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Formula One remains a tough sell in China
"I'm worried about China. The potential is huge and we must make it successful there," McLaren team principal told 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 F1 found that Chinese viewership fell steeply last year. Sponsors also have been slow to sign on to the series with only a handful of Chinese companies endorsing any of the 11 teams.
"I'm worried about China," McLaren 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.' F1 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 F1 is desperate for new funding to offset the losses of several big names including ING and Credit Suisse due to the global financial crisis.
The growth of the series 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 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 series 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 F1. 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 F1. It worked with Li Na for tennis and Yao Ming for basketball, but so far no Chinese driver has reached the 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 see what's going on and start to know the sport and start to know the story," Ma said.
"I still need time to become an F1 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 series is growing in China, noting that attendance at the Chinese GP has picked up since 2010 when F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone accused local organisers 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," circuit sales manager Yang Yibin told local media.
Promotions are also on the rise, with the presence of new companies and organisations 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 capitalise, 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, F1 is already a top-five sport in China. It's quite big and growing very fast. In a few years, F1 will be a big sport in China."
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