Asia remains missing part of F1’s global expansion plan
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Under US ownership for more than six years, Formula One has revved up in North America and the Middle East. But with no races in China since before the pandemic, and India long out of the picture, can F1 catch up in Asia?
Since taking over the sport in 2017. Liberty Media has added races in Qatar and Saudi Arabia to its calendar. In November, F1 will head to Las Vegas, another new destination in the critical US market, following its return to Miami. However, F1 has struggled to enjoy the same success in Asia, despite a long history in the region and the new owners’ ambitions to grow in the area.
Japan, which hosted the first Grand Prix in the region in 1976, is home to the Suzuka track, where French driver Alain Prost battled Brazilian great Ayrton Senna for world titles in the 1980s. China first hosted a race in 2004. And Singapore joined the calendar in 2008.
In total, there were six races in Asia a decade ago. Today, there are two, not counting China, which has been off limits since the last Shanghai Grand Prix in 2019, before the pandemic. South Korea hasn’t hosted races since 2013. The same goes for India, where F1 no longer has a broadcast deal and instead uses its own platform, F1 TV, to screen live races. The Malaysian Grand Prix last took place in 2017, with falling ticket sales and prohibitive promoter fees ending a run going back to 1999.
Liberty Media’s first attempt to bring a new race to Asia fell through. The US group had selected Hanoi as F1’s first new “destination city” to host a Grand Prix but the race never took place.
“It’s every marketer’s dream that Formula One reaches out to Asia,” says Dario Debarbieri, head of marketing at HCL Software, which has a partnership with Ferrari. “Why? Because you simply put China and India together, and you will immediately increase your reach by billions, not millions, of people, so it’s massively important for us.
“In our case, it was a bet that China will come back to the calendar . . . I hope that it’s just temporary and, next year, China will come back to the circuit,” he says. “India has a deep tradition in Formula One with teams and drivers that made it into the category years ago, and I’ll be shocked if India is not back in the next few years.”
Asia remains a top priority for F1. Three of the 20 F1 drivers are of Asian heritage, including Thai-British Williams driver Alex Albon. The other two — Japan-born Scuderia AlphaTauri racer Yuki Tsunoda and Zhou Guanyu, the first Chinese driver to compete in F1 — are among the youngest on the grid.
In China, more than a third of fans began following the sport in the past four years, with more than half being under the age of 35, according to F1. Reaching that audience is vital for commercial partners. Castore co-founder Tom Beahon says the premium sportswear company’s tie-ups with Red Bull and McLaren have been “transformational” for its brand awareness in Asia.
“There is no amount of marketing that can replicate what our F1 partnerships do in terms of brand credibility,” Beahon says. “We believe there is significant further potential in Asia, through additional races which may come in the future, more Asian drivers on the grid and the proliferation of F1 content through new media channels.”
China is also a key territory for F1’s automaker participants: the world’s biggest car market, in which they need to defend their market share. Ola Källenius, chief executive of Mercedes-Benz, has warned of the risks to German industry of cutting ties with China, while Volkswagen, which is entering F1 with its Audi brand, plans to spend €1bn on an innovation centre in the country.
F1 is planning to return to Shanghai next year, while South Korea is on a list of potential targets for a new Grand Prix, according to a person close to F1. Attendance in Japan and Singapore soared when the sport returned last year after a pandemic-enforced absence, beating 2019 levels.
“This year has been even stronger,” says Singapore GP director Jonathan Hallett. “[Given] some of the new races that are coming — Miami, Las Vegas — this year, we have to stay relevant and we have to make sure we’re still offering something unique.”
When explaining its decision to shoulder 60 per cent of the annual S$135mn ($101mn) to S$140mn ($105mn) bill for organising the Grand Prix to 2028, Singapore’s government said the projected economic benefits “outweigh” the cost. The Singapore GP generates increased tourism spending, acts as a “strong focal point” for business conferences, and brings “global branding benefits” to the country.
F1 has a string of deals with broadcasters in Asia, as well — ranging from DAZN in Japan to beIN Sports in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines.
“I think they do need to have more races in Asia, there’s certainly the appetite for that,” says Mike Kerr, managing director for Asia Pacific at beIN Sports. “Formula One is an incredible property for nations to profile themselves.”
“The real sweet spot for us are probably the European races at about 9pm on a Sunday,” says Kerr. “That means the kids have gone to bed. Teenagers and parents can therefore sit down and spend two hours watching a race.”
F1 plans to target regional commercial partners in Asia, too, says its commercial managing director Brandon Snow. New technology will allow the sport to vary its live broadcast feeds to showcase different sponsors to different markets, this will potentially allow F1 to cash in as it grows in popularity across Asia.
“We’re just getting started,” says Snow. “Just popping up with offices in China to create a commercial opportunity, the success is mixed. You’ve got to be committed to a much longer term strategy — we need to have patience.”