The news that Bridgestone is to quit Formula 1 is the latest announcement in a series of similar decisions from Japan. In recent months the sale of new cars in Japan has sunk to a 32-year low in part because of the economic troubles in America and in part because of Japan’s shrinking population. The high value of the yen against the dollar means that profts from America are worth less and things have got so bad that the industry is now looking to shift production out of Japan and, at the same time, is looking for alternative markets in the Middle East and Asia.
This year’s Tokyo Motor Show, normally one of the biggest in the world, was a shadow of its former self with no major international brands exhibiting and the floor space half what it was two years ago. The only good news in the industry at the moment is that reduced taxation on hybrids and other cleaner cars has led to an increase in this sector and the Japanese car makers have been scrambling increasingly into that market. Hybrid vehicles are becoming part of the mainstream.
This trend, however, means that the involvement in high profile areas of the sport appears to be considered less important than once it was. There is no serious global competition for hybrid/electric racing cars and so the move in that direction is bad for the motorsport in its current form.
In December last year Honda quit F1, Subaru and Suzuki quit the World Rally Championship. Mitsubishi announced soon afterwards that it was stopping its highly successful off-road programme with the Dakar Rally.
Nissan has stopped its activities in South Africa, where it was a big player in the national rallying and production car series. The company however continues to race in the Japanese GTs and says that motorsport is an important part of Nissan’s strategy for building a strong brand and is “a dynamic proving ground for automotive innovation”.
Having said that Nissan supports a lot of grassroots racing around the world, a strategy which Mazda also uses, particularly in the United States where the company claims that there are more Mazdas racing on any weekend than any other brand of vehicle. These include series for MX-5 Miatas, RX-8s, Mazda 3s, Mazda 6s, RX-7s and other vintage Mazda models. The Miata is reckoned to be the most-raced production car in the world with nearly 1500 of them appearing in SCCA events across the US each year. Mazda also sponsors the Laguna Seca raceway and the Skip Barber Schools, for racing and for safe driving.
Toyota has axed its support of a Japanese Grand Prix at Mount Fuji but remains the Japanese company with the biggest global motorsport footprint at the moment with its high profile NASCAR and F1 involvements. Honda remains the sole supplier of engines in the Indy Racing League. With no opposition in the series it concentrates on minimizing costs instead of competitive development and the engines each last 1200 miles between rebuilds. They are leased from Honda at a cost of around $2.9m per season per car. In the future there are plans for a new engine formula with several manufacturers apparently interested, but these have been delayed until 2012 at the earliest.
The Formula 1 world has made some token gestures towards being seen to be green but it is clearly not enough to convince anyone. This is a problem that needs to be addressed as if F1 does not make a move in that direction someone else will and that will attract manufacturers. We have seen that already at Le Mans where Audi and Peugeot have gained a lot from their diesel development for the 24 Hours. Le Mans problem is that while there is a serious of races other than Le Mans there is no great interest in them. Only the 24 Hours is big. There is a similar problem these days with Indycars as it is fair to say that the series survives only because of the interest that exists in the Indy 500.