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Why is F1 flatlining in Japan?
Posted By: James Allen  |  16 Aug 2011   |  10:48 am GMT  |  217 comments

I posted the other day on Kamui Kobayashi and his chances of moving up the grid to a top team and made the point that Japan could do with it as the sport is in decline in Japan.

Several readers asked why this is the case, so here’s an overview of the situation, as I see it.

It’s a slightly misleading picture to look only at the fans who come to Suzuka each year as they are some of the most dedicated fans on the planet. Their consumption of team merchandise and willingness to queue the night before the race, if necessary, to secure the best seats, are legendary. So the hardcore support is just as strong as ever. But it’s not as widespread as before.

Part of this is because there are no real rallying points any more, beyond Kobayashi. Young people aren’t really engaging with the sport. Ayrton Senna driving a Honda engined McLaren was the high water mark of Japanese passion for F1 and the whole thing became self promoting.

F1 is on Fuji TV in Japan, as it has been for many years. But the live coverage is only available on a pay channel. The audience for the pay TV show is around 2 million, each paying £12 a month, so it earns plenty of money for F1 and for Fuji. The terrestrial audience is around 5 million. This is well down on the Senna days when around 17 million watched F1 in Japan.

Japanese business involvement in F1 is cyclical and although there have been periods in the last 20 years when Japanese companies were heavily engaged in the sport, currently the high value of the Yen and the impact of the financial crisis on Japanese car manufacturers means that Japanese corporate involvement is quite low.

Japanese enthusiasm for the sport tends to be driven by the manufacturers. There is no Japanese manufacturer currently competing and only one driver, Kamui Kobayashi and his team’s main sponsor is Mexican! At Suzuka last season, for the first time in almost 30 years, not a single car had a Japanese engine in the back of it.

Bridgestone, the world’s leading tyre company, which was the sole tyre supplier in the sport since 2007, pulled out at the end of last season, to be replaced by Pirelli, whose global market share has flatlined for the past few years, while Bridgestone’s has increased to almost 17%, partly due to F1.

Bridgestone entered the sport in 1997 with the specific objective of raising awareness and market share in Europe. At the time it was lagging well behind Michelin. Between 1997 and 2002 it’s European market share almost doubled from 8% to 15%, much of that attributed by the company to it’s F1 involvement.

Japanese sponsor engagement in F1 also tends to be led by the manufacturers. They engage Japanese sponsors via their advertising agency in Tokyo, typically the giant Dentsu, leading to extensive business to business opportunities. Japanese sponsors in the sport at the moment include Casio, a sponsor on the Red Bull car and Kenwood, a small sponsor on the McLaren.

Toyota spent big in F1 (Darren Heath)

Toyota competed in the sport for eight seasons from 2002. Starting from scratch in a huge factory in Cologne, Germany, the team struggled to match success with investment. The team never won a race, took just two pole positions and in its best season, 2005, managed to finish fourth in the championship. They were sponsored by electronics giant Panasonic, which quit the sport at the same time as the team.

Honda has a much more proud history, winning three Grands Prix as a team in its own right and 72 as an engine builder. Honda’s involvement in F1 happened in three phases; the 1960s, where it entered a team, building both chassis and engine and won two races, the 1980s when it came back to supply engines only , first to Williams and then to McLaren. These years were when Japan’s passion for F1 really ignited as Honda engines dominated F1 for almost a decade, driven by some of the greatest names – Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet. Honda powered all of them, except Mansell, to world championship success.

Honda withdrew in 1992 to focus resources on the US car market, but they couldn’t stay away for long and reappeared for their third participation in 2000, initially as an engine supplier to the BAR and Jordan teams.

This was a period of manufacturer teams in F1 and Honda acquired the BAR team in 2006, winning a race with Jenson Button that year. They made a huge investment in the team, but then withdrew abruptly at the end of 2008 at the onset of the Global Financial Crisis, after weak global car sales figures,

But the costs were out of control. At the peak of the last business cycle, Toyota and Honda were investing an estimated $700 million a year into their Formula 1 teams. This contributed to the decision to withdraw once the financial crisis hit.

In response the teams brought in a radical cost reduction agreement, legally binding among all the tems, with a glidepath over several years to take team staff numbers and budgets down to around a third of what they were at the peak. Had this been in place before the crisis, on wonders whether one of the manufacturers might still be in today.

The economic picture continues to be difficult. Car sales in Japan went through a positive phase, with 12 successive months of growth, but that came to a halt in September when many of the government backed incentive programmes around the world such as scrappage schemes, came to an end.

In Japan domestic car sales have fallen as the government stopped accepting applications to green car subsidy programmes. This has had a particularly strong impact on Toyota.

There was hope that the new engine formula for 2014 might bring Honda back in, but there are no clear signs of that at the moment. While Toyota looks set to target the FIA’s new EV racing series rather than come back to F1.

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The Same problem will effects MotoGP

Valentino Rossi has cast qualm over journey to Motegi in October

see the news:


In regards to Toyota, I remember the team getting a lot of flack for not being so successful for having such a large “budget”, but to be fair them, they did start out from ground zero unlike other teams having already been in for so many years or in the case of Red Bull, buying out a team that already existed.

I hope I don’t sound a bit ignorant with this, but if memory serves correct, the Japanese hierarchy is such that if someone is so much as a junior to someone they could not question the decision and I think it was mentioned at some point why Toyota and Honda were somewhat behind on the development front because it was actually relatively slow.

For Honda, when Ross Brawn came in, it became more of a dicusssion and positive steps were made including post-session debriefs being a lot longer!

It’s a shame that this is happening with Japan, but hopefully once the global economy picks up again we’ll see something of a resurgence from them.


I will go to Sky, but won’t like it. We should learn from Japan and not go the subscriber channel route.


Hi James will you do preview of the fantastic Spa circuit? It is one of the highlights of the season and the year!


Sure. Next week.


Bernie reveals in an interview that it was the BBC that effectively blocked the Channel 4 deal.


Why shouldn’t we complain if something is taken away? What so many people just don’t seem to get is the fact that we ALREADY PAY to watch F1 as it stands, and that we are being asked to pay ANOTHER extortionate amount to keep watching it live.

As for the riots, that’s just being insensitive and an ar*e. Yeah, like you haven’t had riots in your country before!


Having followed Formula 1 for over 20 years, when you try and look at what were the major points for Formula 1 in Japan, one, it was the draw of the Senna magnet, Senna always appreciated the love from the Japanese people and especially how they became warm to him and his way up to F1, secondly you had these massive Formula 1 showdowns at Suzuka from Prost-Senna to Schumacher-Hakkinen. However I also think that an engine manufacture like Honda could afford to be more aggressive and focus totally on the engine, however, not only an all in one in house project could be more costly but the focus and attention, spreading of resources across Engine/Chassis could be huge and a team like Williams as did McLaren can focus more on chassis tuning and optimizing the car machanically and let their engine partner do what they do on the engine side and you have this great mix. One would have to look at Renault, they win more titles as an engine supplier like Honda used too. Honda has a great history in Formula 1 and to see them say goodbye to Formula 1, its always a sad thing.

For Me Kobayashi, i rate him as one of the best drivers to come from Japan, but climbing up in Formula 1 can be like snakes and ladders which can drag you down at the bottom, not only your results that can take you to the top but to also be allowed a room where you can get support but also need a team that can look you in the eye and tell you its ok to make mistakes and not show you the door. I also think this also applies in life that you need to lose in order to win, Ferrari lost 20 world championships before they could strike like a hot iron with 5 titles. Somehow, failure can be the first step in Formula 1 to become a world championship winning team.

Lastly the points gap has become too much that when there was a 10 point allocation, it could guarantee showdowns, the points are a factor, i think there is a huge gap between and i also think that Formula 1 dishes out too many penalties each race, if you look at the amount hamilton has and Schumacher, its ernomous, people like to see wheel to wheel action, they would love to see someone be put on the grass, they would love to see someone shutting the door and you need to see those breathtaking manouvres, I also think that with many penalties dished out each race, drivers will avoid being agressive and fear being punished, we need to see more of overtaking manouvres making some world records. For Me I would love to see Formula 1 relaxing punishment because when double standards apply some people avoid penalties and others get it for similar thing and if each races penalties are dished out, they would interfere with the outcome of the championship and we could be talking of Hamilton leading the championship had you taken away all these penalties, however, clearly defining what is a race incident and what is not, even a rocket scientist would have a hard time figuring that one out, its similar to a safety car, there were moments and I could pull a string of them where the safety car was supposed to be put out but decided against. Somehow if Formula 1 could create a blacklist of what is not permissible in Formula 1 and let everyone know the house rules of Formula 1, it would be better.


I don’t know what’s all that big buzz about pay TV. In other countries we pay for a Premium package, be it cable or satellite TV signal. In some of those packages comes racing, premiere league, NFL, NHL… Don’t wanna pay, fine, there’s the free-to-view TV. Yes it has F-1, delayed, edited and hardly without the podium ceremonies and lots of commercial spots.

With all due respect to Brits, stop complaining or go bezerk and destroy Bernie’s facilities just as we witnessed the riots in London days ago.


What role will the internet have on attracting more fans?

Are today’s younglings too busy playing World of Warcraft and fooling around on the internet’s social networking sites to be watching TV. Back before the internet, there was little else to do at night but watch TV. Now days, kids rarely need a TV anymore (internet and mobile phones). So where are tomorrow’s fans going to come from?

Will the gaming industry will play a larger role in pulling new fans. The game F1 2011 is so realistic and anyone playing it will probably become a fan….


I suppose it is what develops while you are growing up, my generation are telly addicts, we went from one tv per street to the current HD.

Ok we also in the same period saw the development of the personal computer from the original Apple, commodore etc kits at £3000 each through ZX81, Auric, WPC8256 then the IBM series. So some of us are computer addicts too. The current young generation came in with mobiles already sized and weighed less than bricks and cannot understand how we used to stop and use a phone box. BUT they watch F1 on the telly, the free telly, but that is about to change next year when many of us give up in disgust.


Yes, I remember those old mobile phones.

Kids will probably only watch F1 on TV if someone in their family is watching (like their fathers). But if no one is watching F1 on TV, I don’t believe children will all of a sudden adopt an interest in F1. If what you say is true, that UK fans will boycott in droves, then there will be a reduction in viewers which could affect the sport in the future.

However it is still not clear cut whether we will see such a huge reduction in viewers in the UK.

The success of Lewis and Jenson will play a role in viewer retention. Improved broadcasts from Sky (more information like radio transmissions and viewer selectable camera angles) may persuade many the the dark side.

But, I agree with James that the popularity of F1 runs in cycles, and at the moment it is at its peak. My interest dipped when I used to fall asleep during races when Schumacher disappeared into the distance. But when Webber scored fifth in the Australian GP with Minardi – I was hooked (still am).


[Kids will probably only watch F1 on TV if someone in their family is watching (like their fathers).]

Yes you are right and that’s exactly what happened. My young son and daughter never missed a race since they started watching from the 2006 race at Monaco. My first experience watching a live race was around 1966 at the Thomson Road Grand Prix circuit, but that was only Formula 2. Now it’s a family affair yearly.

I am grateful that F1 has come to Singapore and Malaysia.


Hello James, you spoke in your article about Honda pulling out of the sport in 1992. However, I have a question regarding Mugen-Honda. I know that Mugen is not a Honda subsidiary and was established by a Honda family member, but were these engines developed in house by Mugen, with the Honda name being used under licence?


I believe they were Honda blocks that were tuned and developed by Mugen. I recall commentators discussing the different engine performance of the BAR and Jordan teams and putting it partly down to the former having works Honda engines and the latter having Mugen Honda engines despite them both being essentially the same piece of kit.


I never thought I would say this…. Indy car racing is 10 times more exciting than F1. Don’t even get me started talking about Aussie V8 supercars! For all of F1’s rule tinkering, they still are about 1, maybe 2, and on rare occassion 3 teams, duking it out for the title…This year’s title was settled WELL before the mid way point of the season… The decline of Japanese fans is emblematic of the snooze fest that is modern F1


James, is there a way to contact you outside of the comments?


James Off topic technical question affecting 2014.

How is oil, water, hydraulic fluid etc circulated in current F1 cars? eg is it by convection or pump? If pump, is it driven off engine or is it separate electrical pump?

This will affect heat level in pits in 2014, currently engine is running circulating fuel (used to cool exhaust in some I believe) but if engine stops then fuel vapour lock may occur.


5.11 Engine auxiliaries:

With the exception of electrical fuel pumps engine auxiliaries must be mechanically driven directly from the engine with a fixed speed ratio to the crankshaft.

That pretty much answers it. No real worries about vapour lock, but they might want to figure something out to keep the oil and water moving, if that’s thought to be an issue (it might not even be a problem at all).

Maybe the electric motor can also turn over the engine, even if it’s not firing; that way, it will get airflow through the engine to cool it and also circulate oil and water. They say the engine must be “off”, but it doesn’t say anything about it not rotating, as far as I know.


If SKY is unable to attract any additional subscribers as a result of F1, SKY will need to recover the cost from its existing subscribers through a premium higher priced service which will also limit the appeal.

So the question is: Can the UK public resist signing up for SKY? If so, F1 will back with terrestrial tv unless SKY is prepared to make continued losses.


Well this member of the public will definitely not be signing up for Sky.

F1 and BTCC are the only sport I watch on TV and I’m not paying SkySports a subscription to watch a few hours of F1 every month. BTCC is fortunately still available free to air although not in HD. It’s a pity Freeview HD doesn’t carry ITV4 HD.


Sky will not make a loss and F1 will never fully return to free TV. Look up the Wiki on “pay per view” TV. In boxing, the pay per view earnings per fight are absolutely enormous. If even a faction of the current F1 audience signs up to view the “other half” of the season, Sky will be rolling in cash. And many will; they won’t be able to resist.


The worst thing is that you can’t jsut subscribe for the F1 coverage alone. You have to have SKY sports. Also, because SKY cynically move coverage around between SKY Sports 1 and SKY Sports 2 from one month to the next, you have to subscribe to both in order to guarantee you get the full coverage. It really is appalling in that respect!

Also, I believe there is a monopolies law preventing companies like EMI and SONY from promoting and selling their own concert tickets, hence companies such as Ticketmaster. How come SKY don’t fall foul of this when touting their Pay Per View broadcasts? Essentially you are buying a ticket to view a broadcast from the company that owns the broadcast.


Please go to this page to prevent the same thing happening in the uk!/pages/Keep-F1-on-BBC/149121281832578 together we can prevent the loss of free to air coverage


No thanks. It’s a GOOD thing – paying for something is the real test of true fans (as opposed to the millions of freeloaders here in the UK). I’ll willingly pay and share my viewing with likeminded true fans.


LOL… F1 is a big advertising business – racing is very controlled, to ensure the sponsors all get value for their money.

Paying for adverts is just plain dumb.

F1 is dying for the very same reason – people want racing, not contrived racing for the benefit of the sponsors.


well fullblownseducer if you want to pay £50 a month to watch it in HD thats your choice.

But as a person who pays their TV licence and other taxes through work i hardly consider myself a freeloader

I haven’t missed a single live race in twenty years so yeah i’m dedicated

For your info if F1 goes from free to air in this country to pay TV it could damage the sport you say you are a true fan of but then again a comment like yours is just intended to wind people up anyway


Well everybody i entitled to an opinion but most of the experts agree that moving to sky will be very bad for F1 in this country.

part of the problem is the way sky i set up so you would have to pay £600 a year to watch the ten races you cant see on the BBC live. now if all you had to pay was something around the £20 mark that would be fair IE only paying for and receiving F1.

It would have been better recived if the BBC had said they will show full races delayed rather than highlights programs. personaly speaking if i could afford sky i would get it but i cant i have a three year old daughter to support and a wife who is being made redundant. so im being priced out of a sport i have followed passionately and defended for over twenty years. I also fear for the ability of the new sharing between sky and the BBC to generate new fans for the sport. A football match with Manchester utd only got 1.6 million viewers on sky at the weekend and that is the uk’s most popular club in the most popular sport ( dont like football personaly )so F1 is not going to better that


No, not intended as a wind up – just the truth (which many, many people on here seem to dislike hearing from the other side of the argument – the sense of entitlement in the UK is of Everest-scale proportions. I say: hey, welcome to the real world, people everywhere else pay for F1 coverage – why not the UK? – I’m happy to normalize things and pay like everone else – you’re arguing to continue being the exception to the rule (you might be the majority in the UK, but you’re a small, small minority in global terms.)


Hi James, interesting article there.

I think there’s one thing missing though. Back in Senna’s day Japanese football was a sorry affair, poor quality and poorly marketed. Since the establishment of the J-league though, football has gone from strength to strength with the Japanese team winning several Asian cups and doing decently in the World Cup, viewing figures have soared as a result.

As others have said, many casual sports fans in Japan are women and many of them are far more interested in football than F1. I think declining viewing figures is a problem that many sports other than football have had to cope with, including traditional ones like sumo wrestling.

As a result I’d be careful extrapolating what the effect of pay-to-view will be based on using Japan as an example.


I don’t think that the UK audience will decline by as much as people think because it isn’t simply a question of whether or not the BBC’s 6m viewers will rush out and buy Sky because a lot of them already have it! Many of Sky’s subscribers pay the fees because of the sports available already such as boxing, tennis, football, cricket and golf and it seems likely that many of them will be among the BBC’s F1 viewers. From now on they will simply watch it on Sky instead of the BBC so the real decline will only come from those sports fans who don’t already have Sky and won’t in future pay for it. Sadly, I agree with Sebee that these people are not the target market as they have shown that they either can’t afford, or are unwilling, to spend on F1 and associated products in the way that the sport wants.


Lack of participation by Honda and Toyota et al might have some bearing on the interest in F1 in Japan.- After all the Japanese are number 1 in the mainstream global car market.

Honda and Senna were a magic combo. F1 is thepoorer for the lack of Japanese manufacturers. With all the shenanigans in F1 these days I don’t blame the Japanese for not turning up. The F1 business isn’t fair or transparent enough to warrant the massive investment required to be successful in F1.F1 needs to adopt some green credentials to get the japanese interested.


The Japanese (Honda) were involved in the 60s and left. Returned in the 80s and left, returned in the 00’s and have left. Something tells me they will be back.


This of course is the biggest concern of the whole ‘pay tv’ debate. It is good money, but it limits growth, your analogy about boxing is perfectly true! I can’t name a single boxer and I can’t tell you when last I even HEARD someone talk about boxing, never mind when last I actually saw some boxing! Its like the sport has disappeared from the world.

Pay TV is fine, but it must be cheap, spread wide, mass marketing NOT cream marketing, (high price few buyers) with constant advertising in the public.

I would suggest €5 a race, available on the internet as a downloadable, recordable stream so that even slow lines make it available. Perhaps even a €1 post event download to make it really cheap to watch as a ‘non-live’ option.

Think Global CVC!

Adrian Newey Jnr

James – I think the decline in Japan is a reflection of the change in their culture. Anything automotive has taken a huge shift from performance orientation towards environmental bias. Similarly you have a generation coming through now that have no interest in cars, spending their money on other gadgets instead. You only need to look at the car sales figures and breakdown to see this change. Therefore in Japan amongst the younger generation, F1 (and cars in general) have started to lose their relevance.


One thing to note btw is that the free to air races in Japan are aired pretty much right after the race finishes. My friend pays for the subscription and when I got to watch at his place it always starts around 9. Another friend of mine she does not have the subscription and she can watch from around 11 if I remember correct. So it’s not aired a whole lot later and not at a very insane time of day either.

Also I doubt Japanese teams being involved or not has really anything to do with it. My japanese friends who like F1 are mostly into teams like Ferrari, mclaren and drivers like Hamilton etc. So pretty much the big names, just like the rest of the world.

Lets be honest, how much more would somebody care if there is a team from their country? You cant like the sport just because of a single team, you will like the sport as a whole. Having a toyota or honda there isnt going to turn somebody who doesnt care about F1 into somebody that does care.


Your friends are pretty avid fans that provide part of the stable base that James was referring to.

It’s the casual fans that read in a newspaper that Kamui is on pole and tipped to win the race, and then say to themselves “oh, I’d like to see that!”, and then tune in… but if they read that Kamui qualified 17th, they don’t bother.

And yes, it matters. F1 got significantly more coverage in Canada when Jacques Villeneuve was winning. I could read about it in papers… now the papers out of Toronto don’t even mention it when the Canadian GP is on.


F1 is far too contrived these days – Button/Brawn winning a WDC is the ultimate proof of that.

I too have lost my desire to put up with the terrible direction F1 has gone – the aero is extremely excessive, and drivers are handicapped by the cars – driver skill is almost entirely irrelevant these days.

It would be a safe bet to assume that F1 has lost its core audience, as it no longer offers geniune hardcore racing.

DRS was the nail in the coffin for me…


Here in the USA the coverage is on cable by Speed TV and it is pretty crap, especially the commentary. You cannot just have cable and watch F1, you must still pay extra for a bunch more crap channels… cannot pick and choose. So I have never paid for it and probably never will.

I get up at 4:30am to watch races live from Europe on my computer. Some guy in England or maybe India puts the BBC on line live for nothing. It is great coverage like you all see in England, but in the afternoon there. The only ones here at a decent time are Canada and Brazil. I do not know how it will all pan out with Sky etc. Bernie probably hates us for watching for free, and for a time they kept blocking the signal coming here for free. But somehow this guy has figured it out, and good for him. The BBC’s coverage is intelligent, ex-drivers who know what they are talking about, informed information, and it keeps me awake. It will be a shame if this all disappears. But Bernie is all about money and power, and for his type that is all that matters. Sad days for F1.


I’ve never had an issue with Speed’s coverage, and sometimes preferred it over BBC (or perhaps ITV? Can’t remember which it was when I had access to both).

One major advantage of Speed over TSN’s use of the BBC feed in Canada was a pre-race show that was longer than 5 minutes, and post-race coverage that didn’t abruptly end after interviews.

Also, Bernie probably realizes that completely free-to-air in the USA wouldn’t work, as none of the big channels (ABC, CBS, etc) would pay for it, especially with no commercials.


Report even a single mention about anything to do with the sport. This is counter productive, surely as it limits the ‘word’ as such, to some degree. Overall, the F1 picture is not rosy for various reasons. Lack of Japanese drivers, lack of Japanese teams or engines, etc. I feared that when Toyota got bored with it’s exercise, Fuji TV would also pull the plug but thankfully it didn’t. So it shows that at least there still is some value to be had from the brand in Japan, at least not at the levels of the Senna years, anyway.

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