Whatever Happened to Formula One’s Eastern Dream?

While the Japanese Grand Prix has been a mainstay on the Formula One calendar since the late 1980s, only in the early 00s did the sport make a concerted effort to make a move towards the new emerging markets of the East. But with both the Indian and Korean Grand Prix dropped from the 2014 calendar, are the first cracks in F1’s drive into Asia starting to show? Dan Paddock investigates. 

F1 Grand Prix of India - Race

THE image of Sebastian Vettel standing triumphantly atop of his Red Bull on the start-finish straight of the Buddh International Circuit will go down as one of the defining moments of the 2013 season. The 26-year-old had just won a third consecutive Indian Grand Prix, but more than that, his victory secured him a fourth Drivers’ Championship at just 26-years-old. Vettel, savouring the movement, stepped down from his car, fell to his knees, and offered up his praise to the RB9 – a car which, at that stage of the season, had already taken him to 10 victories – a gesture which delighted the crowds in the grandstand directly opposite.

However, whatever the form of the man from Heppenheim in his Red Bull this year, there will not be a repeat of these scenes in 2014, at least not in India anyway, as the Indian Grand Prix joins Korea in making a swift exit from the Formula One calendar. The two races, only making their debuts in 2011 and 2010 respectively are out, making way for the return of the Austrian Grand Prix – courtesy of Red Bull – and a trip to Russia, as the Sochi Olympic Park plays host to the inaugural Russian Grand Prix. And while the Indian Grand Prix is mooted for a return in 2015, there are many that suggest that Formula One has seen the last of Korea and India, at least for the foreseeable future.

But why is it that after just four years the sports two most recent ventures in Asia look set to be cast off as failures? Do the failures suggest that Formula One’s future in the region is now in doubt, and does the introduction of races in Austria and Russia suggest that the sport may be making a move back towards a more Eurocentric calendar? More so, do the failures reveal a worrying trend for the future of those privileged enough to now host a Formula One Grand Prix?

Abhishek Takle, a Mumbai based journalist with Firstpost and GPWeek, is not convinced that the failure of Formula One’s forays into India and Korea necessarily spell doom and gloom for the sport’s future in the East. Instead he reminds us that before the races in India and Korea, F1 had been successful in its ventures to Malaysia, Bahrain, China and Singapore. He said: “It’s been mixed, really, but overall I would say, yes, [the sports move to Asia and the East] has been successful. Obviously India and Korea have fallen off the calendar, but then on the other hand Malaysia and Singapore, in particular, have become firm fixtures. China too has been a success, I would say, even if you tend to see quite a few empty seats in the stands.”

And Takle is not alone in this opinion, as Luke Smith, Editor-in-Chief of RichlandF1 and AUTOSPORT’s F1 Group Editor, Jonathan Noble both press the case that Formula One’s  move to the East since the late 90’s have for the most part been a success.

As Smith notes, while there have been failures, the sport has always bounced back, with new countries clamouring to join the calendar despite the failure of other events. He said: ”Going East has worked in many cases. There have been failures, the Japanese race at Fuji didn’t work, Korea has failed, India has failed, and I’m sure we will see some others come and go, but that doesn’t really matter because there will always be another country waiting in line to host a Grand Prix. I mean Thailand is going on about hosting a Grand Prix. That just shows how valuable F1 has become there.”

While Jonathan Noble notes the example set by the Singapore Grand Prix, which has been an unrivalled success. “Singapore for example has been a massive success,” he said. “I think people were sceptical about the event, with its focus on the night race, and weather and light failures, and crashes. But all of that has functioned fine, and from a business perspective it is up there with Monaco now. It’s a central financial hub, the event works, it is hugely popular, it does a lot of stuff for the fans. So the Far East in that perspective, has worked.”

In fact, the AUTOSPORT F1 Group Editor disagreed with the notion that the failures of the Indian and Korean Grand Prix’s were tied to specific circumstances unique to the East at all. He said: “I don’t think it is a geographical issue as such that the Far East is a disaster. The very same circumstances that have made Singapore work, are the circumstances that made Korea and India not work.”

Then why was it that the races in Korea and India did indeed fail? For Luke Smith, the fate of the Korean Grand Prix was ultimately sealed by its location. “Korea’s big problem was that they didn’t think about where they were building the track,” he said. “In Korea the big city is Seoul. You want to put everything in Seoul, or as near to Seoul as possible. So when they took F1 there they thought, ‘let’s put it a four hour train journey away.’” He added: “There’s one train that goes to Mokpo. I spoke to one photographer ahead of the race asking if he was looking forward to going and he said that it’s so bad, it’s funny.”

For Abhishek Takle, who witnessed both the Korean and Indian races first-hand from the paddock, the most distinct difference between those races which failed, and those  in the region which have succeeded, was the amount of support forthcoming from the host government. He said: “I think government support definitely goes a long way in keeping far less inspiring races like Bahrain on the calendar. I mean those guys, they really look after you so well if you’re there to cover the race, talking about Bahrain here. Getting into the country is easy – F1 e-visa for journos – and once there they treat you really well.” Takle added: “In contrast, the government here [in India] is pretty indifferent. Okay, we have far bigger problems than supporting a Formula One race and I’m not saying the government should chip in with financial support, but they could make it easier for F1 people to get in the country and generally make the sport feel more welcome.”

It is this exact lack of support that Takle believes marked the Indian Grand Prix for failure. “I think it’s mainly government indifference,” he said. “The organisers and promoters have done a fabulous job in all of the three years the sport has visited the country and there’s nothing really wrong with the event as such. I’ve heard several journalists moan about all the paperwork and red tape they have to go through to just get into the country and that seems to be their biggest problem.”

For Jonathan Noble, this need for government support, coupled with a lack of patience and self promotion on the part of the sport, bares a large share of the responsibility for the failure of Formula One in India and Korea, and potentially explains why it has struggled in other markets, such as the United States. Which, realistically means that only races that have financial backing and support from their governments, or from a benefactor, can afford to make an event a success in the long-term. This suggests a worrying trend, whereby the right to host a Formula One race now belongs to a much more select group of nations.

“I think that danger has been there for a while,” he said. “To make it a success in new venues, it’s never going to be an instant hit. F1 struggled in America for decades. Indianapolis had a chance, but F1 messed it up. Austin seems to be working, but under unique circumstances. It’s a good sporting city, another city race, the race promoter is quite switched on.” He added: “A lot of F1 stuff is slow burning, it takes a while for things to come in, and people want instant results. Most races, first year the local crowd come due to a novelty factor. Year two and year three there is very little follow-up.” As Noble notes: “Turkey it was the same story. It was miles out of town. There was little promotion. A government that was not hugely interested. So you can have one of the best tracks in the world, and Turkey was one of the best, but if you don’t get those elements correct it is not going to work, sadly.”

Which, as Noble explains, means that until race fees are brought down, we are unlikely to see a return to venues such as France, where there is a lack of government support for a Grand Prix, and an absence of a Dietrich Mateschitz [the owner of Red Bull, who is paying to host the 2014 Austrian Grand Prix from his own pocket] like figure. He said: “At the moment [F1’s business model] is relying on these race promotor fees, which is why they are so big, and why some of the races are struggling for survival. Maybe in the future we can come to an agreement on a new rights fee basis. Then there won’t be such pressure to get the income from the race rights, which could then give us a scenario to get the French Grand Prix back.”

For those nostalgic for the circuits of yesteryear, the Imola’s and the Estoril’s, the suggestion that Formula One will continue to chase hosts in Asia and the Far East, at least for the foreseeable future, may come as a disappointment. However, the most pressing issue, and the one that matters most to the future of the sport, is moving away from the dangerous principle of the right to host a Formula One race belonging to only a select few nations, or individuals around the world.

Image courtesy of Red Bull Media/Getty Images

*Correct as of January 31st*


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