McLaren threw down the gauntlet for an exciting battle with Renault for the constructors' title by setting the pace in practice rounds yesterday ahead of the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai tomorrow. The practice rounds, in smoggy conditions in front of sparsely populated stands, dangled the prospect of a thrilling showdown between champion Fernando Alonso of Renault and Kimi Raikkonen of McLaren, in a race which will mark the end of the season. Alonso and Raikkonen have unfinished business to settle when they start the 56 laps of the 5.45km Shanghai circuit. Twenty-four-year-old Spaniard Alonso secured the title in Brazil to make him the sport's youngest champion. His battles with Raikkonen have provided some of the highlights of the season so far, reminiscent of the classic encounters between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost back in the day. It's a face-off worthy of John Woo. Renault has won seven of the 18 races so far and is on 176 points, two points ahead of McLaren, which has won 10 - including the last six races. If both teams finish level, McLaren will prevail as Raikkonen has one more win than Alonso. Winning the constructors' title would be a bittersweet honour for McLaren. Raikkonen, nicknamed the 'Iceman', has won eight races and driven more fastest laps than Alonso. A win in Shanghai would make him the first driver to win eight races in a year without winning the title. 'I am prepared to battle together with the team to get the result we need. It is going to be an exciting race and we will all do what we can to take the title,' said the Finn. Without the novelty value of an inaugural Grand Prix to boost ticket sales, attendances look set to be down on last year's 260,000, including 150,000 for the race. However, efforts by organisers to push ticket sales are bearing fruit and earlier fears of a big drop in spectator numbers appear to have eased. 'Selling tickets for the second year of Formula One was always going to be more difficult than the first year,' said Rosemary Xu from Chunqiu International Travel, Shanghai's best-selling ticket agency. 'But even though conditions for selling tickets are not as good this year, we expect to sell about 90 per cent of last year's amount,' she said. A Huan, a local F1 fan club leader, has organised an outing to the track for 150 members and his colleagues were all fired up for a big weekend of racing, even though buying cheap tickets is a problem. 'Most members wanted the 370 yuan tickets, but it was very difficult as they stopped selling them about three months ago,' he said. The Alonso-Raikkonen tussle could mark a power shift in the sport after years of domination by Michael Schumacher and Ferrari. The Red Mist notched up just one win in the fiasco that was the Indianapolis Grand Prix. The large contingent of prancing horse flags during yesterday's practice sessions bore testament to just how popular the Red Baron and Ferrari are in China. Ferrari's Brazilian Rubens Barrichello, who was the fastest driver in the morning practice session, has not won since last year's inaugural Chinese Grand Prix. Schumacher, who has won seven titles and 84 races in all, is the oldest driver on the circuit at 36 and many believe the German's time has come. 'I have been champion for a long time and I am more surprised by how long it has been. I knew it would end one day,' he said. Longer term, officials believe younger drivers can replace Schumacher in the affections of Chinese race fans. 'Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso proved in Japan that their rivalry will light up Formula One for years to come,' said Yu Zhifei, the deputy general manager of Shanghai International Circuit. 'Their reputations are skyrocketing in China and they will attract more fans to the circuit,' he said.