Right track?

Attendances up at F1 race in Shanghai last weekend

Right track?

The best driver in China: Ma Qinghua

On the eve of Shanghai’s grand prix, Star Sports sent a crew to the city’s busy retail district along the Nanjing Road. The reporter picked random shoppers and asked them about their favourite Formula One driver. It didn’t go too well, with vacant stares the common response. Not one respondent could recall a Formula One star, although one man did suggest that his wife was a very good driver.

Formula One has struggled to capture the imagination of ordinary Chinese, and in WiC57 we noted that attendances at Shanghai’s grand prix had dropped to 100,000 in 2009 (the figure is calculated over the entire three day period). That may not seem too bad, but when Formula One held its first grand prix in Shanghai in 2004, there were 260,000 spectators. F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone was said to be frustrated at the sight of the half-empty stands two years ago, but things have since perked up. Last weekend, around 185,000 spectators turned up, which was an improvement on the 163,700 who bought tickets in 2011.

The starting grid this year included six F1 champions (Alonso, Button, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Schumacher and Vettel), a line-up that seemed to promise a dramatic race.

And there was drama on the day. The legendary German ace Michael Schumacher retired after 13 laps when a wheel fell off his car after an error from his pit crew. Jensen Button’s chances of victory were also scotched by problems in the pit lane (a pneumatic wrench failed), costing him valuable seconds. Lewis Hamilton’s hopes of gaining a third victory in Shanghai were also dashed by a penalty in qualification that cost him five places on the starting grid.

Against expectations, none of the former champions won. Top spot on the podium this year was taken by Nico Rosberg, with the 26 year-old German winning his first ever grand prix.

And it turns out it proved to be a historic victory too. Rosberg’s Mercedes team had not won an F1 race since 1955. The German car manufacturer had other reasons to celebrate: it made the engines for the cars that came first, second and third. That’s a welcome PR victory for Mercedes in the increasingly competitive Chinese auto market, boosting its ‘high performance’ credentials versus fierce rivals such as BMW.

So a commercial boon for the Stuttgart-based carmaker, perhaps, but what of for Shanghai itself?

Last year the city signed a fresh seven-season deal to host F1, although many still query the benefits that this brings to the city.

Guangzhou Daily, for example, calls Formula One a “crazy money-burning event” for Shanghai’s local government. Xinhua also estimates that the track cost taxpayers Rmb5 billion to construct and still requires maintenance each year that runs into the tens of millions of dollars. Plus each year the city has to pay $30 million to Formula One for the privilege of hosting the race too.

Guangzhou Daily recognises that all F1’s host cities bear high costs for their races but notes that the “car-racing culture” in China is relatively weak. As such, Shanghai’s is a money-losing deal”, it calculates, because attendances are not big enough to recoup costs.

The race’s local promoter, Shanghai Juss Event Management, refutes such negativity. It reckons that the F1 event has created over Rmb10 billion of economic benefits for the city since 2004 – shared between airlines, hotels, restaurants and other industries.

Land prices around the circuit have also appreciated, it claims, helping local residents. General manager of Shanghai Juss, Jiang Lan, also adds that “the economic significance of F1 is secondary, and what is more important is the role of the race to promote the city’s image around the world.”

But the challenge for Bernie Ecclestone and F1’s management team is to get more of that crowd along the Nanjing Road interested in the event. With this in mind, the sport would dearly love to get a Chinese driver onto the circuit, as a local hero would unquestionably boost domestic interest in F1.

WiC has previously reported on Tung Ho-pin, an early hope (see issue 40). So far he hasn’t made it to pole position. And while ethnically Chinese, Tung is actually Dutch- born, and probably therefore not the perfect candidate to inspire fervour at home.

The Beijing News reckons a better prospect could be Ma Qinghua, whom it describes somewhat loftily as China’s “iconic figure in car racing”.

Ma has just joined the Spanish HRT team and is a “driver of great talent,” according to team principal Luis Perez-Sala. “We have decided to nurture him,” he told a media briefing in Shanghai last week

The 24 year-old got his start in the sport driving a Rmb50,000 go-kart bought by his family in 2000. Last year he won China’s Touring Car championship. “The sweat and effort has finally paid off,” Ma annnounced, after being signed by HRT last month.

But the chances of Ma winning a grand prix remain some way off. He’s joined the Spanish team’s development programme, which means he’s not going to be racing in either of its competing cars. And even if he were, the HRT car isn’t fast enough to win. The team only joined F1 in 2010. Indeed, it says something of its ambitions that Perez-Sala proclaimed himself happy that both cars actually finished the race in Shanghai.

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