The success of motor racing today has been largely due to the sport’s successful presence on the Asian market. Every sport aims to be present on this market, and for a reason: half of the world population lives on this continent, and with the economic boom Asia has experienced, disposable income has also grown. However, sports that are traditionally hugely popular in the western world, such as football (both European and American), basketball, professional boxing, and even cycling, have yet to draw similar mass interest in Asia. In China, for example, the returns on luring superstars to play in the Chinese league of their sports have so far been decidedly modest. Turns out Asians like football, for example, but they prefer watching European matches: the Champions League, the English Premier League or the Spanish La Liga. So much so that the Spanish league’s scheduling reflects this Asian popularity, and has matches in the early afternoon (local time) so they are early enough for viewers in Asia, where it is already evening at that time, to stay up and watch.
Led by Bernie Ecclestone and then, today, Liberty Media, the organisers of the F1 championship have employed a different strategy. They have taken their sport to Asia.Mainly because of the expensive technical side, motor sports are traditionally a European and American preserve. The very first F1 World Championship series in 1950 featured a race in America, at the iconic Indy500 venue in Indianapolis. Since then American motor racing has gone down a different path. Today IndyCar – which evolved out of the oldest and fastest motor racing series – is at least at the same level as Formula 1.
Formula 1 had to find a different way. And the one they found took them to the (then) developing East. Landfall for Formula 1 in Asia took place in Japan, with the first Japanese Grand Prix at the Fuji Speedway at the foot of Mount Fuji, in 1976. After the second Grand Prix the following year, there was a decade‑long break, but since 1987 the Japanese Grand Prix has been a fixture on the F1 racing calendar. In fact, in 1994 and 1995 Japan hosted not one but two races: the Japanese Grand Prix and the Pacific Grand Prix. For several seasons the Suzuka circuit took over as the venue of the Japanese GP, but recently it has moved back to the Fuji Speedway.
Sepang in Malaysia was the second Asian F1 venue, first hosting a race in 1999. True, Singapore had races as early as the 1960s, but those did not score the drivers actual championship points. However, the tiny Asian city state became a pioneer in the sport when it organised a night-time F1 race in 2008. This spectacle has since then been the forte of the Middle Eastern venues, by which Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia try to offer the spectators a unique experience, and tackle the problem of time zone differences at the same time.
After these countries, the next Asian strategic step for the sport had to be China. The first Chinese race took place in 2005. The CoVid pandemic forced the World Championship to skip the Chinese Grand Prix in 2020, 2021 and again in 2022, so understandably everyone would really like to see the race return to the schedule.
Turkey and Azerbaijan are special cases: although they are officially not considered Asian countries, they aren’t traditionally or exclusively European either. However, these two venues are great examples of the eastern expansion of Formula 1. The first Turkish Grand Prix was held in 2005 in Istanbul and the first Azerbaijan Grand Prix took place in 2017 in Baku. The Turkish Grand Prix would be removed from the race calendar indefinitely, in 2012. As was the Russian Grand Prix in 2022 because of the Russo‑Ukrainian war, the Sochi venue having been a fixture for eight years from 2014.
And this is by no means the end of the Asian reach of Formula 1. The idea of a Vietnam Grand Prix was already a plan in 2020, but the pandemic put it on hold. Then in 2021, a corruption scandal involving the local patron of Formula 1 in Vietnam former Major General Nguyen Dúc Chung meant the race in Hanoi hand to be put on the back-burner.
The next important stepping stone could be India. There have been attempts to establish the sport on the subcontinent. India even had their own F1 team, Force India, but they would only last for ten years, until 2018. Of course, China could easily host another race, for example in Beijing, where, as in Hong Kong, the “electric F1”, the Formula E series has already arrived.The continent breakdown of this year’s race calendar looks like this: Europe got 11 races, Asia and the Americas had 5 each, with the remaining one race held in Australia. What is more telling is how many Asian and non‑EU European countries have so far hosted an F1 race. The list currently includes Turkey, Russia, Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Japan, China, Singapore and Malaysia: no less than 11 countries altogether.
The Japanese presence in Formula 1 goes beyond hosting a race: the country has also been involved as a manufacturer and constructor. Yuki Tsunoda in the 2022 drivers’ line-up is the 21st Japanese driver in the history of F1. True, the Japanese pay attention to “keep it real” when it comes to motor sports, as with everything else in life. The story of Honda is the perfect example. The world-renowned vehicle manufacturer sent their own factory team to the F1 in 1964. Then in 1968, due partly to difficulties with exporting from the USA and partly to team driver Jo Schlesser’s fatal racing accident, Honda withdrew from the championship. Between 1983 and 1992 they returned, this time as an engine supplier, helping the Williams and McLaren teams to drivers’ and constructors’ world championship titles. Nelson Piquet, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost won a combined six championship titles driving Honda‑powered cars. Then, quite abruptly, Honda disappeared from Formula 1 once again in 1992, only to return for a third spell in 2000. This time they helped the British American Racing team (BAR for short) until eventually they acquired the team in 2005. Jenson Button won the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2006 behind the wheel of a Honda. The Honda team’s final bow came in 2008, but in 2015 they would return for the fourth time as engine suppliers to the McLaren team. Their cooperation lasted until 2017 when McLaren gave up hope of having a chance with Honda engines. Well, how wrong they were... Since 2018 Honda has supplied the Toro Rosso team with engines and also Red Bull since 2019. Max Verstappen’s championship title in a Honda‑powered car does not really seem to back up McLaren’s assessment of the company’s engines, does it? Honda’s current commitment to supplying the teams with engines runs until 2025. Their plan after that seems to be to concentrate on innovation in carbon nanotechnology.
Japan had two other F1 teams: Super Aguri founded in 2005 by Aguri Suzuki, a former F1 driver himself, and Toyota with their factory team participating in the world championship between 2002 and 2009. As for other Asian F1 teams, we have already mentioned Force India; Malaysian Caterham had a rather brief stint in the championships between 2012 and 2014, as did British‑Russian cooperations Virgin then Marussia, 2010 to 2015. Rumours have it that Panthera Team Asia is planning to give F1 a go as constructors. Given the intensive Japanese participation in Formula 1, one would think the first ever Asian driver came from the country, but no. In fact, this title is held by a nobleman: Prince Birabongse Bhanudej Bhanubandh – or simply Prince Bira of Siam as he was mostly known – of the Thai royal family! Prince Bira participated in 19 races in the early 1950’s hauling in 8 championship points and securing a place in the annals of F1 history on the way.
There is no consensus regarding the best ever Asian F1 driver. And with reason: none of the possible candidates has made a huge impact. Japanese Takuma Sato won the Indianapolis 500 twice, but his greatest single‑race achievement in his 7 years in the F1 between 2002 and 2008 was a podium finish at #3, his best overall position in the drivers’ championship being #8 in 2004.The 2022 season featured three Asian drivers: first‑time F1 driver Zhou Guanyu of China with the Alfa Romeo team, Toro‑Rosso’s British‑Thai Alex Albon and the aforementioned Japanese Yuki Tsunoda driving a Scuderia AlphaTauri. Sadly, none of them are considered to have the slightest chance of making a podium finish.