HEAD to toe in red, the little boy stands with his face pressed to the wire. Ferrari hat, Ferrari shirt, Ferrari shorts, desperately hoping to see his hero, Ferrari driver Michael Schumacher. Beside him is his brother, resplendent in the yellow of rival team Jordan, equally eager to see his favourite driver, Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

The reality for both of them is that they'd have had more chance seeing their heroes at home on television, as they follow one of the least accessible sports there is, Formula One.

F1 is in town, a corporate circus which circumnavigates the world from March to October. About 100,000 people are expected to turn up at Sepang International circuit, near Kuala Lumpur, for tomorrow's race.

They will spend two hours watching 22 cars fly round the purpose-built track at speeds close to 200mph. They will leave with the memory of a glamorous and exciting day out, but their heads will also be stuffed with subliminal images of a host of products, from tyres to motor cars, computers to energy drinks, wine to delivery companies.

At the sharp end of Formula One is a sport involving skilled athletes, men with superhuman reflexes, great stamina and the ability to handle the forces of speed. But behind that point is a trail which stretches back to the marketing departments of countless consumer companies. Every race is watched by 300 million people worldwide, the highest figure of any regular sport. It's only exceeded every fourth year when the Olympics and World Cup come into play. That gives the marketing men the opportunity to reach a vast global audience, their budgets could not normally extend to.

Formula One teams may charge millions for the privilege of getting a sticker on the hallowed racing cars, but given the potential audience, it's cheap at half the price. The power of F1 advertising cannot be underestimated. At a conscious level it is highly effective. A cursory glance at the crowd will reveal the Ferrari supporter smoking a Marlboro cigarette - the team's main sponsor - while the Jordan fan reaches for a Benson & Hedges. But at a sub-conscious level the effects are even more powerful, a fact I can testify to from personal experience.

A few years ago F1 cars were powered by motors constructed specially by obscure engine companies. Today, the mainstream car manufacturers cannot get on board the F1 bandwagon quick enough, as their industry goes into a decline caused by over- production. Daimler/Chrysler has just announced 26,000 job losses in the US as it strives to stay in the black. Its involvement in F1 with Mercedes and McLaren is pivotal, then, to keep the confidence of the buying public.

Honda is the might behind two teams this year - British American Racing and Jordan - and is the first to boast in its car advertising about the "Formula One" derived technology gracing its road vehicles. Toyota plans to get in on the act next year too with its own F1 team.

Renault powered one of the most successful teams ever, that of South Tyneside-born F1 boss Frank Williams, until a few years ago. It has been forced back into the fray and next year returns under its own flag. German luxury car maker BMW now has the privilege of powering Sir Frank's two race cars and will be hoping for a return to fortune on the track, which it can exploit in terms of sales. The Jaguar team is expected to increase sales not only of the luxury road car of the same name but also the Ford motor company which owns it. With so much at stake, it's understandable then that the "sport" is as controlled as it is.

F1 visits 14 countries for 17 races throughout the season. It costs millions to stage, and no expense is spared. As the F1 spectacle travels the globe, it's like an invading army, a country within a country, with border controls tighter than any in the world.

The fan is very much bottom of the food chain, ironic given that the whole circus is set up with their collective buying power in mind.

Buy a ticket in the cheap seats and that is where you will stay, on the periphery, tantalisingly close to the action but quite separate, demarcated by the colour of your ticket and the security guards which man myriad perimeter fences. The psychology is one of temptation, luring customers into extending themselves next time to buy a more expensive ticket.

Malaysia boasts one of the cheapest entry fees of the season at about £20 a head, but it's still a lot for the local populace who survive on meagre incomes. Europe sees the full might of the pricing regime. A reasonable seat at Monaco, for instance, will set you back £400, that's about £100 an hour for free practice, qualifying and the actual race. For British F1 spectators, Silverstone ranks among the most expensive.

Next step up the ladder is the Paddock Club, an area much sought-after because it's also where the world's VIPs are entertained (for free, though there is very little in life which is actually free). Price? About £2,500 for the day, which gets you access to the club's own enclosure, a meal and a quick flit round the paddock and the pitlane.

If you are lucky, you may get a few words with a driver, more often than not you don't.

The inner sanctum, and furthest removed from the average fan, is the paddock, where only the teams, a few of their most important guests and the Press can dwell. Entry is by pass only, a sort of credit card which hangs around the neck. This has to be shown to security staff at every perimeter fence, before entry.

To say these passes are like gold is an understatement. Press passes have to be applied for months in advance. Signing on at the circuit requires proof of identity in the form of a press card.

The fans are among the most clued-up of any sport and know roughly what to expect in the paddock, the images strengthened by television coverage. For them the paddock is utopia, where the rich, the famous, the glamorous hang out, which is why the attention to detail here is so great. The bitter irony is that many who gain entry to the paddock are not fans at all, simply VIPs on a corporate day out.

As for the two brothers, their dreams of being on the other side of the wire will have to wait - until they are rich or famous, or both.