INTERVIEW-Motor racing-Suzuka hoping to stay on F1 calendar
SUZUKA, Japan Oct 10 (Reuters) - Suzuka hopes to continue hosting the Japanese Grand Prix beyond 2011, even if the country's involvement in Formula One is on the wane.
"It's under discussion, but we would like to continue," Itaru Yamada, motorsports managing director of the Honda-owned Mobilityland company, told Reuters.
Mobilityland's contract with F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone ends in 2011 and the number of fans turning out has declined from 150,000 in 2006 to an expected 100,000 later on Sunday.
The Toyota, Honda and Honda-backed Super Aguri teams have all departed in the wake of the global financial crisis and tyre supplier Bridgestone is leaving at the end of the current campaign.
There are just two Japanese drivers on the starting grid, the points scoring Kamui Kobayashi at Sauber and Sakon Yamamoto whose financial backing is perhaps more evident than his talent at Hispania.
"It's been a tough environment for two years. The 'Lehman Shock' has affected fans and teams," Yamada said, referring to the 2008 collapse of U.S. bank Lehman Brothers that brought the global financial system to its knees.
"Despite the economic conditions, our ultimate aim is to increase the number of spectators ... to return to 150,000."
Ticket prices for Suzuka, which went through a multi-million dollar refurbishment before the 2009 race, average about 30,000 yen ($364.3) and Mobilityland said individual spectators had made up for weak corporate entertainment spending.
Hotels in the central Japan prefecture of Mie are fully booked.
Yamada said that when sales from hospitality, tourism and retail businesses are calculated, hosting was flat to marginally profitable but he gave no financial details.
According to government estimates, the economic contribution for Suzuka and Mie Prefecture was estimated at about 11.9 billion yen in 2006, and 29.3 billion yen for all Japan.
Kobayashi's performances have been a big boost this year.
Even torrential rain could not dampen the spirits of some 3,000 fans in the sold out "Kobayashi Corner" between turns two and three at the circuit on Saturday.
A Kobayashi goods concession, selling anything from 800 yen pins to 29,000 yen jackets, attracted a small queue.
"His Grand Prix success has been very helpful in bringing fans, and he and Sakon Yamamoto spent their summer holidays promoting the sport in Japan," said Yamada.
"We hope these efforts will bring Japanese companies back."
Suzuka, the birthplace of organised racing in Japan whose roads carry F1-named sites ranging from shopping centres to hotels, is also home to a Honda factory employing 7,500.
Yamada said many Honda staff would still come to the race, as well as fans from around the country, even in tough economic times.
"They're very faithful to this place," he said.
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury; To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org)
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