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F1 still trying to capture hearts of Chinese fans

Apr 13, 2013, 4:30 PM EDT

Formula One supremo Ecclestone signs his autograph on Chinese volunteer's back at the Shanghai International Circuit Reuters

With this year’s running of the Chinese Grand Prix, Formula One has now been in the most populous nation on Earth for ten years. But it appears that most of the potential for the sport in China remains untapped despite a decade of racing.

Chinese viewership for the World Championship dropped in 2012, causing F1 kingpin Bernie Ecclestone (pictured, left) to call in regional broadcasters to show the series in the country instead of a national network. In addition, F1’s sponsor portfolio only has a limited number of Chinese companies, and attendance for the Grand Prix in Shanghai has been spotty at times over the years.

Although Chinese-born Ma Qing Hua currently sits as a reserve driver for Caterham, there isn’t a top Chinese driver in the series and that can’t be helping matters in regards to sparking local interest in the sport. After all, everybody loves the hometown hero (or home-country hero, in this case).

Then there’s the fact that the Chinese fan base is still relatively green when it comes to F1 and motorsports in general — not to mention relatively cash-strapped.

“At the end, it’s all about culture of motorsport in China,” said Shanghai-based F1 journalist Frankie Mao to the Associated Press. “We have fans, but they’re 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.”

Things may be getting better, as the AP reports that 90 percent of tickets for this weekend’s Grand Prix have been sold. But in the eyes of McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh, he feels that the sport hasn’t done enough to engage the Chinese and may have to re-think its outreach altogether.

“If you take a new product into a new market, ordinarily you have a marketing plan and you advertise,” Whitmarsh said to the AP. “We’ve put ourselves outside Shanghai and we expect them to come and find us. We need to work a little harder.

“We as a sport are a little bit arrogant. We’re F1. We arrive and people will want to come to see us. But China doesn’t need us.”

  1. chaparral2f - Apr 13, 2013 at 4:43 PM

    China is an absolutely huge market for racing. Car sales have gone through the roof in China. The Chinese are slowly getting up to speed regarding F1 and other forms of motorsport. Having a Chinese driver would be helpful. Not a good thing either to have a regional broadcaster rather than national one. Whitmarsh is right that F1 needs China more than China needs F1.

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