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Ferrari looks east for business and a future F1 driver

  • Michael Smith of Motorsport Australia speaks exclusively to SportBusiness
  • Sydney Motorsport Park selected to host the prestigious Ferrari Driver Academy
  • Ferrari aims to foster the next generation of F1 talent in Asia Pacific

Ferrari and Motorsport Australia recently announced they would work together on the first Ferrari driver academy programme for the Asia Pacific/Oceania region based at Sydney Motorsport Park.

From a commercial viewpoint, finding an Asian Formula 1 driver would bode well for Ferrari, F1 and motorsport more broadly. While Asia has produced several F1 drivers to date, such as Japan’s Kamui Kobayashi, Malaysia’s Alex Yoong and Indonesia’s Rio Haryanto, an Asian driver has not yet managed to secure a seat behind the wheel of a Ferrari car in the series.

Michael Smith, director of motorsport and commercial operations at Motorsport Australia, told SportBusiness this week: “We see this as a development opportunity for the region’s best young drivers to get a head start in their motorsport careers. As the FIA affiliate in Australia, MA has a responsibility to promote the sport locally and give young drivers the opportunity to further their talents and build what will hopefully become a lengthy career in motorsport.”

The new academy will have a vast hinterland from which to source driving talent. As well as the domestic Australian footprint, drivers aged 14-17 from countries in North, East and Southeast Asia, as well as the Indian subcontinent, will be eligible to take part in the FDA.

“We are still finalising details on how potential entrants will qualify/audition for a place at the academy but there will be a registration process that will include working with the relevant accredited national sporting authorities in our region to identify emerging talent,” Smith says.

“This process may also include online interviews with the relevant academy staff prior to the program beginning in Sydney.”

At the end of the programme, the best two drivers will head to Italy and Ferrari’s Fiorano test track to compete against drivers from other arms of Ferrari’s academy for a seat in the European Formula 4 Championship.

Motor racing is arguably the most expensive of all sports to enter for aspiring young competitors. Children normally start racing from a young age on go-karts. The costs rise significantly at each level upwards.

Smith said MA would be working with FDA “to ensure the costs of participation are kept to a minimum.” He added: “Like other sports in Australia, we are hopeful there will be some government funding allocated to the programme to help our region’s best prospects show their skills, which will of course help subsidise the cost.”

Government support

The FDA will be part of the new MA Centre of Excellence at Sydney Motorsport Park. Construction of the centre is to begin in the coming months.

In late May, the MA inked a one-year agreement with Ferrari to establish the FDA programme at the complex. As part of the deal, MA will provide the required hardware for the programme, such as simulators and its fleet of Formula 4 cars.

“The MA Centre of Excellence which will house the FDA will cost A$6.4m (€3.9m/$4.3m) to construct,” Smith says.

“However, during the most recent Australian election campaign, the NSW State Government committed to a A$33m upgrade to Sydney Motorsport Park,” he adds.

That deal means the facility will also be used for other motorsport purposes. “We also envisage that the Centre of Excellence will allow us to conduct international training for race officials in Australia.”

MA has a strong background in the international training space, and has trained officials for the Grands Prix in Singapore, Korea, Russia and Vietnam, as well as delivering other training programmes for Australian and international motorsports officials.

Staffing at the FDA is still to be determined, but Smith says MA expects to make use of the staff within his organisation to run this programme alongside Ferrari staff.

Commercial angle

Across Asia-Pacific, sales of Ferrari road cars are booming. In recent years, markets such as China, Taiwan, Singapore, Australia and Japan have been increasing their year-on-year sales.

In an effort to boost sales in China last year, the Italian manufacturer launched an experiential pop-up store in Shanghai for the inauguration of its new car, the ‘F8 Tributo’.

Clearly, the Asia-Pacific region is of crucial commercial importance to the firm, which became a publicly-traded company on the NYSE in October 2015. Discovering future racing talent from the region could buttress its business operations.

Asian sports stars, bringing hundreds of millions of followers from the region, can unlock large revenues for sports properties associated with them. In just one recent sign of this power, Japan’s Naomi Osaka was recently named as the world’s highest-paid female athlete, earning $37.4m in prize money and endorsements in 2019 according to Forbes.

For Ferrari, the potential in the combination of running a top F1 team with a competitive Asian driver fighting for podium places is immense.

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