Monday, May 20, 2024

How serious a setback is F1’s five-year absence for its growth in China? 2023 F1 season

Today’s confirmation the Chinese Grand Prix will not be reinstated to the 2023 Formula 1 calendar means the world championship will be absent from the country for at least five years.

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China’s enthusiasm for F1 had grown slowly but steadily from its first world championship race in 2004. Before the race disappeared from the calendar in 2020 there was talk of building on its growing popularity in the country by holding additional rounds in China, as F1 is now doing in the USA, another especially important market.

Zhou must wait for first home raceAt the 2019 grand prix, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff was among those pushing for a second race in China.

“Certainly I think it’s a big enough place,” he said. “Formula E is having two races in China: One in Sanya and one in Hong Kong. Why not go to Hong Kong race downtown or go to Beijing? I would love that.”

But FE’s presence in China took a hit even before the pandemic arrived. Its planned 2020 return to Hong Kong – a special administrative region of the country – was scrapped amid rising tensions in the city state between pro-democracy protesters and the Chinese government, leading to widespread unrest.

Multiple races in China remains a goal for some in F1. McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown said last April “the dream scenario would be to have at least two races in China and another in Asia in the next five years”.

While F1’s enthusiasm for racing in China appears undimmed, is the feeling mutual? In 2019, the 16th year that F1 had visited China, three-day crowds at the grand prix stood at 160,000. That was only around 40% of capacity at the vast Shanghai circuit, and well short of the record-breaking figures F1 had at many venues last year.

The strong attendance figures at grands prix since 2021 may be partly due to a post-pandemic surge in interest among millions of fans who were unable to watch races in person during the year-and-a-half of events being held behind closed doors while there was lockdowns across the globe and not just in China. But with no Chinese GP for five years how many locals will be clamouring for F1’s return and how many will have forgotten about it?

The good news for F1 is it finally has its first driver from the country: Zhou Guanyu. Unfortunately he has now seen his home event cancelled in both of the years he has been racing in F1. There will be many in F1 hoping another strong season from the Shanghai native will persuade Alfa Romeo to keep him on from a third year and ensure he is on the grid for the 2024 Chinese Grand Prix – if it happens.

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