If you build it, it is said, they will come. In late September, they finally did, and the glamorous circus of Formula One racing made its much-anticipated Chinese debut in Shanghai.
Hollywood celebrities flocked to town to join the activities, hotels jacked up room rates by as much as four times, the city's top restaurants were booked out, and the traffic ground to a halt for most of the party weekend.
And by and large, the drivers and the fans agreed that what Shanghai had built in the space of just two years was world-class. Five-times champion Michael Schumacher (Shu Ma Huh) described the Shanghai circuit, built on what was once a swamp, as "the best racetrack I have ever seen."
Meanwhile, from a business perspective, the race was perhaps the city's biggest global marketing opportunity to date, said Joo Teoh, account director in the city for marketing firm 141 Worldwide. "As an event, Formula One really put Shanghai on the international map," he said.
The same week as F1 hit town, for example, Time magazine made Shanghai its cover spread, headlining what it called "the most happening city on Earth."
Mao Xiaohan, general manager of the Shanghai International Circuit, said the race was a "business card" for the city and a "fantastic advertisement" for potential long-term investors, particularly in the auto industry.
In many ways the event was the happy marriage of a sport and a city in need of some mutual back-scratching. Shanghai was keen to secure the rights to host Formula One to promote itself as a venue for world-class events and international business. There was also the competitive urge to steal a march on other Chinese cities – the southern city of Zhuhai had, for example, made an upstart bid to hold the race on its own track.
Meanwhile Formula One as a global business, facing something of a financial crisis, has been eagerly hunting out new markets. Malaysia and Bahrain have both proved financially promising as recent additions to the racing calendar, but it was always China's increasingly car-crazy burgeoning middle class population that, for F1, offered the most mouth-watering opportunity.
And when it was all over, the general consensus was of an "outstanding success" from almost all perspectives, said Mark Thomas, managing director of specialist sports marketing firm Vroom Motor Sports. "It really left no doubt of China's capability to host a major international event," he said. "It showed that when China decides to do something they have enormous action potential and really go all-out to make it happen."
From a commercial perspective, Thomas said, while it will take time before the event itself actually breaks even – Shanghai has secured rights to F1 for at least five years – the economic importance in terms of prestige and the international perception of Shanghai was hard to overstate.
"Overall it will add up to a huge injection into the local economy, with ripple effects that began well before the actual race and will last long after it," he said.
F1 revenue estimate
According to some media estimates the local race organizers took in some US$50 million from Formula One weekend, and that's not counting the money taken in by hotels, restaurants, bars and retailers.
Another significant development, Thomas said, was for the business of sponsorship and sports marketing with a major Chinese company, Sinopec, taking the title position in what was officially the "Sinopec Chinese Grand Prix".
"That's a great omen for the future potential of sports marketing in China," Thomas said. "It helps to demonstrate to other Chinese firms the value of sports events and sports sponsorship."
However, Joo Teoh of 141 Worldwide raised concerns that the sheer number of sponsors who attached their name to the F1 might actually have diluted the marketing impact.
"Everyone wanted to be associated with F1 in some way or another," he said."So it will be interesting to see how much the marketing spend and prominence given to so many brands actually translates into shifting products."
From the fans' perspective, the biggest gripe was over the pricing and allocation of tickets. The cheapest tickets sold for RMB370, equivalent to about the average weekly wage in Shanghai and considerably more for workers in the rest of the country.
Certainly F1 has always been an expensive and exclusive sport, but some critics in the Chinese media warned that for the sport to really get a hold in China it would have to review its pricing.
Another big surprise was the price of the official merchandise. "Six hundred kuai (RMB) for a T-shirt and 350 kuai for a baseball cap – a lot of people thought that was over the odds," Joo Teoh complained. "And I know for a fact that the merchandisers didn't sell anywhere near the levels they were expecting."
As for those who actually made it to the track, it was hard to tell who was a real F1 fan and who was there simply because it was a big international event.
And with all but a few of the 150,000 seats sold out, worries about the high price of tickets pricing F1 out of its new market hardly seemed to be that big a problem. "Sure it's expensive," said one fan in the RMB960 (US$116) seats, which were priced well below the most expensive available. "But this is history. This shows that Shanghai is really an international city now." And with that he spent much of the 90-minute race messaging friends and calling others, pointing the mouthpiece of his phone at the track to give them a taste of the thrill of F1 going full throttle.
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