• GP Week

Breaking China

Peter Windsor
April 2, 2012
Empty grandstands during Friday practice for last year's Chinese Grand Prix © Getty Images

With the Chinese GP looming, the F1 world is again crossing its fingers and hoping that the race will magically be a success - by which they mean a nice, enthusiastic crowd attending on race day and lots of Chinese companies lining up to spend money in the world's biggest, annual TV sport.

I fear - again - that this may not happen. The prevailing industry philosophy is: "We are F1. We are huge. We are racing in Shanghai. Come and watch us." The prevailing industry philosophy is not: "We are F1. You don't know us. We will show you who we are. We will help young Chinese drivers to succeed in F1. We will allow you to meet our stars in the winter months, when we can arrange media days and charity events."

Part of the problem, I think, is that young people in China do not seem to be watching TV any more. We see this trend in parts of Europe and the US - but it is most pronounced in China, where many of the university campuses do not even allow TV sets, let alone encourage TV to be watched.

A whole generation of Chinese have thus grown into early adulthood with only the internet as their media-base. This huge percentage of the population is serviced by four major internet portals and many smaller ones - and the latest numbers are astonishing: over 500 million people are on-line in China; and over 300 million use smartphones. And virtually none of these people are regularly watching F1. It is accessible on the internet - but no-one knows what it is, or how it functions.

The nub of the issue, I believe, is F1's ambivalence to the work that needs to be done. If we crave big money from Chinese companies, we must (a) have some Chinese drivers on the ladder and (b) more local media enthusiasm. As a factor of the potential income stream, it wouldn't cost much to fly two or three Chinese journalists, with translators, to every F1 race, to have multi-language translations during press conferences and for some of the key F1 people to spend more time promoting the sport in China over the winter, as mentioned. Nor would it break the bank to create some sort of proper Chinese young driver scheme, enabling four or five guys (or girls) to come to Europe to race in karts, Formula Ford, F3, etc. All this could be backed-up with massive local-language, big-portal internet coverage.

A sponsor's promotional event for this year's race featuring half an F1 car © Getty Images
I'm a big fan of the new Formula Pilota series in China - and Ferrari should be applauded for supporting it - but why isn't the rest of the F1 economy getting behind Formula Pilota to the point of generating a new squad of Chinese drivers? Ultimately, it takes money - and the F1 world in general certainly has more of that than creative, forward-thinking companies like the KC Motor Group (which is a huge supporter of Asian motor sport).

I can hear the complaints now: we don't have the time, we don't have the resources. Fine. In that case, F1 should not be surprised when only 2 million or so of 1.3 billion Chinese people watch the F1 races on TV and when only a few thousand spectators turn up on race day to enjoy the Chinese Grand Prix. On the plus side, the TV revenues for the moment are continuing to arrive from China; the Chinese government still pays F1's appearance fees; and, at least superficially, teams can still tell their multi-national sponsors that they are receiving 'great exposure in China'.

The question, though, is this: 'how long can it last?' And, when the network TV revenues do dry-up, and the Chinese GP is no longer sustainable, will the Chinese internet world be sufficiently in love with F1 to pay megamoney?