Formula 1’s Asian adventure

In its never-ending quest for new forays and settings, a Grand Prix around the streets of Bangkok in Thailand could be on the F1 calendar as early as 2015. We’ve seen many new races in the last decade, and F1 seems to have its heart set on setting up a dozen camps in Asia. The continent is not synonymous with success in Formula One, with only three drivers from the continent (all from Japan) taking podiums in the sport – Aguri Suzuki, Takuma Sato, and Kamui Kobayashi. No wins, though.

With such a small amount of successful drivers from the region, it does somewhat prompt the question that in a sport where the drivers and teams predominantly come from Europe (let’s face it, the UK and Italy) why would you invest so heavily in the continent? That question is mainly rhetorical, but if Mister Ecclestone does ever come across this article, he is more than welcome to answer it.

Webber and the King of Thailand discuss the Red Bull car in 2010.

While some might support the idea (Red Bull especially so) to have another night race on an Asian Street Circuit you would have to bear in mind how incredibly similar that will be to Singapore. And for those who claim that the crowds will be massive, just hold your horses. Webber’s street demonstration in 2010 might have attracted some 100,000 spectators, but that was a FREE event. Do you seriously expect the organisers to throw a brand new race on a brand new circuit for dirt-cheap prices? Dream on.

The Americas might not have such a strong showing in F1 as it did in the 70s and 80s, but there are at least a handful of South American drivers; Gutierrez, Maldonado, and of course Sergio Perez. Their fan base is treated to the only race south of the border in Brazil. The Canadian GP is a bit far south for Latino fans, but is always exciting. Though we haven’t had a racer from the US since Scott Speed parted ways with Toro Rosso in 2007, we’re being treated to two races in America starting from 2014, with COTA in Texas that inaugurated last year, and the new Port Imperial Circuit on the streets of New Jersey. This is good news and indeed good incentive for talents like American Alex Rossi, and Canadian Robert Wickens.

So is there a future for Asian F1 drivers? At the moment, sadly, no. Kobayashi was dropped by Sauber last year despite his impressive podium in Japan, and since HRT’s liquidation, Indians Karthikeyan and Chandhok had nowhere to go, although the latter had found fame as a pundit on Sky Sports’ F1 coverage.

Looking through ‘junior’ formulae, the only driver close is Ma Qinghua of China. He’s currently Caterham F1’s test and reserve driver, and he did race for their GP2 team in Malaysia, but was dropped after just one round in favour of Rossi who I mentioned earlier.

Back to the geographical side of my point. There are now (Per the 2013 season) more races in Asia than any other continent, with 1 in Australasia, 3 in the Americas, 7 in Europe, and 8 in Asia. Merely a decade ago saw just two races in Asia. Almost every year since then a new track has been added to the calendar. One of those was the Valencia Street Circuit, and one was COTA in America, but the rest are in the East. Let’s examine them:

2004 – Shanghai, China

Firstly, China. It strikes me as odd that Formula One would build such an expensive track ($450Mil) in a country with absolutely no history in the sport. No drivers, teams, engine suppliers… fans took quite well to the inaugural event and it has thrown up some interesting races, so in hindsight I guess this one was worth it. The track is so typical of Tilke though, enormous straights followed by hairpins, and an insistence on making a midsection full of corners that lead into one another. The 1.2 Kilometer straight on the back of the circuit is prone to cross and headwinds, which not only takes a few KM/H off the top speeds, but also cools down tyres. Just up the road is a cement factory too, meaning the track gets very dusty indeed.  This one is hit and miss for me.


2004 – Sahkir, Bahrain

The first race in the middle-East happened to coincide with the height of the Iraq war, nice. I do quite like the track – the long straights make it one of the fastest tracks on the calendar, but the sandy environment in which it is situated makes the track somewhat unstable. Also, following the 2011 Arab Spring, the track has been speculated to create more political tension than it’s worth, although nothing has happened thus far, aside from petrol bombs being hurled near one of the Force India team’s vans in 2012. Undoubtedly, the Bahraini race is a pursuit of money.


2005 – Istanbul, Turkey

I will concede straight away, Istanbul Park is a fantastic track, but it is without a doubt in the wrong country. Even near the second-biggest city of the great nation, fan appearances were dismal, due in part to soaring ticket prices. In 2009, the race attracted just 36,000 spectators – Wembley Stadium can hold nearly three times that amount. Female Turkish Rally driver Bruca Çetinkaya commented on the matter just before the circuit’s last F1 race in 2011: “

“We don’t have a large enough audience and there is no Turkish driver. The two are intertwined”

And for sure she has a point. Like with China, nothing in Formula One comes from the country, and this sad state of affairs means that the paddock will not be visiting the Republic any time soon.

 

 

2007 – Fuji, Japan

Its stay was short in the sport. After being hideously re-profiled by the perennially predictable Tilke, the FIA said they would alternate it with Suzuka, but gave up on that, and the latter track is the only Japanese circuit in use. I suppose this is a less weighty point in my argument, as it wasn’t really an addition to the calendar, but rather an alteration. But fundementally the powers that be were trying to fix something that wasn’t broken. The race in Japan has existed since the 1960s, following early F1 involvement from Honda, and a multitude of drivers, so this race is one of the flyaways I have no problem with, just so long as it stays in Suzuka.

 

 

2008 – Marina Bay, Singapore

Bernie Ecclestone is well-documented as being a bit of an eccentric and in 2008 one of his biggest wishes came true – for  F1 to host a night race. However due to the enormous amount of floodlights, the drivers are treated to light levels almost the same as daylight. So is there really a point in shutting down one of the World’s busiest urban hubs just so we can watch the cars in the dark? I’m all for the aesthetic beauty of F1, trust me. But in a sport where costs are looking to be cut wherever possible it just seems to be an event that causes more problems than necessary. Can you imagine how many watts of power it would take to illuminate just one of those lights? There are over 1600. It’s not just the money side of it either; the track is boring. There are precious few overtaking spots, Turns 1 and 5 just about do it, but the last sector is extremely clunky and ‘stop-start’… I’d rather just get rid of it.

 

 

2009 – Abu Dhabi, UAE

Costing $1.3Bil, Yas Marina circuit and and its surroundings sure are an impressive spectacle. I actually quite like the race in Abu Dhabi; it’s been interesting every year since it began, and the day-to-night setting which makes it seem like an endurance race is incredibly exciting. The fact that the pitlane goes underground, and some of the track goes under a building is also really impressive. I see this event as extortion and exuberance for the sake of it really, I get the feeling that the Oil magnates in charge of the land development sort of went “Why not?” and threw money at the sand to forge this event.

 

 

2010 – Yeongam, South Korea

Come on, this is just stupid. The F1 fraternity decided to build a track that doesn’t flow very well (in a racing sense) in literally the middle of nowhere. There are Paddy fields for miles around. Not only that but the Race organisers have lost money all three times the race has been held, estimating -$26Mil in 2012. The complex is capable of holding 130,000 people but most of the grandstands are half-full at best. The track is situated some 200 Miles away from the capital of Seoul which for many is just too far. I’m afraid to say that this race should have never been conceived. Aside from an interesting soggy race in 2010 the track offers very little entertainment (maybe that’s just me) but in summary, this is just another pursuit of money.

 

2011 – New Delhi, India

Okay, I will concede, this makes a bit more sense. At the time of its inauguration there were two Indian drivers in the sport; Karthikeyan and Chandhok, as well as the now-established Force India team, although they are based in Milton Keynes and simply backed by Indian businessman Vijay Mallaya. It is fair to say that both of the aforementioned drivers were ‘pay-drivers’ as neither were successful. India is a country of vast contrasts between rich and poor. Slums are commonplace even in the biggest cities like Mumbai and New Delhi, a fact not lost on race organisers who offer the cheapest tickets at the equivalent of just £23. But if this circuit’s aim was to increase the image of India through a sporting item, was that not accomplished five years ago with the Force India team? I think it was.

 

 

Back to Thailand. Another point is, what race would have to make way for it? The Turkish GP was axed for 2011 and the European dropped in 2013 now that the Spanish venues are alternating. A second American Race is supposed to join us in 2014, with a Russian race penciled-in for 2015. Ecclestone is also negotiating a possible new Mexican Grand Prix. Assuming the current 19 race remain, the three above are added, and Thailand, that makes 23, even though Ecclestone has explicitly stated that 20 is the maximum he would allow. It is crushingly ironic that the only races I would be happy to see leave are those that have recently joined us, but that is obviously something the FIA would not let happen.

 

More of this, please.


So, to summarise, I am strongly opposed to another Asian grand prix. Formula One has always been about money, but if the chase for the almighty Dollar becomes so great that we end up with 18 dull tracks in the East where there are no fans or drivers, I would much rather watch Touring Cars here in the UK. Bring back great European tracks! Brands Hatch, Zolder, Oesterreichring, Imola, Estoril, Jerez, Paul Ricard! Superb tracks. Does F1 need a race in Thailand? No.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s