Has Formula 1 failed in Asia?
F1's business focus has switched away from it's European roots in the last 15 years
Once again, Formula 1 is back in the sequence of fly-away races to far out places - predominantly in Asia. In the last decade-and-a-half F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone has shifted the focus of the sport from it's roots in Europe, to the emerging markets of the Middle and Far East - but has that plan worked or failed in Asia?
Ironically I'm writing this article in a period between the two races at opposite ends of this topic. Just last week F1 was producing another dazzling display under the lights of Singapore, next week the sport will be trudging through the baron surroundings of Yeongam, South Korea.
The argument as to whether the new Eastern focus has worked, however, is about much more than the popularity of the races.
Entering the 21st century there was only 3 races in the East, Japan which has been a mainstay since the 1960's, Australia and Malaysia - though that race was a new addition in 1999. Now in 2013, there are 9 races in the Middle East and Asia, all having varying degrees of success.
The Malaysian race has developed into a popular race with both fans and drivers and is one of the regions more successful races thanks to it's cheaper ticket prices, expats and F1 tourists also use this race to visit F1 in a different country but there is where the problem lies.
For a lot of Asian races it is the foreign expats or tourists that are making up the often fairly low crowd numbers. This is particularly true for one race in-particular that F1 needed to be a success but has often failed, China.
When the race at Shanghai's International Circuit joined the calendar in 2004 the aim was to bring the European juggernaut that is F1 to a global audience, the circuit has enough seating for a whooping 200,000 people, however rarely do crowds exceed half of that throughout a weekend.
While there is a local interest in F1 certainly the amount of growth particularly at the China race is a lot less than hoped and it is not just China where this lack of growth is happening.
There are many reasons for the lack of growth in some parts of Asia, the Korean Grand Prix, which is the least successful race in the region, is hindered by it's location. The Yeongam circuit is right on the southern tip of South Korea, the original plan was for a new city to be built around the circuit, however as development stalled what has remained is a venue in the middle of nowhere surrounded by marsh and farmland.
The result was the already small fan-base in Korea didn't want to pay the high ticket prices to the far-out location, potential foreign visitors were also put off and instead this race, which only joined in 2010, is likely the next to be dropped from the F1 calendar.
Politics is also playing a part in the lack of development in the region, nowhere is this more true than Bahrain, the island-state was the first race in the Middle East and has suffered from the same problem as many of the other races.
Small crowds make for a lack of atmosphere and lack of incentive means the growth of F1 in the area has also been hampered.
However the political situation in the country particularly in recent years is what has held this race back. The uprising in 2011 caused this race to be cancelled and the news coming from the country about events on the ground has also caused great skepticism as to whether F1 is right to visit to country.
The other major Asian market entered in recent years, India, has also suffered from political interference holding the race back.
When it joined the calendar in 2011 the signs were good with 95,000 fans attending over the weekend, however the following year numbers dropped to only 65,000 fans. Ticket prices for this year's race have also been slashed in a bid to increase interest.
But next year the race is off the calendar as the issues of tax and finances create a rift between promoters, the government and Bernie Ecclestone.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of a failure with Formula 1's Eastern focus however is the lack of Asian participation in the sport since F1 began visiting.
Most European races have a big following due to local interest whether it be Fernando Alonso in Spain, the various British driver's and teams in Britain and the success of Schumacher and Vettel in Germany.
As of yet Asia's new markets are yet to produce a team or driver, there have been several fringe drivers with India's Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok racing for HRT and Caterham in previous years and before that Malaysia's first driver Alex Yoong also drove briefly in F1, but the region is yet to produce a top driver or a driver that has at least established themselves in the sport.
Asia could benefit from having it's own team, technically Caterham is Malaysian however it's base is in Britain, by having an Asian team based in Asia would not only increase interest in F1 but also increase interest among the youth of the continent in mechanical engineering and design so perhaps in the future more teams could be based in Asia.
Having read this article so far you would believe the Asian project has failed, by and large I would say it has but there are some success stories.
The established Japanese Grand Prix continues to flourish, local drivers such as Kamui Kobayashi and Kasuki Nakajima gave fans a local favourite while Toyota and Honda's participation also increased interest in Japan as they fought to succeed.
This year marks the first year without a Japanese driver or company in F1 though the likelihood of the country's famed Suzuka circuit once again crowning a world champion will likely maintain interest and Honda is due to return to F1 with McLaren in 2015.
The Singapore Grand Prix has also been a major success for F1 in the region, first run in 2008 this night race has become Asia's premier race attracting all the major sponsors and personalities.
Singaporeans have also embraced the race and with high local interest and the reputation it has gained as a race all die-hard fans must visit this small city-state has succeeded where many major local economies have failed.
In summary the answer as to whether F1's Asian focus has failed is no, there is enough success and development to warrant the amount of attention F1 gives the region, what happens in the next ten years however is important.
Will F1 have had an Asian world champion? Will F1 have an all-Asian team, and will those races currently struggling be able to develop into the successful races we see in Europe.
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