A Formula 1 boom in Asia remains on the precipice. Can F1 push it over the edge?
There are two ways to look at a world that is filled with adversity – one can either be positive or negative. The Olympic Games have always aspired to promote a world of tolerance, equality and fair play. It’s a powerful message for positivity, but the cynics say that such things are impossible, because human nature means that people will always step over the boundaries in order to win.
We all wish that it wasn’t that way, but all too often we are disappointed. But that doesn’t mean that the dream should be abandoned. Sport can be, and should be, something that draws people together, both within nations and between them, rather than dividing people.
This is a message that Formula 1 has adopted in the previous year, with the ‘We Race As One’ initiative, which aims to tackle racism and inequality. One can dismiss such things as tokenism because sport cannot really change the world, but the emotion is genuine and it’s a case of every little bit that helps change attitudes.
The sport is driven by money, of course, with wealthy nations able to fund Grands Prix, either by private investment or from government help. In many cases, it’s a mixture of the two. And while poorer nations cannot compete, the global pandemic is an opportunity as much as it is a problem.
Formula 1 has shown that it can continue to operate all over the world – by August 1st there will have been 28 races since the sport restarted in the first week of July last year. This is an astonishing achievement given the restrictions around the world. But F1 has done it by being disciplined, organised, flexible and ambitious. One cannot say that nothing is impossible, but where it has been possible, F1 has been there. It has done so without spreading the virus and has won the trust of most governments.
Now, there is a huge opportunity, because around the world many governments want to show that they are open for business. And they are willing to pay to deliver that message.
There are huge opportunities in Asia, although F1 has struggled to understand that business is done differently in Asia. Bernie Ecclestone relied on locals to help guide him, although these adventures did not always work out well, but the concept was a good one, and if Liberty Media has had one failure thus far, it’s that it could not expand in Asia.
Of the top 20 countries in the world, in terms of population, nine of them are in Asia. And only seven of the 20 will host F1 races this year.
The sport still hasn’t really got it right. A second race in China is a good idea, but there is no real progress with an event in Chengdu. India and Indonesia are the second and fourth biggest populations in the world, with 1.3 billion and 273 million people respectively. They should both be on the Formula 1 calendar.
Singapore, small but influential, has finished its contract and the signs are that negotiating a deal on similar terms will not be easy. There is a new generation of decision-makers in the government there who may not see the same value in F1 as their predecessors did. The country has built up a tourist trade thanks to the F1 race and some of the politicians may argue that they don’t need the sport any longer.
But other countries could benefit. The planned Vietnamese race in Hanoi disappeared with the pandemic and political upheavals, but there is an F1 facility in place that has never been used. The government may not want to pay for a race, but no doubt it would support a revival if someone else was willing to pay the fees for a race. It makes no sense at all to have the facilities and not use them.
The same can be argued about India, where the investment made in the Buddh International Circuit seems to have been largely wasted. Ultimately, that race failed because of bureaucratic complications with the local government trying to demand taxes that F1 was unwilling to pay. It all seemed so very short-sighted at the time, and F1 did not have time for such petty squabbles. Now, perhaps, the national government would consider doing a deal with F1 to help India recover from the traumatic times of the pandemic. These are certainly opportunities that F1 would love to embrace.
The same is also true of Korea, where the Korea International Circuit at Yeongam sits idle most of the time. One can also argue that it was built in the wrong place and it would be better to host a race near the capital, Seoul, but it is clear that Korea, which is a major car-producing nation, could benefit from having a Grand Prix once again.
There is also a huge opportunity in Asia following the decision by the Walt Disney Company in April to shut down its Fox Sports Asia network, in order to move subscribers from the 18 pay-TV channels in the Asia-Pacific region to its new Disney+ streaming services. But this will not be carrying sport for the money but will concentrate instead on family-oriented entertainment with content from Disney, Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel Studios, National Geographic and other film libraries.
In the months ahead, F1 is doing deals to continue its coverage in Asia, largely through Fox affiliates. But, in future, there is unlikely to be one umbrella deal, and that means significant opportunities to increase audiences – and revenues.
It would help, of course, if there were Asian drivers for fans to get excited about, but with Ghanyu Zhou on the verge of becoming an F1 driver and Alex Albon waiting in the wings for an opportunity to come his way again, the seeds are still there for an F1 boom in Asia.
Joe Saward has been covering Formula 1 full-time for over 30 years. He has not missed a race since 1988.