Racing into a car culture
The world's top sports-car makers are turning to China to boost sales, and track series have become a vital part of brand-building, reports Anna Healy Fenton
'Racing improves the breed' is a quotation credited to Soichiro Honda, founder of the eponymous Japanese carmaker. As China increasingly embraces a 'car culture', it's also a way of improving brand awareness - critically important in a market where a manufacturer's heritage doesn't count for as much as it does in Europe.
That's one of the reasons high-end manufacturers such as Porsche and Audi are using exclusive racing series to show their products and build a stronger bond with current and potential customers.
Porsche have been at it for years. Racing is in their DNA and there are hundreds of Porsches competing somewhere in the world almost every weekend, in everything from historic rallies to famous events such as the Le Mans 24-hour race.
In Asia, Porsche have focused their racing activities for a decade on the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia, a series which caters for professional and amateur drivers all in identical Porsche 911 GT3 Cup cars, a car which, while a purpose-built racing car, has a direct lineage to what you can drive away from your local dealer. Audi are relative newcomers to the Asian one-make racing scene, with the Audi R8 LMS Cup being launched this year and focused exclusively on events through China. Porsche ventures further afield with events in Malaysia and Singapore, although the series has greatly increased its Chinese presence in recent years and is now administered by Porsche China.
Audi's launch of the LMS Cup was significant in that they chose China for their first brand cup. The series features their flagship Audi R8 two-seater sports car, which in its racing specification has proved a fearsome weapon on tracks across the world and dominated last year's prestigious Macau GT Cup race against opposition from the latest Lamborghini and McLaren supercars. Sixteen identical cars lined up for the series debut in Shanghai in April, with professional drivers such as Malaysian former Formula One driver Alex Yoong and Hong Kong's Marchy Lee Ying-kin being joined by several experienced Chinese amateur and semi-professional drivers. A sprinkling of stardust was provided by the presence of Hong Kong entertainer Aaron Kwok Fu-shing, an enthusiastic racer for many years.
It's hardly surprising that Audi is putting a big effort into promoting their premium sporting model and the range in general - Audi sold over 310,000 cars on the mainland last year, making it their largest global market and the first quarter of this year saw a 40 per cent increase over the same period last year. Like Porsche, Audi actively encourages the participation of their dealers and distributors in their championship. One is Erdos Xinan, the Audi dealer in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, which is home to one of China's most recently built racetracks, which will host the series in August.
Erdos Xinan driver Sun Zheng, 21, started racing go-karts when he was 15 and progressed to the premier Audi series via domestic single-seater and touring-car series, including Audi stablemate Volkswagen's Scirocco Cup series. He sees the series as a chance to gain experience before competing outside China. 'It's a great opportunity for young Chinese drivers to experience GT3 cars in China. If we are going to compete in a GT series abroad, we can get to know the cars better. It's very fortunate that we can race with experienced drivers such as Alex Yoong and Marchy Lee as we can learn from them.'
Sun sees benefits from racing for manufacturers such as Audi in promoting specific models and the brand. 'The market in China is getting more specialised by category right now. Manufacturers need to focus on specialisation - there are a lot of sports cars and the makers need to promote them through motor sport. For the manufacturers, I also think it's important to develop more Chinese drivers to enable them to compete in higher-level series against other carmakers.'
But anyone who has watched the Chinese Formula One grand prix on television, or attended the event live, will have noticed that it doesn't play to packed grandstands and commercially, it hasn't been a great success since its inception in 2004. If the sport's premier series can't grab attention there, why are manufacturers and other sponsors pouring money into motor sport on the mainland? Hong Kong-based Briton Matthew Marsh is among the best qualified to answer this. An experienced racer, who won the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia series in 2004 and still competes today, Marsh is also vice-president (partnership development Asia-Pacific) of Just Marketing International, a specialist marketing agency working solely in motor sport whose shareholders include WPP, the world's largest communications group.
'The majority of people in China do not have any interest in Formula One,' he says. 'But if you show them a picture of an F1 car, ask their opinion of what it represents, they will use words like technology, exclusive, international, sexy, dynamic - all of which are positive values to be associated with for most brands. China also has a growing car culture. There's no doubt about that. The car is aspirational and it represents freedom. China is now the world's No1 car market and we can see manufacturers investing heavily. One element of their marketing is through motor sport.'
Marsh sees the benefits of the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia, not only for Porsche but also for the many other brands who associate themselves with it through sponsorship of individual cars and drivers or as series sponsors. 'The Carrera Cup Asia is the region's most prestigious series for a number of reasons. It has always included two rounds supporting Formula One grand prix events - in recent years these have been at the races in Shanghai and Singapore, which are now the most important F1 races, commercially speaking, in Asia. These events are attractive to both the drivers and sponsors - it's always nice to be at a big event, even if you are the warm-up act. And because the series has existed for 10 years, it has learnt how to cater both to the serious professional and the more amateur racers. Porsche has been outstanding in producing customer racing cars, both to compete in their one-make series and also against other marques at races like Le Mans. Competitors want to drive in the Carrera Cup - the cars are relevant outside of the series.'
Despite having been successful for a decade and having attracted support from global firms such as Infineon - the series title sponsor in 2004 - and luxury mobile phone brand Vertu - who used it to good effect in building their brand in the region - Marsh feels the Porsche series is still something of an untapped commercial property. 'I have been fortunate to be involved with two consumer product brands that made use of the Carrera Cup in a most intelligent way: to build an association with the Porsche brand. Back in 2004, I raced for A-Ha coffee, who wanted to underline the imported nature of their product and there was no better way to do so than with a foreign driver in an imported car. Similarly, Budweiser is now the official beer of the series and augments this with a car in their livery driven by the most successful Chinese driver, Tung Ho-pin.
While other brands benefit from association with premium manufacturers such as Porsche and Audi, for the carmakers themselves, the important issue remains selling the actual cars. Hong Kong-based Jebsen Group are the longest established Porsche dealer group in the region and have been active supporters of the Carrera Cup Asia since 2004 under the Team Jebsen banner, winning the title in 2006 and 2008 with Hong Kong driver Darryl O'Young Yeuk-hay and finishing runner-up last year with Macau's Rodolfo Avila.
Derek Tong, general manager of Jebsen's Porsche Centre Hong Kong and Macau, sees their involvement as a key part of customer relationship building: 'In terms of customer relationships, many of our current and potential customers are obviously motor sport fans. So we take the opportunity to invite them to races and it's always a very exciting and positive experience for them.' Jebsen has always resisted the temptation to bring in an overseas 'hired gun' as their driver. Tong is adamant that this is a crucial part of their involvement. 'We feel it is very important that we find drivers who have a close connection to our home markets. Our drivers are involved in many of our activities outside of the actual race weekend - being instructors at driving school events, being a part of our local promotions, taking the opportunity to meet customers.'
Porsche and Audi have been joined by Lamborghini in running one-make series while there has been a long-established championship exclusively for Ferraris. With a growing abundance of racetracks on the mainland, it looks as though aspiring customers and ambitious racers are going to have plenty of opportunity to see the cars they dream of in action - and performance-car manufacturers can show off their wares doing what they were built for: performing.
Arrive and Drive - Allowing talent to shine through
Porsche and Audi provide drivers with 'ready to go' cars at each event. Audi's cars are centrally prepared by the organisers, but drivers still need to fine-tune the car and this is where experience can make a difference. As Audi racer Zhang Sun says: 'The cars are equal, but we still need to do specific set-ups for the cars. For most of us, it's our first time driving this kind of GT car, so it takes time to get to know how to set them up.' Porsche allows teams to bring their own engineers, an option chosen by most of the front runners, and although the changes you can make are limited, they can provide those vital extra tenths of a second. Porsche drivers have the option of utilising a centrally managed service operation, which handles all logistics, transport, preparation and on-track servicing, provided through the experienced EKS team. This makes sense for private entrants in the championship's Class B section for amateur drivers, but the EKS team have to burn the midnight oil when overenthusiasm gets the better of competitors.
The Enthusiast - Li Chao
Beijing-based Li Chao is the enthusiastic, but serious, amateur racer for whom Carrera Cup Asia represents the pinnacle of his racing career to date. The 31-year-old owns a successful food import-export business that allows him to indulge his passion for motor sport. He raced a 250cc motorbike in Beijing in 1999 before heading to Britain to complete his university education. Having spent a few years in the junior racing categories on the mainland on his return, he stepped up this year. 'I regard the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia as the most challenging and premier one-make series in China. We can compete with top professional drivers both from at home and abroad. I believe I will make great progress in my driving skills by racing in this series. I will not lose a race due to the difference in the cars. All I need is to focus on improving my own skills. This type of series is purely about racing and not about money or car modifications.'
The Chinese Hope - Tung Ho-pin
Tung Ho-pin is one of the great hopes for Chinese motor sport and has probably come closer than any Chinese driver to taking part in a Formula One grand prix. A former reserve driver for the Lotus Renault team, Dutch-born Tung has raced at the forefront of European racing and competed in the IndyCar series in the United States. But surely a China- focused one-make series is a step back? 'With racing opportunities in F1 very scarce at the moment and having spent two years as a reserve driver with the occasional IndyCar race, I wanted to go back to a full season of competitive racing. When the opportunity came to join Budweiser and Team StarChase, I took it. I had never had the chance to race in China and this was something I really wanted to do.' As the beneficiary of Budweiser's sponsorship, Tung is one of those lucky drivers who has managed to secure funding, something he clearly recognises. 'Sponsorship and motor sport will always go hand in hand and it's never easy. Of course there is now a huge global focus on China and at the same time it's great to see premium brands like Budweiser recognise the potential exposure and awareness of motor sport in Asia. This clearly gives a message of how motor sport in Asia is developing and it shows I was right to come back to race in Asia.' Despite experience behind the wheel of F1 machinery, racing Porsches has been no walk in the park. 'It's a greatly challenging environment for me. The field has been more competitive than ever with many specialist drivers. Despite my Formula One racing experience, I am new to all this, but so far, all is going as expected and finishing on the podium in my first race was a plus. Of course I am never satisfied without winning, so that's my major target.'
The Expat Professional - Alexandre Imperatori
Swiss Alexandre Imperatori, 25, is your classic racing driver. Having first sat in a go-kart aged four, he has never wanted to do anything other than race cars. As is so often the case, budget constraints meant that he had to look outside Europe for opportunities to fulfil his dreams. He is now based in Shanghai, competing regularly in Japan, but this year is focused on winning the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia - something which looks to be very much on the cards after winning the first four rounds. 'The Carrera Cup Asia is getting better with every passing year. The most important thing from my perspective is that the driver level has increased tremendously with a lot of fast guys fighting for the title.' Of course there are always things to improve, especially in a region where motor sport is gaining traction but is not quite established yet. Making the sport more popular and infusing passion is a priority, but the Carrera Cup offers a fantastic show for fans, especially this year with the reverse grid rule (the top eight finishers of the first race in each double-header meeting start in reverse order for the second race). Imperatori doesn't see one-make racing as a step back in his career ambitions either in sports cars or single-seaters. 'I don't see the Carrera Cup or sports car racing as incompatible with my single-seater ambitions. Racing in high-level single-seater categories such as Formula Nippon in Japan is the best way to stay sharp. This year, because of schedule conflicts, I had to make a choice and decided to focus on Carrera Cup and sports cars. I wanted to be part of the development of racing in Asia, and China in particular.'