Shanghai cruisers yet to change gear for fast lane
On any given Sunday, convoys of cars can be spotted cruising at a frustratingly slow pace along China's quasi-country roads. With hazard lights blinking, and badges and flags proudly declaring brand allegiance, the urban-dwelling men and women behind the wheel are members of a rapidly expanding number of car owner clubs.
In the world's biggest car market, and in record numbers, the Chinese are taking to the road in scenes last witnessed during America's 1950s heyday for the automobile.
Today, organisers of the grandest, richest motor club of them all would dearly like to stop the gas-guzzling mainlanders in their tracks - and see them tune into the eighth Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai.
The success of today's event is crucial for the government-owned company that hosts the high adrenalin race in China, and for the F1 juggernaut and its sponsors, including new Shanghai title race sponsor, Swiss bank UBS.
All are desperately keen to see F1's popularity in the world's most populous nation pull out of the tail spin that has seen audience figures decline since the first race roared over the freshly laid tarmac in 2004.
After seven years of staging the marquee Asia event, the F1 fan base in this car- obsessed nation remains worryingly small.
The black hole into which China's car-adoring masses seem to disappear becomes apparent ringside, at the stunning Shanghai International Circuit, the US$350 million track designed to put China's premier glitzy city on the motorsport map.
Far from being the place where potential Chinese F1 fans should experience an awakening among the dashing young drivers, skimpily dressed models and the smell of burning rubber and high-grade oil, spectator numbers have shrunk since the inaugural race, and the event makes an annual loss.
Last year, thanks to a return of Chinese favourite Michael Schumacher, 155,000 fans showed up over the three race days - up slightly on 2009's low 120,000. But that's far short of the 270,000-plus who witnessed history amid the pit-lane razzmatazz and optimism seven years ago.
F1 consultants Formula Money estimate last year's loss hit US$34.4 million.
Audience predictions for this year can be described as modest at best - even with ticket prices slashed by up to 40 per cent, with the cheapest starting at 80 yuan (HK$95) for Friday's practice race.
'We think this year we will sell 150,000 or more. The premium grandstand tickets for the three days are priced at between 1,980 yuan and 3,260 yuan, and are nearly sold out,' says Leon Sun, the sales and marketing director of Juss Event.
Juss Event is the race promoting arm of the Jiushi Corporation the state-owned company which controls 80 per cent of the public transport infrastructure in Shanghai. It also owns various real estate, including the F1 circuit, and runs the Shanghai Masters tennis tournament.
Few can criticise the action on the challenging track, which, along with the buildings, was built from scratch in 18 months. The site was originally swampland and paddy fields, and required 40,000 support piles between 40 and 80 metres in length to be sunk vertically to provide secure foundations.
A layer of polystyrene topped off the concrete sub-structure - a requirement so vast that the entire available stock of polystyrene in Asia was purchased to facilitate the construction.
There were initial complaints the track was not up to standard. However, modifications ensured that more recent races have been dramatic events, producing a different winner every year.
The fast 5.45 kilometre circuit, designed by Hermann Tilke, tests drivers and their pit crews to the limit. 'I spoke [on Thursday] with the F1 race manager, teams and engineers. Everyone is happy with the track,' says Sun.
Yet overpriced tickets, poor public facilities (including transport), lack of understanding of the sport, and risible promotion campaigns have kept the crowds away.
The grand prix's reputation has also suffered the obligatory corruption scandal that seems to afflict the development of any sport in China.
China's F1 boss, Yu Zhifei, the circuit's general manager and government official who brought the race to Shanghai, was jailed for four years in 2008 for graft.
As the meagre crowd trickled out of the stands after last year's race, won by Briton Jenson Button, headlines laden with doubt appeared.
Shanghai officials said the financial losses could spell the end of the Chinese Grand Prix, the most expensive of the 20 annual races. They argued Formula One Management, which sells the rights to host the event, was overcharging for what was clearly faulty merchandise.
The city's deputy mayor, Zhao Wen, headed the Chinese delegation for the game of bluff and double bluff, and demanded a discount from FOM chief executive Bernie Ecclestone - and received one.
Ahead of the deal cruncher, Ecclestone shrugged off the host's grumblings and confidently predicted the FI caravan would pitch up in 2011. In February, it was duly announced the Chinese Grand Prix in the city will be a fixture of the F1 calendar until 2017.
'Many guessed that we had quit. But it was never a question of pulling out for us. We never thought we would leave F1. It's so good for the city,' reveals Sun. 'I can't confirm how much we paid [some reports suggest US$40 million]. Compared with other race contracts, the price is very reasonable and acceptable to our company and the government. It's complicated to break the figure down as it involves TV rights. It was not cheap but it was not unacceptable.'
One plus for this year is the completion of the Line 11 subway station that connects the circuit to central Shanghai in 45 minutes.
Former professional sports driver Matthew Marsh, now a Hong Kong-based motorsports marketing consultant, says the emphasis on ringside spectators is misleading. 'F1 is a sport best watched on TV. Attracting F1 fans into the stands at the circuit is vital for atmosphere,' he says. 'But ringside spectators are, if you will, the studio audience. What really matters to F1 organisers and the sponsors is growing China's TV audience.'
During the 2010 season, 527 million individual television viewers watched at least 15 minutes of one grand prix. 'China delivered 75 million of these, representing an impressive 14 per cent of the total,' says Marsh.
Yet television figures for the Shanghai race tell a different story, Sun says. 'They show the Chinese television audience is not increasing in significant numbers, and are not high,' he says.
Obviously, what would really draw in the crowds - trackside and onto sofas across the nation - would be a Chinese driver vying for a podium place.
How long before a promising Chinese passport holder is plucked from the convoys of Sunday car clubs and placed behind a high-performance wheel in Shanghai? Some time yet, it seems.
Dutch-born Chinese Tung Ho-pin flies the flag. The 28-year-old is in Shanghai as a test driver for Lotus Renault. And 26-year-old Cheng Congfu is also considered a promising native-born Chinese driver. He started racing go-karts at a young age - and then moved to Britain for academic study and received better driver training.
Both lament the unwillingness of Chinese companies to sponsor them.
'I think I'm capable of becoming a F1 driver. But motorsport in China still lags far behind that of other countries. We still lack a good racing atmosphere,' Cheng said last week.
Zhan Guojun, vice-president of the Federation of Automobile Sports of China, says the emergence of a Chinese driver to excite the masses, depends on whether any Chinese company is willing to fund a race team.
Indigenous corporate giants Sinopec (from the oil and energy industry), Lenovo (computers) and Aigo (consumer electronics) have sponsored the few large motorsport events staged in China, such as the Touring Championships. But their patriotism and faith in the sport ends there.
Marsh singled out the same problem for Chinese motorsports that blights the development of other sports in China - the lack of grass-roots facilities.
'Motorsport is not very accessible and that is something that needs to be solved. Like elsewhere in Asia, F1 has come in at the top, but there is nothing below. Initially there was very little in the way of go-kart racing, and so on. That is being improved - there's some junior level racing, but it's not very well run,' he says.
China needs more competition at the grass-roots level for the sport to bloom in the country, which in turn will produce more fans and champion drivers, he says.
Much to F1's disappointment, China's cautious Sunday drivers are unlikely to be pulling over to find a television set this afternoon.