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F1 races into lucrative Asia and the Middle East

The key thrust of bringing Formula One to Asia is to tap its emerging markets and growing fanbase with sponsors and marketers acutely aware of the opportunities where economies are growing and citizens are getting richer.

india Updated: Mar 05, 2008 16:29 IST

Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone is renowned as a shrewd operator and steering the glamorous sport towards Asia and the Middle East has been in his plans for some time.

As the Grand Prix circus fine-tunes for the first race of the season in Melbourne next week, there has never been more interest in this part of the planet, which will host six races this year.

The highlight will be Singapore staging the first-ever Formula One night race on September 28 on a circuit of public roads, with the spectacle set to be one of the world's most watched sporting events of 2008.

Other races take place in Australia, Bahrain, China, Japan, and Malaysia.

The fact that the city-state was added to the calendar reinforces Ecclestone's belief that Asia and the Middle East are key cogs in the sports's future development.

"I am very bullish about the East," he recently told Singapore media.

"It has been so for more than 15 years and hopefully I am proven right because they have come on in that part of the world and now they are very strong."

With 18 races on the calander, there is a real possibility that Asia and the Middle East could host half of them by 2010. Negotiations with Abu Dhabi, South Korea, and India are either complete or near completion.

Their inclusion comes at the expense of Formula One's traditional base in Europe as the sport aims for a more globalised calendar.

The key thrust of bringing Formula One to Asia is to tap its emerging markets and growing fanbase with sponsors and marketers acutely aware of the opportunities where economies are growing and citizens are getting richer.

The inaugural Grand Prix in China in 2004 generated an estimated 650 million dollars in revenue and Ecclestone believes the region stands to benefit from the kind of F1-centric 8.3 billion dollar motorsports industry enjoyed by the United Kingdom.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see that happen, within two or three years, for sure. You need a bit of time for that to happen," he said.

But any new races ideally need to fit with television viewing times in Europe, where the sport still has a huge following.

Ecclestone insisted Singapore be a night race and pressure has also been applied to Malaysia.

The Malaysians have signalled they are ready to race after dark and now have a contract until 2015, but it is more complicated in Australia where officials have ruled out roaring round Albert Park under lights.

Ecclestone has warned Melbourne it could lose the event it has staged since 1996 when its contract comes up for renewal after 2010 if it doesn't fall into line.

A compromise this year sees Melbourne pushing back the start time of next week's race by 90 minutes.

It is not just more Grand Prix that are coming to the region, there is also increasing involvement on the team side of the business.

This year the gold, tungsten, and white car of Force India, run by tycoon Vijay Mallya, makes its debut with a budget of 120 million dollars. Veteran Italian Giancarlo Fisichella and Germany's Adrian Sutil are behind the wheels.

India became hooked on Formula One when home-grown Narain Karthikeyan raced for Jordan in 2005 and test drove with Williams over the past two years, where he remains this year.

Japan continues to have a strong presence through Honda and Toyota although question marks remain over the viability of cash-strapped Super Aguri, which is in talks with new investors.

This includes an Indian consortium led by the Spice Group telecom company, which wants to put Karthikeyan in the cockpit. Japan's Takuma Sato and Britain's Anthony Davidson are currently in that role.

Toyota are relying on their new TF108 car to better the disappointing sixth place they managed in the Constructors Championship last year.

Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock are their main drivers with Japan's Kamui Kobayashi, who graduated from the Toyota Young Drivers Programme, in reserve.

Others Asian drivers this year include Japan's Kazuki Nakajima alongside Germany's Nico Rosberg at Williams.

Honda suffered aerodynamic and reliability problems last year and could only manage six points. They will be hoping for better from the experienced Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button.