Chinese fans in fast lane

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 September, 2004, 12:00am

Catching the Grand Prix bug: A surge in private car ownership on the back of a booming economy has increased Formula 1's popularity among the wealthy and up-and-coming middle-class mainlanders

China entered motor racing's ascendancy yesterday with the inaugural Grand Prix at the Shanghai track and mainland fans relished the opportunity to experience the roar and the sensations of Formula 1 in the flesh.

The race, won with supreme confidence by Rubens Barrichello in the practically unbeatable Ferrari, marked the consummation of China's love affair with the automobile and around 150,000 people showed up to watch. Spectators said the race was a testament to China's emerging status.

'This is a great event, although it's a bit expensive. Maybe next time they'll make the tickets a bit cheaper,' said Li Yu, a businessman from the Sichuan capital Chengdu.

'You can see how China is getting richer and everyone has more money - it also means that things get a bit expensive. But this event has inspired me. Maybe next year I'll go to Italy, see how these guys perform in Monza! I've caught the Grand Prix bug.'

His friend, wearing the prancing horse logo from head to toe, nodded in agreement.

One little boy with his mother waved a huge Ferrari flag and shouted the team name.

'Ferrari Number One,' he yelled. 'Ferrari Number One. Of course they are number one. They wear red. It's lucky. That's what makes them number one.'

Actors wearing huge masks of the drivers wandered through the crowd. Predictably, German ace Michael Schumacher was the most popular for photographs, though the man they call Schumi had a poor race and finished 12th.

Jake Li, a student from Shanghai covered in Mercedes McLaren clobber, shook his head at the crowds queuing up to get their photograph taken with the Schumacher-masked man.

'I'm tired of Ferrari dominating all of this. McLaren are much cooler,' he said.

Gesturing around at the crowds walking behind the huge wall of the stands, he said: 'This is good for China, it's good for Shanghai, it's great. Though the tickets are pretty expensive,' he said.

The track itself was a big hit. Constructed to look like the Chinese character 'shang', which means 'to rise' and is also the first part of the word Shanghai, its final capacity is expected to be 250,000 spectators and will also include a theme park.

Designed by Germany's cutting-edge racetrack engineer Herman Tilke, who also did the Sepang track in Malaysia and the Bahrain circuit. There is no tradition of motor racing in China, but a surge in private car ownership on the back of a booming economy has made the sport popular among the emerging middle class.

'It's very beautiful, very, very beautiful. The spectators can enjoy it and it will also test the drivers,' said one Shanghai spectator, wearing a red polo shirt and a Ferrari cap.

'I've seen Grand Prix on television, but this is my first time watching F1 live. It certainly won't be my last.

'This will help give China a very positive image in the world and that's good for business. Good for everyone. We welcome F1 One.'

Brady Liang, a sports marketing manager for Formula BMW from Taiwan who used to commentate on F1 for ESPN, said he thought the track held up well to international comparison.

'This is all very exciting. I've been to Silverstone, I've been to Monza and I've been to Sepang and this compares really well,' he said. 'This is good for the whole country and it's great for Shanghai. It will teach people in China about motor racing culture.'

'China is a developing country but they need more cars and I can see motor racing developing quite quickly, particularly because the government is developing the sport,' said Liang.

Ferrari was also winning the merchandise race - the stand selling Ferrari stuff was thronged but the other teams' stands weren't doing as well.