F1 Popularity at an All-Time High in China
Updated: Jun 4, 2019
China 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. F1 is the world’s most extravagant sport, with a growing focus on the sport’s future shifted to Asia and the Far East. The sport has grown to new heights of popularity in China, with several factors behind its growth.
The Shanghai Grand Prix first came to China in for its inaugural race in 2004, and has been a permanent fixture on the calendar ever since. Despite attendance figures that have not lived up to the first event, the China event still attracts around 120,000 people, a similar level to many of the traditional circuits, an important factor that led to the deal being re-negotiated until at least 2017. The fact that China can boast their own competitive event places it above the Premier League, NFL and even NBA, who have all yet to host an official fixture or event in this region. The next step for the Shanghai Grand Prix is to secure a dominant broadcasting partner, such as CCTV 5, which would provide exposure of the F1 to hundreds of millions of Chinese fans.
While F1 has yet to uncover its ‘Yao Ming’, there have been Chinese drivers on the cusp of F1. Finding this ‘Chinese Michael Schumacher’ is F1’s biggest challenge, and if this person was found it would put the sport on the same level as tennis was with Li Na in her prime. Ma Qinghua became the first Chinese driver to ever take part in an official F1 session in 2012 when he started the free practice session at Monza. He then started the first practice at the Shanghai Grand Prix in 2013, giving the Chinese fans their first ever taste of local talent performing on the highest stage. Ma Qinghua himself said that ‘once people see their same nationality in the top of the sport, they will start to know the sport’. Unearthing a Chinese F1 driver will create a role model for millions of young drivers to look up to and take on the sport.
F1 may be number 1, but its “little brother” is indirectly growing interest in the sport in China. Formula E’s first ever race took place in Bejing in September 2014, and is now a global championship with 10 teams racing on temporary city-centre circuits. Team China, now known as NEXTEV TCR, were the winners of the inaugural FIA Formula E Championship, a team that has close links with the Ministry of Sports in China and has helped to support many Chinese drivers. The sport is a less extravagant version of F1, yet drives exposure of all motorsport by appealing to a new demographic of fans. Success for Formula E means success for F1 in China.
F1 is a top 5 sport in China with the future in its own hands. Developing local talent, nurturing Formula E and maintaining the Shanghai Grand Prix’s position on the calendar with a strong local broadcasting partner are all vital to the sport. If it successfully achieves these several components, F1 can aim to stand on the podium as one of China’s most popular sports.