GLOBETROTTER

Eastern approaches

At the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September FIA President Max Mosley told pressmen that Formula 1 would become "very global" in 1998. It was bad news for a lot of people in the paddock because not many people like the idea of visiting places where Grand Prix racing has not traditionally visited. Monaco, Silverstone, Spa, Monza, Hockenheim and so on are all pretty races for the Europeans. Racing in the Orient has always been mush more difficult. Paddock people mutter about having to eat "doggie and two veg" in Korea and having to communicate in Chinese. These are alien planets to the F1 jetsetter.

Once upon time in the East there was only one country involved in F1. Japan. It was different from all the other Grands Prix but the strangeness of the land made it fascinating.

Now we are facing more of the same - and people are chuntering about it. At least, they say, Japan had something of a pedigree in racing: Honda had run a Grand Prix team in the mid 1960s and the first Formula 1 Japanese Grand Prix had been as long ago as 1976. None of the new candidates for races has any great history in racing and the only reason Grand Prix racing is planning to go there is because of money. There is no doubt that the idea of getting a slice of the money which will be spent in the next few years by Asia's emerging middle-classes - a billion people according to estimates - is very tempting for F1 sponsors wanting to sell cars, cigarettes, clothing. You name it. The logic is very simple. You sell something worth a $1 to every Asian yuppie and you become a dollar billionaire. As we have learned over the years, Grand Prix racing is not proud. It will dance to any tune if the bag of money on offer is vast enough. And why not?

The Asian countries see F1 as a way for them to show the world that they are developing and have things to offer to the old world - which will earn them money in tourist income or export dollars. Everyone wants to be associated with the glamour of motor racing.

A few years ago as Beirut was recovering from years of war the local authorities decided that the bomb-torn city needed a little sport to give it a glitzier image. They turned to powerboats...

In Asia they are turning to Formula 1 because it gets to more people around the world than any other sport except the Olympic Games and the World Cup football competition. They take place every four years, F1 happens every second weekend in summer.

It does not matter that Asian countries have no real tradition of motor sport. Most are young countries and their motor racing dated back to the days of the European colonial system when wealthy Europeans shipped cars out from Europe and competed against one another. After the colonial system was dismantled - after World War II - the newly-independent states had more important things to worry about than financing permanent racing circuits.

There were a few street races which survived like Singapore's Thomson Road, which hosted a regular "Grand Prix" right up to the early 1970s. This featured an unusual hazard for racers, sticky oil trails left on the roads from the local diesel buses.

There were similar events in Malaysia but as the cars the British had left behind faded away so the racing all but died out.

Only one event did spectacularly well - the Macau Grand Prix - through the streets of the tiny Portuguese enclave near Hong Kong. The 3.8 mile Guia circuit had the ambience of the old days of racing, diving between houses and cliff edges. The race dates back to the 1950s but really began to develop in the mid-1970s as a rivalry between two local entrepreneurs, Teddy Yip and Bob Harper. They bought the best machinery and hired the best drivers they could attract. The rivalry became so intense that Harper funded a Formula 2 team in Europe. Not to be outdone Yip bought himself a Formula 1 team - which he called Theodore.

Macau did not reach a true level of international importance until 1983 when it was decided that the race should be run to Formula 3 regulations. The first F3 race was dominated by a young Brazilian called Ayrton Senna, who defeated sometime Formula 1 driver Roberto Guerrero and another youngster called Gerhard Berger.

Since then the race has grown and grown in stature. Nowadays it is the major international Formula 3 meeting of the year - an opportunity at the end of each season to see eastern drivers taking on those from the west and to see the best youngsters battling it out with proven talents.

In India, racing was restricted to old British air bases at Bangalore and Madras with a bizarre collection of machinery.

The first permanent circuits in the Orient were built in the 1960s, Honda funding the construction of Suzuka in 1962 and the Mount Fuji International Speedway being opened in 1965. Fuji was strange in that it was built as an American-style 2.5-mile superspeedway with daunting 30-degree banking. Money ran out and only one of the great banked sections was built, leaving the circuit half-speedway, half-road course.

In 1968 Malaysia built a facility at Batu Tiga, on land owned by the Sultan of Selangor, whose palace overlooks the track. The track was later renamed Shah Alam and in the mid 1980s was upgraded in the hope of attracting major international races. At the end of 1985 the World Sportscar Championship visited but after one race the sportscars did not return. Singapore made plans for an F1 circuit at Changi - it was never built - but in the late 1980s India built its first major race track at Irungattukutai, near Madras while Thailand opened a circuit at Pattaya.

The first serious attempt outside Japan of constructing an F1 circuit in Asia came in Indonesia about five years ago when Hutomo Mandala Putra - son of the country's president General Raden Suharto - was behind the construction of a track at Sentul. Hutomo MP is known in racing circles as Tommy Suharto and among his many roles he is chairman of Indonesia's national automobile association. Suharto Jr. raced in small Asian events but the idea of putting on an Indonesian GP was not an ego-trip. His intention was to use the race to help boost Indonesia's developing automobile industry, which - funnily enough - Suharto controls as the sole beneficiary of a controversial national car policy that gives his Timor Putra Nasional company tax and tariff breaks to build a national car - to be called the Timor.

Tommy is also the majority shareholder of Italian firm Lamborghini and American car manufacturer Vector. In addition to all this he controls the Humpuss Group - which he wants to promote one day by running a Humpuss F1 team.

This all sounds wonderful - and quite clever - but there are problems. The Suharto family's influence in every walk of Indonesian business life is not considered to be healthy by the political opposition in the country and the Suharto dictatorial regime's suppression of rivals is not likely to lead to long-term political stability.

Indonesia was given a provisional date in the 1995 Formula 1 calendar but F1 racing was clearly having second thoughts about being involved and the race was quietly dropped.

China started work on its own F1 circuit - at Zhuhai - in 1993 and that work is now nearly finished. The Chinese want a race in 1997 - to coincide with its takeover of Hong Kong, a time when China wants to portray a new international image.

Both Korea and Malaysia now have plans to build F1 circuits and both have good reason to do so: South Korea has a booming car-making industry with no fewer than five companies (Hyundai, Kia, Daewoo, Ssangyong and Samsung) all trying to sell cars around the world. Daewoo has made serious noises about being involved in F1 from an engineering standpoint but, as yet, nothing has come of it. The Koreans have, however, announced that they will be hosting a Grand Prix in 1998.

Malaysia is aiming for 1999 but is pushing ahead faster from an engineering viewpoint. The Malaysian government is behind a new V10 engine being planned by Sauber and intends to use the sport to market its companies and to improve the quality of engineering in Malaysia. The new engine may be called the Petronas (after the Malaysian national oil company) or it may be called after Proton (the country's national car company). As part of the expansion Proton has just bought the Lotus Group and this may well be involved in the F1 engine program.

Trying to build a racing industry in a country is a good idea but it is hard to imagine that it will be easy to overturn the supremacy of the British motor sports industry, which is worth nearly 1 billion in exports for the British economy. Britain is unique in this respect because nowhere else in the world is there such a concentrated collection of talents and high technology motor racing facilities. Just as computer software writers were drawn to "Silicon Valley" around San Diego, California in the 1970s, so motor racing engineers are drawn to England.

France was the center of the sport in the early years; then Italy took over with such famous companies as Alfa Romeo and Maserati. Germany had a brief moment of glory in the 1930s and then Italy took over again - largely thanks to Enzo Ferrari until the late 1950s when the first British racing car manufacturers appeared. Since then a vast industry has been created in Britain while other countries have failed to keep up. This must be frustrating but it can change. I have a feeling that Honda is considering a return to Formula 1 as a chassis-builder as well as an engine-maker. The rumors at the moment suggest that Honda will come back merely as an engine supplier but if you were a member of the Honda top management would you be willing to fund an engine program knowing that the company has already achieved remarkable results building engines. How much can be gained from another engine program? How much of an impact would renewed success bring? For Honda to design and build the chassis and the engine and beat the dominant British teams would be a magnificent achievement. Honda would be able to achieve something which Ferrari - a magical name to any car enthusiast - has been trying and failing to do for the last 15 years. It would greatly enhance Honda's reputation as an engineering giant on the world stage. Honda President Nobuhiko Kawamoto maintains that motor racing is all about nurturing innovative thinking, training engineers and motivating the Honda workforce. Here is a project which would do just that.

And one which would help shift the balance of power in motor racing to the Orient - whether the Europeans like it or not...

Print Feature