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Chinese Grand Prix '04

“There’s big business to be had in China” a senior executive of a major sponsor told me during the long hike up to the main gates of the circuit from the parking area. “There’s so much more at stake than just grabbing the checkered flag first; it’s about getting in early,” he continued. Formula One’s big boys seem to agree and had already hailed Shanghai as the most important race on the 2004 calendar – despite the fact that Ferrari and Michael Schumacher had already wrapped up both world championship titles. I could almost picture Bernie Ecclestone, F1’s pint sized supremo, banging his fist on an FIA boardroom table saying “There’s gold there in them hills!” “There lies the future!” With that, he packed up his circus and headed East for what would be the beginning of the modern day equivalent of the gold rush, with over 300 million people waiting breathlessly for it to unfold live on television.

In a country of 1.3 billion people, where more than 1 in 4 people are addicted to smoking, it is little wonder why China is targeted to become the hub for the future of high profile motor sports. Days before the race, ticket sales had already approached capacity, with a claimed 80% of all tickets already sold. If you believe the figures, 30% of spectators for the GP came from Shanghai, 55% from other parts of China, 15% from the rest of the world and the remaining 20 people came from Castrol Philippines. Although China has no car racing tradition to speak of and the cheapest ticket cost a month's wages for the average worker, the state-of-the-art facilities, perfect weather and a close and competitive race won by Barrichello with an ailing Schumacher limping behind, appeared to be a successful formula.

Designed by renowned German, Hermann Tilke, the $300M circuit, loosely mirroring the Chinese character "shang", meaning upwards, packed in 150,000 out of a capacity 200,000 spectators, including more than 29,000 in the grandstand opposite the pits where we were seated. The track is incredible and features five punishing left hand corners and five right hooks and a massive straight spanning 1,175-metres linking turns 13 and 14. "It was designed with overtaking in mind," Tilke told Chinese media. "And we've included slow corners as well as fast corners, which will make it much more difficult for the teams to decide on a strategy." And that it did. Ron Dennis, McLaren’s big cheese, told F1Racing magazine that they had given Jenson Button his second place owing to a wrong call in strategy to slot Kimi in ahead of race winner Rubens Barrichello. “We exist to win,” said Dennis. “But our strategy didn’t work out and, in effect, we handed second place to Jenson”

There were more dramas on the track with Coulthard getting up close and personal with Ralf, giving the Williams driver a welcome back kiss after his 6-race absence from the grid, forcing Schumi Jr. to retire. Jacques Villeneuve made his comeback with Renault but only managed to excite his race engineer, Alan Permane, into yelling at him over the radio to push harder. He finished 11th. But none could compare with Schumi’s day. All his bad luck had funneled into one race. From where we were seated, it looked like Michael was driving the world’s fastest shopping trolley. The car seemed to have a mind of its own because asides from clipping Klein and losing it in qualifying, nothing else can explain his spin coming out of turn 13, which is banked and usually enjoyed with full throttle. Then there was Montoya.

JPM has struggled this year and needed to put in a solid performance before leaving the team. He was outpaced by his team mate all weekend, which was punishment enough, but managed to inherit 5th place from Ralf’s brush with Coulthard and a bungled pit stop, with a few valuable championship points and some dignity left intact.

Compared to Sepang, which is probably the fairest and closest comparison, Shanghai – as an event – has the potential to trounce its Asian neighbors. But there’s something missing. Sure, the track is world class and the weather was absolutely perfect, but it’s that intangible quality – that character or soul found in the more mature tracks in Europe or even the street circuit in Melbourne that leaves you wanting. It’s technically perfect but almost clinical. And the attitude of the local track staff does sour the experience. One local newspaper hit it on the head – it does lack participation from the fans; my best guestimate is that only about 20 % of spectators knew what was going on. The rest fell asleep. No big deal; this is par for the course for most inaugural events though it does seem a shame considering how many genuine fans would have given a left leg to be there.


The difference between the Australian, European and Asian races is huge. Motor sports is inbred and part of the culture of the Western world and attracts strong support from both spectators and sponsors. In Asia, especially Shanghai, it will take many years for the fever to catch on because, culturally, they have not been as exposed to motorsports. This makes a big difference in atmosphere. The advantages of the Asian races are that the facilities are second to none and it is comparatively cheaper. Australia has an incredible atmosphere because of their genuine passion for motor racing and that it is situated in a park. Gorgeous women stroll around in skimpy summer outfits and there's such a festive ambiance. I usually spend the whole day at the races, versus Sepang and China where you make your way out as soon as they finish spraying the champagne. There’s nothing left to do. Downside is, unlike the Asian tracks, facilities like toilets etc are a bit dodgy. A small price to pay.

I have to be honest; the inaugural Chinese Grand Prix was disappointing. Would I do it all over again? In a heartbeat. But that’s not my point. As I mentioned in my editorial last month, China has a long way to go before it can really woo the rest of the world. At the risk of repeating myself, it’s all in the attitude. Take the walk from the bus parking area as an example – its 30 minutes long! A little tiny foot bridge would cut about twenty minutes out of the hike. They are no provisions for passenger drop offs, either. Then there’s the expense. Right now, its popularity is just based on a numbers game. The edge will come from those that invest in customer service training.

Asia will eventually get there. What it needs is representation. Look at Japan. China, with its mind blowing population, will inevitably produce a local hero in the near enough future which will boost the sports popularity. It’s just a matter of time. And if I were a senior executive of a major sponsor, I, too, would want my foot wedged firmly in that door already. Just do the math.


Chinese Grand Prix
Chinese Grand Prix
Start/Finish grandstand seats facing the pits and podium
Start/Finish grandstand seats facing the pits and podium
Rubens celebrates pole victory
Rubens celebrates pole victory
Filipino Driver, Tyson Sy. Formula BMW Asia
Filipino Driver, Tyson Sy. Formula BMW Asia
Listen up, Tyson. Don't drink and drive. You're only 16.
Listen up, Tyson. Don't drink and drive. You're only 16.
There's something about the way she holds the lens...
There's something about the way she holds the lens...
Tyson Sy, Formula BMW driver.
Tyson Sy, Formula BMW driver.
Shanghai Circuit, looking at the main grandstand
Shanghai Circuit, looking at the main grandstand
Its just Juan of those days. JPM had a ho hum race.
Its just Juan of those days. JPM had a ho hum race.
Boy, are we glad this is over.
Boy, are we glad this is over.
A mixed crowd: But there were some genuine fans.
A mixed crowd: But there were some genuine fans.
What time will this finish?
What time will this finish?
Opening Ceremony
Opening Ceremony
Happy drivers
Happy drivers
Alonso has his place in the sun
Alonso has his place in the sun
A rare moment; JPM and Fernando shaking hands.
A rare moment; JPM and Fernando shaking hands.
A grand specatcle, Shanghai put on a good show
A grand specatcle, Shanghai put on a good show
Even the police were forced to shoot.
Even the police were forced to shoot.
Opening Ceremony
Opening Ceremony
Opening Parade
Opening Parade
Jordan need to find a new engine supplier next year
Jordan need to find a new engine supplier next year
Nobody takes my picture without paying for it first! I don't know what you've been told, but this show ain't free.
Nobody takes my picture without paying for it first! I don't know what you've been told, but this show ain't free.
Yes, that's right, I am now charging extra for parking. So, pay up, Eddie.
Yes, that's right, I am now charging extra for parking. So, pay up, Eddie.
Next year you better have a Cinese driver in there or else I'm putting up your fees
Next year you better have a Cinese driver in there or else I'm putting up your fees
Jacques Villneuve called in for the final three races. Word is that Flavio got so pissed that Jarno wouldn't sign an exclusive
Jacques Villneuve called in for the final three races. Word is that Flavio got so pissed that Jarno wouldn't sign an exclusive
These budget cuts are starting to get ridiculous.
These budget cuts are starting to get ridiculous.
Michael wouldn't pay Bernie's parking fee so he started from the pits
Michael wouldn't pay Bernie's parking fee so he started from the pits
The fastest car off the grid
The fastest car off the grid
Ferrari precision pit stop
Ferrari precision pit stop
GO! GO! GO!
GO! GO! GO!
Michael Magic wore off in Shanghai
Michael Magic wore off in Shanghai
Michael's Ferrari was all boxed in
Michael's Ferrari was all boxed in
The now defunct Minardi team
The now defunct Minardi team
Williams get ready
Williams get ready
Fernando sets the pace but misses out on the podium.
Fernando sets the pace but misses out on the podium.
Minardi will suffer from Ford's pullout from F1
Minardi will suffer from Ford's pullout from F1
Mclaren has really moved leaps and bounds to catch up to Williams
Mclaren has really moved leaps and bounds to catch up to Williams
Next year will be Kimi's year. JPM has no room for error
Next year will be Kimi's year. JPM has no room for error
Thats all folks!
Thats all folks!
Winners circle
Winners circle
An interesting thing to note...
An interesting thing to note...
I took about 40 pictures of the podium...
I took about 40 pictures of the podium...
Yet in each frame...
Yet in each frame...
It always seemed...
It always seemed...
That Kimi...
That Kimi...
had the same expression.
had the same expression.
Will Button ever get on the top spot this year?
Will Button ever get on the top spot this year?
We all know it won't be through a lack of trying
We all know it won't be through a lack of trying
Two in a row!
Two in a row!
Don't drop it, Rubens.
Don't drop it, Rubens.
 The winners of the Chinese Grand Prix
The winners of the Chinese Grand Prix
Victory spray
Victory spray
Podium position
Podium position
The emotional Rubens
The emotional Rubens
Number One
Number One
The winners
The winners
Hey Rubens, would you like to be team mates?
Hey Rubens, would you like to be team mates?
Get 'em next time, Button!
Get 'em next time, Button!
A neutral fan
A neutral fan
Local color
Local color
The weather was perfect for tight outfits
The weather was perfect for tight outfits
Prices were restrictive and made it difficult for everyone to get in
Prices were restrictive and made it difficult for everyone to get in
The prettiest promo girl I saw in the Chinese GP
The prettiest promo girl I saw in the Chinese GP
A horny Finn
A horny Finn
Coca Cola Promo Girl
Coca Cola Promo Girl
Michelin Promo Girl
Michelin Promo Girl
A couple of fans from Greece
A couple of fans from Greece
Russian fans
Russian fans
Till next year...
Till next year...
That's me at the Chinese Grand Prix
That's me at the Chinese Grand Prix
A chance meeting with Olivier Panis at the breakfast buffet
A chance meeting with Olivier Panis at the breakfast buffet