Next weekend, Formula One descends on the Fuji Speedway in Shizuoka Prefecture. In its second visit in as many years, the “F1 circus” touches down at a completely revamped, high-tech circuit — a transformation that closely mirrors recent changes to the sport itself.
When it first visited the Japanese venue back in 1976, F1 was still a European-based pursuit and the Far East was its furthest foray from its traditional heartland.
Nowadays, the planet’s most popular spectator sport has reached all corners of the globe, with fewer and fewer events staged in Europe.
There has been a sea change in the makeup of fans watching the sport as well. Today, you are just as likely to find an ardent Indian F1 fan as an English one. Likewise, kids in Damascus know as much about the sport’s heroes as their equals in Dalian.
Though F1 may be reaching the end of its sixth decade as a world-championship event, it traditionally stuck to the racetracks of Europe, from where the majority of its original fan base hailed. The excitement of F1 is borderless, however, and steadily an increase in the number of fans from around the globe has seen more and more events held on other continents.
The recent trend in “away” races began in Asia, starting with the Malaysian GP in 1997. That event was a watershed for the region, with its popularity surprising many in Europe.
Not only did the state-run oil company Petronas endorse its home GP, it kept a then-fledgling F1 team (Sauber) alive for 10 years through title-level sponsorship. That outfit is now the factory BMW squad, glowing with its first victory — a historic 1-2 finish at this year’s Canadian GP in Montreal. Petronas is still one of the team’s major supporters. It is an example of the intercontinental success in F1 — of which the sport has many.
More recently, this shift has included the Middle East.
Apart from the appeal to fans, there are a number of factors surrounding the seismic shift for the sport.
First, the sizable investment required to stage an event is often so large that it requires public funds. European governments are typically less likely to foot the bill for an F1 event than administrators in new markets.
A sobering example of this is the British GP at Silverstone, the site of F1’s first-ever race in April 1950. While Asian (and particularly Arab governments) are happy to pay the costs of hosting a grand prix, the British government has steadfastly refused, despite England being the undisputed center of motor sports worldwide, and with the greatest concentration of related jobs anywhere globally. The result is what many has considered the unthinkable: Earlier this year, Silverstone lost the event. There will continue to be a British GP, but from 2010 it will take place at rival circuit Donington.
In many people’s opinions, this is the top of a very slippery slope.
What it illustrates is that even the iconic circuits of the sport — Monza, Spa and the aforementioned Silverstone are no longer immune to the changes currently reshaping Formula One.
Second is legislation. European Union regulations (which govern the European- headquartered enterprise) stipulate that no television broadcasts aired in Europe may carry any form of tobacco advertising, whether on-site or on cars or personnel. For decades, funding from the tobacco giants was the sport’s greatest contributor of capital. With that lifeline now gone, the oil-rich states have proved to be an oasis of potential partners for the sport, from finance to airlines, the oil industry and other sectors.
In contrast to their European counterparts, Arab and Asian governments are more than willing to pay for the prestige of hosting Formula One events. Take for example the latest addition to the calendar, Singapore.
In the sport’s first-ever night race, last weekend’s event around the harbor cost the city-state nearly $70 million (¥7.5 billion), two-thirds of the cost of the event. Though the investment for the remaining four years of their contract will be less than this initial hosting, it will nonetheless be substantial.
In 2004, Bahrain became the first Arab nation to hold a grand prix, with an annual investment of around $45 million (¥4.8 billion). Its equally rich neighbor Abu Dhabi is scheduled to host its first Formula One event next year. The emirate already has the only Ferrari theme park worldwide, and as you might imagine, the region is a particularly important market for the most well-known brand on the planet.
A recent survey conducted by financial giant ING, which sponsors one of the F1 teams, found that governments funding F1 events were, on average, getting a return of over 550 percent on their investments. Ironic then that the “old guard” nations of Formula One seem to be losing their grip on what has been such an important part of the growth of F1, the pinnacle of motor sports.
Formula One really took off when the sport’s current commercial director, Bernie Ecclestone, created a global TV package for F1 in the 1970s (deftly managing to hold on to half the revenue for himself), and turning it into the world’s most-watched sport.
It is also Ecclestone who can largely take credit for this expansion into new and sometimes unexpected territory as the sport goes truly global.
What will happen at next weekend’s Fuji round itself, once the furthest outpost on the F1 calendar, is anybody’s guess. However, it has — and always has had — a reputation for deciding the outcome of the world championships.
If you can’t get to the circuit, there will be a live broadcast on Sunday, Oct. 12 on Fuji Television’s digital channel, 721, available through satellite operators. The race starts at 2 p.m. and will be followed by a delayed broadcast on Fuji Television’s terrestrial Channel 8, later in the day.
Motorsport consultant Len Clarke can be contacted at email@example.com