With the unsurprising announcement of the withdrawal of Toyota from Formula 1 effective immediately, along with the confirmation of Bridgestone of their withdrawal from 2010 onwards, it seems the bleak picture I painted towards the end 2008 of a mass withdrawal of Japanese interest in worldwide top flight motor sports has been finally realized.
Japanese motor racing fans currently have very little to cheer about on an international scale. Toyota has now followed Honda’s lead in withdrawing from Formula 1, Subaru and Suzuki no longer grace the World Rally Championship, and Kawasaki took its own hibernation from Moto GP also, save for providing a bike for Marco Melandri. Kazuki Nakajima and Kamui Kobayashi have now joined the jobless Japanese Formula 1 driver’s queue, which already has claimed the popular Sakon Yamamoto and Japan’s most successful F1 driver Takuma Sato.
At the Japanese F1 Grand Prix at Suzuka this year, it has been noted that attendance figures were much poorer than the track’s last hosting of F1 in 2006, and very unusually, there were still empty seats available on grandstands to be purchased upon entry at the track on race day. It would be quite easy to blame the recession for this situation, however the reality points to a different picture all together.
Reality is, Corporations such as Honda and Toyota can not survive the intense grilling by their shareholders about the continuous need to sink more funds into a rich boys’ club like formula 1 while the company’s profits are tumbling beyond control around the world and their new products are filling up land clearings instead of being sold and driven by consumers.
The reality for the consumers is, as the belt has to be tightened for household spending, they are much less likely to invest a large sum into household electronic goods or a car, let alone disposable income and spending on such matters as attending a Formula 1 race. The reality also is, Japan’s Grand Prix tickets (grandstand) are amongst the most expensive in all the GPs around the world. Therefore it doesn’t take a F1 engineer (or even an Ecclestone) to work out the reasons behind poor attendance figures.
Most importantly however, a factor which can never be ignored is having a reasonably competitive driver in the sport. A perfect example to this would be Fernando Alonso’s rise to stardom whilst taking F1’s profile in Spain (a nation which never had a successful F1 driver until Fernando) with him. This is precisely the reason why we need a Japanese F1 driver actively participating in Formula 1, and a competitive one at that. This is now more important than ever due to the withdrawals of Toyota, Honda, Super Aguri and Bridgestone.
Fuji TV has spent a fortune on bringing Formula 1 racing to Japan and broadcasting every race in the nation. Now their investment will eventually be questioned by those in authority due to poor audience figures and the lack of advertisers willing to advertise during the F1 presentations. In light of recent developments, fans will continue to switch off in droves especially without a Japanese driver on the grid.
Formula 1 and any international grade motor sport discipline can never ignore Japan’s contribution, market power and influence in the motor sport industry. This nation’s auto industry has been actively involved in motor racing for almost 50 years, supplying vehicles, parts, technological know-how as well as drivers to perform in a worldwide stage.
Japanese motor sporting fans are amongst the friendliest, passionate and knowledgeable worldwide, and their fanatical intensity of support is infectious and welcomed by those in the know. It would be completely wrong to disappoint all of those who have provided the most moral support through good and bad, however, I have my doubts about those in power to make such decisions and considering the views of the fans while decisions such as Toyota’s are made.