When it was added to the calendar 9 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, struggled to fill the stands in recent years, and Formula One found 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 said. “The potential is huge, the importance is massive, and we must make it successful there.
“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 and 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-name sponsors.
The sport’s growth has been hurt by the fact China has one of the youngest fan bases of any 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 3-day pass to the races – or, for that matter, money to spend on F1 merchandise.
The other challenge is finding a Chinese Michael Schumacher or Fernando Alonso to help market the spot. 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.”
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 the arcane rules that can often 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.”