Formula One remains a tough sell in China
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- When it was added to the calendar nine years ago, the Chinese Grand Prix was supposed to give Formula One a path to a vibrant new market that offered access to millions of racing fans and big name sponsors.
It hasn't worked out that way.
The race, which takes place this weekend in Shanghai, has struggled to fill the stands in recent years, and Formula One found that Chinese viewership fell steeply last year. Sponsors also have been slow to sign on to the sport with only a handful of Chinese companies currently endorsing any of the 11 teams.
"I'm worried about China," McLaren's Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh told The Associated Press.
"The potential is huge, the importance is massive and we must make it successful there," he said. "But we haven't done enough to say, `Hey we are here and come have a look.' Formula One improves with knowledge. It's a complex sport and you have to go out there to promote interest, promote the knowledge and the enthusiasm for the sport."
The Chinese market at first would seem an ideal match for F1.
It is the world's largest market for motor vehicles and has a growing middle class flush with money to spend on the latest exotic trend. There are also plenty of Chinese companies looking for international exposure, and Formula One is desperate for new funding to offset the losses of several big names sponsors including ING and Credit Suisse due the global financial crisis.
The sport's growth has been hurt by the fact China has one of the youngest fan base of any of country, with 10 percent of fans under 16 and a quarter under 25. As a result, the young fans often don't have the nearly $500 for a three-day pass to the races - or for that matter money to spend on F1 merchandise, according to Frankie Mao, a Shanghai-based journalist who covers F1 for Sohu.com.
"At the end, it is all about culture of motorsport in China," Mao said in an email. "We have fans, but they are young and can't afford the high expenses of luxury goods and F1 is luxury. China does have rich people. They love sport cars but they don't understand what motorsport really is."
Whitmarsh and other team principals also said the sport has suffered from its failure to reach out and educate fans from the moment it arrived in 2004. Unlike basketball or football, F1 requires an understanding of the latest technology and often the arcane rules that can decide a race.
"If you take a new product into a new market, ordinarily you have a marketing plan and you advertise," Whitmarsh said. "We've put ourselves outside of Shanghai and we expect them to come and find us. We need to work a little harder. We as a sport are a little big arrogant. We're Formula One. We arrive and people will want to come to see us. But China doesn't need us."
The other challenge is finding a Chinese Michael Schumacher or Fernando Alonso to help market the spot. It worked with Li Na for tennis and Yao Ming for basketball, but so far no Chinese driver has reached the F1 grid.
That could change with the addition of Ma Qing Hua as a reserve driver this year for Caterham. He will also race in the lesser GP2.
"Once people see their same nationality in the top of the sport, they will focus on that and say what's going on and start to know the sport and start to know the story," Ma said.
"I still need time to become a Formula One driver to race in the championship," he said. "Once I'm on the grid, I think I will be a target that the people will want to chase. Now, the way to the top is more clear than before. A lot of young (Chinese) drivers are racing in go kart, racing in Europe and Asia. They take the sport more seriously."
Three-time F1 champion Jackie Stewart agreed the series could do more, including sending representatives to promote the sport beyond the race weekend. But he said China and other emerging destinations must be given time to catch up.
"I think it will take a little time because the motorized community is a new generation. It's a new business altogether," Stewart said of China. "To begin with, they are not going to be interested in motor sport ... Motor sport whether it be Germany Italy, Britain or France have lived with it since they removed the red flag from the horseless carriage. That hasn't been bred into the new generation of nations so we need to help them with that."
Supporters insist the sport is growing in China, noting that attendance at the Chinese Grand Prix has picked up since 20010 when Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone accused local organizers of not promoting the race "properly" and suggesting no one in Shanghai would have known a race was taking place.
This year, 90 percent of tickets for this weekend's race have been sold.
"There were some tough years, but it's been getting better ever since," the circuit's sales manager Yang Yibin told local media.
Promotions have also on the rise, with the presence of new companies and organizations on the midway outside the main stands, including the British Consulate and South Korean tourism authority. Local firms in Jiading district near the track are eager to capitalize, and those tied to the automotive industry are running electric car demonstrations and other activities to draw fans.
Ma has seen the changes first hand.
Since moving up to F1 this year, the 25-year-old Ma says he has gone from a relative unknown to a minor celebrity at home. He is featured in the Chinese press and often is surrounded at restaurants and even on flights home by curious Chinese who want his autograph and to have their photo taken with him.
"For me, we just need some time to let people understand this sport," Ma said. "At the moment, Formula One is already a top five sport in China. It's quite big and growing very fast. In a few years, Formula One will be a big sport in China."