.

Other Prominent Countries of Asia: The Gulf

Abu Dhabi Grand Prix held at the Yas Marina Circuit is one of the unique tracks in the current era of Formula 1. It features a tunnel for the pit exit and is also the only twilight race of the calendar. The traditional United Arab Emirates has certainly found their love for automobiles and Formula 1 is certainly proving to be an exciting affair for the country.They were expected to dominate the growth of the motorsport but that degree of interest wasn’t shown and the recent talks of a certain group buying the HRT has team failed much to the amusement of the struggling team.

File Photo: F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain.

File Photo: F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain.

Although the ongoing Anti-Government protests at Bahrain hasn’t stopped the Formula 1 race in the current 2012 season, it was termed as the ‘highly controversial decision’ in the sport’s history. The decision to continue the event as scheduled was criticized by many. Maybe the contracts and the lucrative deal the organizers would be paying would have been so high. Those deals under the table might have had an effect as well. Although FIA has now expressed concerns for the 2013 event, it would be interesting to see the future of the sport at one of the lucrative markets. Many people termed the Bahrain International Circuit as an exciting track during its inaugural year although many characteristics of the track has now been repeated at other Tilke Tracks, Bahrain certainly holds the gateway of Formula 1 in Asia provided that the country comes to a stable position in the near future.Qatar could be very well on its way to become the third gulf country to host an F1 activity. Qatar has applied for the F1 license and if granted permission, it could pave way for a pre season testing or an F1 race in the near future.

Multi Headquartered teams?

With the growing calendar and interest, Formula 1 might be on its way to host at unforeseen race tracks.But can the teams afford the travel and other expenses?USF1 Team has certainly created a strange idea which would would have been interesting when put in action. The team planned to have two headquarters with one of them in Europe and the other being in USA. It’s a strange plan but could have been a success in cutting down significant costs. This is something that the current teams might have to follow to avoid expenses and also to enjoy certain other benefits. Imagine a Force India Team having a headquarters at India or the Caterham team having a base at Malaysia/Singapore. It might sound illogical and can add up to the expenses of the team on interim basis but actually might be useful on the long run.Customs/Immigration and other issues:

A month back, it was reported that India wanted to play a significant part in Formula 1. The organizers were hoping that the Buddh Circuit be used for a pre-season testing or any other F1 activity. It was really a bold thought from the organizers to think of such a concept, not because India is incapable of hosting the Formula 1 teams multiple times in a calendar year but rather because of the lack of support from the Government who are still evaluating on whether Formula 1 is a sport or a entertainment. Also the Customs department is a big issue and it actually played a part in this year’s title fight as a certain developed component from Ferrari had to be postponed to Austin due to strict customs department in both UAE and India.

Although the Indian organizers had put up a separate customs area by paying up extra bucks to the Government authorities. Any new component coming in from Europe instead of coming in with the normal team’s package will have to pass through the regular customs department and it meant that more delays were likely to happen.

File Photo: F1 Grand Prix of Singapore.

File Photo: F1 Grand Prix of Singapore.

Can the support exist for foreseeable future?

Malaysia, Singapore, Japan might boast of a strong Motorsport network which might mean that the support for such activities will remain abuzz for a long time in the long term future of the sport.

But does the same support be expected of countries like India and others? Narain Karthikeyan who has been a long term protegee of the TATA group was kept out of Formula 1 main fray from the years 2006-2010. Having impressed the mighty Frank Williams, Narain was hired as a test driver for the Williams team and continued to do so for a couple of seasons before venturing into other categories. This was the time when Nakajima entered as a test driver for the team and was promoted with heavy funds from his backers.

If only the TATA group had sponsored Narain in those times, we could have seen him succeed more than what he has done at HRT. It was confusing for many to see the group who was solely responsible for his entry into F1 at 2005 had backed out and it was again confusing to see them sponsor HRT with bags of money.

Jaypee Cements are solely responsible for the Formula 1 event in India but what happens if they decides to opt out or what will happen if the enthusiasm that prevailed for the first two seasons dries out? The tickets haven’t been reasonably priced and the common man doesn’t have the adequate features including transport and food and this means that the circuit might lose interest further in its third edition. It would be tricky to know if the sport has generated adequate interest in the country and also if the people are ready to keep the sport running in the long term.

There were talks of a second circuit coming up in between Mumbai and Goa but then the project was dropped and Buddh International circuit wasn’t the first to have created a buzz. There were lots of projects which were dropped in the country mainly because the State Governments have changed hands or those interested promoters suddenly gone bankrupt. Many other Asian countries are in the similar fray, Shanghai International Circuit sometimes gets a lukewarm response from the public and sometimes it looks as if the circuit is on its way out of the calendar. Organizers of the Yeongam circuit likewise have to keep Bernie interested in the circuit and the country as it looks as if a tall order for them to generate interest in the public.

The Gulf countries are currently very much interested in the sport but it would be even great if any one of them owns a complete team or it would be better if a Gulf driver can knock in on the doors of the Formula 1 teams. It has been at the satisfactory level to see the raise of the Asian countries but although this sounds lucrative on the short term, it would be better for the sport if it returns to the traditional bases then to expand to new territories as the added expenses might not protect the sport on the long term.

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