Jenson Button has called it his “best ever victory”; but the organisers of the Shanghai Grand Prix will be struggling to match his superlatives.
Button may have triumphed in last Sunday’s race but once again attendances were down at the event.
The Xinmin Evening News reported that only 100,000 fans attended over the Grand Prix’s three days of racing; a decline of 30,000 from last year. The track has the capacity to seat 200,000 per day – suggesting it was at less than half- full.
In fact, since Shanghai first hosted the Grand Prix seven years ago, enthusiasm for the high speed event seems to have waned.
Qianjiang Evening News reports that when the race debuted in 2004 “the fans were so crazy” that they paid Rmb10,000 just for the parking passes nearest the circuit. It says that there were good attendances in the first two years but that, since then, interest has tailed-off.
As have entry prices – down from Rmb800 to Rmb380 for a standard ticket. But the cheaper tickets haven’t lured spectators: on this year’s opening day the newspaper reported that F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone was “dissatisfied” by the size of the crowd in the grandstand.
Last year the race also lost its main sponsor – Sinopec – and this year it was again sponsorless. This has only made the financial pain all the greater with Xinhua reckoning the annual event now loses Rmb200 million ($29.2 million) each year.
Indeed, Xinhua describes the race as “a heavy burden for Shanghai”. It says construction of the track cost the city Rmb2.6 billion, but estimates the total investment is much higher at close to Rmb5 billion.
The disappointing local buzz around the Grand Prix has led the Chinese media to speculate that the city’s seven year contract to host the race won’t be renewed. This was the last year the contract had to run, and no announcement was made at the weekend of a new deal.
Ecclestone, however, sounded upbeat. At last year’s event (see WiC12) he observed: “As long as there is China, we will be here.”
And this weekend he once again indicated this was the case, promising reporters he’d be back in Shanghai next year. Negotiations were ongoing. There were “no dramas” to worry about.
But when pressed on when the negotiations would conclude Ecclestone took on the impenetrable guise of a tai-chi master.
“When our negotiations end, there will be the result,” was all the billionaire Briton would tell Xinhua.
Formula One spokespeople are anxious to point out that attendances are not the only way a Grand Prix should be judged. They cite other statistics on things like increased hotel occupancy, and say the race is a boon for local tourism.
But for Shanghai – a city that prides itself on success – the hosting of the Grand Prix has unquestionably been something of a disappointment. It will be hoping that the other big international event it is holding this year, the Expo, will prove better at attracting bigger crowds (see WiC Focus issue 2).
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