The Globalisation of Formula 1
Despite the continent having a minimal influence on the track, Asia is fast becoming the new hub of the sport’s annual journey, as it accelerates Formula 1 into the 21st century
To be seen as a key cog in a sport’s annual, international schedule is the minimum requirement of most developed countries around the world, but there are few sports which demand responsibility and pressure to represent the whole entity quite like Formula 1 does.
For the chosen 19 nations, the eyes of the world turn towards them for just four days, as they stake a claim not only to retain their position on the calendar for the following year, but to capture the imaginations of supporters, drivers, constructors and owners alike in a showcase that would grace any elaborate film festival.
It is a pressure which, for the majority of F1’s existence, has been placed in the hands of Europe’s most iconic racing landmarks; the likes of Monte Carlo, Hockenheim, Silverstone, Monza, Spa and Imola etched into the fabric of the sport.
Recent years has seen a shift in the dynamics of Formula 1, however, with the sport’s calendar truly more global than it has ever been before. Once Oceania’s traditional opening salvo in Australia has seen the chequered flag, the 11 globetrotting constructors venture across Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, North America, Eastern Europe, Central America and South America, before coming to the end of their journey in Abu Dhabi in late November.
In fact, less than half of the calendar now revolves around the once dominant European base, with many of those left subject to discussion as to their longevity moving forward.
This alludes to a new power emerging as the core of what remains one of the sporting world’s greatest spectacles.
But is Asia really the future of Formula 1?
History would seem to suggest that the continent may indeed be the emerging hub, if you compare its current influence to decades gone by.
Of the 70 circuits to have graced the annual calendar since 1950, only 10 have been based across the Middle East, Japan, China, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and India. This 15 percent figure is dwarfed by the 30 percent saturation that the region currently enjoys; boasting six of the 19-strong allocation in 2015.
Add to this 2016’s introduction of Baku Street Circuit in Azerbaijan and the pendulum swing away from Europe becomes all the more evident.
The question, however, is why?
A major reason for Europe’s stronghold over the years has been due to the popularity and local interest in cheering on the most prominent drivers and constructors based in Italy, Germany, the UK, France, Spain and beyond.
Asia has never enjoyed such dominance within the sport though. In 65 years, only 24 racers from the region have taken to the track; 20 of which from Japan, by far the most prominent of the Asian contingent.
Of those, it could be argued that only Kamui Kobayashi and Takuma Sato have really made any waves among the competition since the turn of the century.
Similarly, in 2015, only Force India remains as an Asian constructor within the Championship, and even they are based in the UK. The likes of Honda, Toyota, Super Aguri, Maki, Caterham and even Theodore in Hong Kong, have all made fleeting marks on the grid before parting the way for Europe’s elite to overtake.
So, in a year where only one Asian constructor takes to the track from its Silverstone factory, and no Asian drivers are to be seen at all, the reason for this ever-growing slide towards the continent must lie in the locations themselves.
Following the traditional cutting of the ribbon each March at Albert Park in Melbourne, it is the following three races which often set the scene for the season at large, as the major protagonists throw their hats in to the ring in Malaysia, China and Bahrain.
The former was first added to the calendar in 1999 and has been a mainstay for the following 16 seasons; growing in popularity with each gracing of Sepang International Circuit. Evidently a track fit for a champion, Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Räikkönen, Jenson Button, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton have all kick-started their title bids in Kuala Lumpur in years gone by; no doubt a statistic which has led to its strengthening popularity across the leading constructors.
Arguably the race’s biggest appeal though, stems from its climate, rather than its track features. Wildly swinging from humid conditions and scorching heat, to tropical storms, the unpredictability of the event is something that few European circuits can match.
Following years of discussions and negotiations throughout the 1990s, Shanghai International Circuit was finally granted China’s wish of hosting a Formula 1 Grand Prix in 2004, and has since become somewhat of a milestone track within the sport. Alonso won his first World Title around this track, while Schumacher enjoyed his final victory as a driver in the vibrant city.
Subsequently moved further down the calendar however, the circuit still hasn’t captured the imaginations of all within the sport, and its longevity was recently brought into question over the fees paid to host the race, and a reported loss made in hosting the event.
Again, with no Chinese input on the grid either, it is arguably the grandeur of the spectacular city of Shanghai alone which keeps Formula 1 in the world’s most populous nation.
Befitting as the first ever race to grace the increasingly influential Middle East, Bahrain has proved an enigmatic addition to the calendar since its inception in 2004. Arriving at the same time as Shanghai as part of a concerted expansion of the F1 footprint, Bahrain immediately proved itself as a refreshing - if not different - experience for drivers and the wider grand prix community.
Named the “Best Organised Grand Prix” by the FIA shortly after its induction, it has since been trialled as an endurance circuit to commemorate the sport’s diamond jubilee in 2010, as well as becoming only the second race to be held at night under spotlights in 2014 as part of its own 10th anniversary celebrations.
Its giant run-off areas, providing almost a second track for drivers to utilise on some corners, adds another diverse uniqueness to the spectacle; again endearing the majority of onlookers to what is sure to be a mainstay in years to come.
Following the summer gallivant across Europe and Canada, it is the glamour night race of Singapore which signifies the home stretch of the season.
Despite some initial concern that it was too close to Kuala Lumpur’s circuit in Malaysia - 300 kilometres away to be exact - Singapore’s Marina Bay Street Circuit has provided a modernised, illuminated version of Monte Carlo with all the glitz and prestige that Bernie Ecclestone would want for the popularity of the sport.
As one of the most aesthetically pleasing events for spectators also, it was no surprise when the race was confirmed as staying on the calendar until 2017 at least; and few would bet against it remaining a fixture far beyond then.
Of all the Asian entries to the F1 schedule over the years, only Japan can claim to have been a regular, recognised, longstanding member of the fraternity; having first hosted an event in 1976.
Similarly, it is the only country on the continent to have tried and tested more than one track - a statistic familiar with most European countries - with both Shizuoka’s Fuji Speedway and Aida’s Tanaka International Circuit enjoying the spotlight before Suzuka’s circuit was revisited in 2009.
Having initially been the chosen track between 1987 and 2006, its current stint is the more popular among drivers and, having often been scheduled towards the end of the season, has become renowned for some of the most epic races in Formula 1’s history.
Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Damon Hill, Schumacher and Vettel have all experienced career defining moments in a country which, unlike its neighbouring hosts, does have a legacy in the sport outside of just the tracks themselves.
With local interest for supporters across drivers, constructors and engine manufacturers, Japan’s influence on the automotive industry in general is up there with the most prestigious in the world, making this race arguably the most stable and necessary of them all; acting as a linchpin for Asia’s wider expansion.
Dressed as a festival rather than a Grand Prix, the Formula 1 season’s annual curtain falls amid an array of celebrities, fireworks, and prestige in Abu Dhabi.
Since 2009, the F1 Festival in the UAE has produced a spectacle worthy of any sporting finale; again leveraging the always popular illuminations in what is the only day-night race of the year.
With unparalleled financial backing from Etihad Airways, the region has used the event as a perfect way to showcase Abu Dhabi over the past six years, highlighting the transition of the sport as a whole from the purist, traditional clockwise tracks in familiar with Europe’s glory days gone by, to the anti-clockwise night-time extravaganzas being added to the sport in the 21st century.