Over at GrandPrix.com, one of Joe Saward's favourite topics is the failure of Formula One to promote itself to the public properly. This may be true, up to a point, and certainly having on occasion tuned into a NASCAR race back in the days when they were on Eurosport, I can't help but think that if ever there was proof that marketing could make up for an underwhelming product, then the hugely popular American oval series was it.
However, one can't really claim that Formula 1 has too low a profile. It has substantial TV coverage over the world, it gets some prominence in the sports pages of serious newspapers in Europe and South America, if not in the US or Canada. Plenty people who have no interest in the sport whatsoever nonetheless know exactly what it involved, and will more than likely be familiar with the name Michael Schumacher, if not necessarily with any of the rest of the field. There is much that is wrong with the promotion of F1 - but it relates more to what happens to the fan once he is through the gates - and in particular, in my view, to the dire quality of the support package for many F1 races, than any lack of awareness of the existence of the sport.
Contrast that with many other motor racing series around the world. How many people, even in its home country of the US, really know what the difference between the Champ Car Series or the Indy Racing League is? How much of a celebrity is America's newly crowned IRL champion, Sam Hornish? And how many of them will even have heard of the French double Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais? No wonder Monsieur Bourdais hints so frequently that, in an ideal world, he'd really rather be in F1.
The situation is perhaps a little better in Britain, but maybe not so much. Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon, who came within a countback of winning a second title this year could almost certainly wander up and down the centre of any town in the UK for hours before anyone would recognise him. And how many people, other than regular readers of the specialist press, are aware that Britain is home to a double world touring car champion who looks like he has every opportunity to make it three in a row?
I suppose, in the case of the World Touring Car Championship and the Indy Racing League, there is at least the mitigation that these series are not aired on terrestrial television and take place, by and large, outside the UK, and the blame perhaps lies elsewhere (and come to that, the UK round of the WTCC got a very good crowd this year, despite the unseasonably appalling weather.) On the other hand, are our national series in any better state? When is the last time that there has been a decent crowd at a round of the British F3 Championship? There's been an intriguing battle between the (to my mind rather underhyped) Mike Conway and scion of the Senna family, Bruno, but only if you read Autosport or Motorsport News would you know.
One series which does know how to promote itself here in the UK is the British Touring Car Championship, and this was brought home to me the other weekend, when, ahead of the championship's annual visit to the small but deceptively difficult Knockhill circuit, a street display was run behind the back of Edinburgh Castle for 2 hours on the Thursday evening.
Now, for a grizzly cynical motorsporting purist like myself, I have to admit that the sight of touring cars going up and down the rather narrow confines of Johnstone Terrace at maybe 80-90mph is not exactly overwhelming, and my main reason for attending was that a) it was an opportunity to try out my newly acquired Fuji S9500 camera (judge the results for yourselves) and b) it was five minutes' walk from my flat.
For those less familiar with the sport though, the sight of some of the more aggressive drivers showing what their cars can do might just spark their interest. There was a good crowd there, the teams were handing out the promotional gear, and the drivers were on hand to sign autographs and to simply chat with the fans (a particular thumbs up, by the way, to elder statesman Mike Jordan, who talked enthusiastically for some time). For people like me, it was a chance to see the cars up close, and to hear one or two tales of interest. Mark Proctor's travails in keeping his Honda Civic on the grid almost deserve an article in themselves and was anyone else aware that Gavin Smith is apparently bringing £500k of personal sponsorship money in exchange for his drive at Triple8 Vauxhall? I thought that was GP2 territory, moneywise.
The point of events like these, though, is not what they can provide for the serious fan - but that they spread the word to people who might not have the faintest idea that there was a race happening 10 miles from their home at the weekend at all. People who might think it will make a good family day out, or a pleasant change from an afternoon on the terraces (and if my last experience of a football match is anything to go by, a pleasant surprise it would indeed be.) Sure, there are things that could be done better - a longer strip down which to run the cars would have enabled them to build up a rather more impressive head of speed (Holyrood Park anyone? People with very long memories might remember Autosport's April Fool which involved its transformation into a Grand Prix venue back in the 1980s). While they might not be of interest to the kind of obsessive fan who reads every word of the specialist press, such events will help to attract the casual fan. And events like these are much cheaper, and often a much better spectacle for the casual fan than the supposed "pinnacle of motorsport". But not if nobody knows about it.