They were the giddiest of times, so giddy the hubris was palatable. Cloaked in his distinctive mop of white hair and spectacles, Bernie Ecclestone was a diminutive septuagenarian who looked more like Andy Warhol than the consummate power broker. But appearances aside, by the year 2002 Ecclestone had become one of the most powerful men in the world of sport after single-handedly turning Formula One racing into a multi-billion-dollar property.

The British motoring entrepreneur had engineered a series of coups over the years to wrest control of TV rights for F1’s Grand Prix schedule and by 2001 had grown the annual TV audience to an estimated 56 billion in over 200 countries and territories. Every race was an invaluable, high profile opportunity for the host country to bask in the global spotlight.

At the time, Japan, with its rich history of automotive racing, had been the sole Asian presence on the F1 circuit until it was joined in 1999 by Malaysia. But there was a much, much bigger fish to catch for Ecclestone and his F1 monolith. Standing on a podium in Shanghai in 2002, they had finally reeled in the big kahuna. Bernie wanted China and China wanted Bernie.

China’s economy was growing like a wild weed and you simply were not a player globally if your company did not have a presence on the mainland. With the announcement that the first Chinese Grand Prix would be run on a brand spanking new, state of the art circuit in Shanghai beginning in 2004, F1 was finally on board. The TV numbers would be astronomical, and the financial returns? Forget it, man, dollar signs were dancing in F1’s head. There was more money under the mattresses in China than all the rest of Asia, so of course, Ecclestone should ask them to pay the highest fee of any race on the circuit. Just turn over a couple of mattresses and make it happen. See how easy it is to get things done in the new China?

Cheap champagne

No wonder the rhetoric was flowing like cheap champagne as proud Chinese organizers formally announced their ascension onto the global sporting world stage. “Shanghai will become the center of the car racing storm in China,” said Yu Zhifie, vice-president of the newly formed Shanghai International Circuit Corp. “A trend of car racing sports featuring new cars, new fashion, new culture, and new heroism will explode in China.”

Basking in the blusterous shadow of Ecclestone, Yu then declared: “I expect to make F1 into the biggest cash machine in China.” Never mind that, unlike Japan, China had basically zero automotive culture and that bicycles outnumbered cars 10-1. The new China would be smitten and intoxicated by the likes of the Ferrari and Mercedes racing teams.

Careless whispers . . . Former F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone has a quiet word with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Photo: AFP / Alexander Nemenov

In the beginning, the novelty was irresistible and 270,000 crammed into the US$240 million Shanghai International Circuit, which had been the most expensive F1 track when it was completed in 2004. But by 2009, there were only 120,000 spectators and the irrepressible Yu, having clearly fallen out of favor with the cadres in Beijing, was now in prison on corruption charges.

Organizers had been racking up losses year after year and the only ones making money were Ecclestone and company, so it was little surprise when the deputy director of the Shanghai Administration of Sports announced that a decision on the future of the event would be made by the end of 2009. They made it quite clear to Ecclestone they were ready to pull the plug entirely if the fees were not renegotiated. A truce was eventually reached and two subsequent agreements would be signed that now ensures the race will continue until 2020.

With the F1 roaring into Shanghai this weekend for the 16th edition of the Chinese Grand Prix, it is startling how the landscape around the event has changed since its inception in 2002. China is now the second biggest economy in the world and a global superpower of unbridled ambition. Their Belt and Road Initiative is a mammoth strategic undertaking involving infrastructure development and investments in 152 countries. It’s safe to say they no longer need F1 to enhance their global profile. As the losses pile up, it would hardly be a shock to see the China GP call it quits after next year’s race.

Sucker’s bet

As recently as 2013, there were six races in Asia with India, South Korea, and Singapore joining Japan, Malaysia and China. Today there are three, with India folding after only three events, South Korea after four and Malaysia finally pulling the plug in 2017, ending 18 years of F1 racing. The first night time Grand Prix through the streets of Singapore began in 2008 and basically sucked all the air out of the other events in the region.

It quickly became “the” race to see in Asia and continues to move from strength to strength while attempting to disprove that hosting an F1 event is a sucker’s bet. However, of the 21 races on the F1 World Championship calendar in 2019, only Montreal and Monaco are reputed to be making a profit. Even venerable events like the Australian Grand Prix needed US$75 million in subsidies in 2018 and therein lies the crux of F1.

By and large, only Formula One makes money and although he was removed as chairman in 2017 after their sale to an American group, it was a template that Ecclestone perfected. When governments in places like South Korea and India refused to financially bail out race organizers, the events bailed. One look at the races that have replaced them show that F1 prefers dealing with authoritative regimes, where lack of accountability means no resistance to pillaging public coffers. Small wonder Ecclestone has publicly made nice with the likes of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and Bahrain King Hamad bin Isa Khalifa.

Seemingly undaunted, in 2020 Vietnam will join the F1 spectacle having signed a ten-year deal to run the Hanoi Grand Prix through the streets of the nations’ capital. Despite the fact that the country has long run on two wheels, not four, with one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, the communist leaders are anxious to show the world the new Vietnam. Organizers are openly confident the emerging middle class will flock to the world’s greatest automotive show.  Sound familiar?</p