With a Raceway, China Motors Toward the Modern Age
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
New York Times September 26, 2004
SHANGHAI, Sept. 25 - What does a city with the world's fastest trains, some of Asia's most spectacular buildings and China's best-dressed people do for an encore?
Why, introduce Formula One racing, and kick it off with a bang.
For many developing countries, something so extravagant would have made easy prey for satirists, who would have rained white elephant jokes upon the event. But in China, which lacks a free press, when the government is so firmly behind an idea, open satire can be in short supply. Any mutterings by residents have largely been in private, or on the World Wide Web.
Once Shanghai, with the can-do spirit that defines the city, set its sights on the Formula One project in 2001, no effort, nor, it would seem, any amount of money, was spared to bring big time auto racing here. It will arrive Sunday, and fans and organizers say the city is ready.
"Officials of the host city have been on field trips to a lot of other cities that have F1 racing over the last few years, and they have absorbed a lot of their expertise," Pan Yongyong, a frequent commentator on television about racing, said in a telephone interview. "I am at site right now, and I can assure you that although there are some last-minute details to work out, everything will be in tiptop condition."
The world's top drivers, most of whom are racing here, were even more gushing. Michael Schumacher, the reigning Formula One champion, declared it "the best race track I have ever seen.'' That is a good thing, one might say, given that construction of the 3.3-mile track on former swampland 18 miles west of Shanghai is said to have cost $300 million. The track, with two long straightaways and a series of loops and sharp curves, includes seating for 200,000 spectators under a sleek, wing-shaped roof.
The design is considered one of the most technically advanced and challenging on the Formula One circuit. At a cost of about $100 million per mile, no one could be blamed for expecting a pretty special roadway.
In truth, the $300 million - all state money - barely represents the tip of the iceberg in Shanghai's racing ambitions. Local governments built six roads to the track that cost more than the raceway itself.
The roads and the raceway are part of a far grander project, projected to cost about $5 billion, to create what is being called the Shanghai International Auto City. A gleaming new racing and automotive development complex, the project, which is still a work in creation, is intended to anchor China's embryonic car culture here and place it at the forefront of yet another shimmering dream: creating Chinese car brands and conquering the world with them.
"China is in the learning process right now, and we must go through that phase first," said Mr. Pan. "Although we still depend on some key foreign technologies, the distance is getting shorter, and we are reaching the state where we are going to be able to make our own contributions on intellectual property rights, which is what it is all about."
Mr. Pan, a racing fanatic since his childhood, when Formula One races were first broadcast in China, acknowledges that there are few racing devotees here. Although foreign manufacturers are heavily investing to increase production, there are only 10 million cars in this country, a paltry figure in a nation of 1.3 billion people.
That has not stopped race organizers from making rosy predictions of big profits just around the bend. "China needs F1," Yu Zhifei, vice president of the Shanghai International Circuit, told Southern Breeze magazine. "Pursuing dreams can produce miracles. The miracle of F1 is first capturing billions of people's attention. Then comes the push to a country and to a region's economy or world influence. All of these come from the power of the F1 dream."
In a China fresh from its success in the Olympics, and in the thick of preparations to hold the 2008 Games in Beijing, a sort of national sports mania has gripped the country. There is a determination to be world class in whatever the form of competition, almost no matter what the cost. In most cases, simply invoking the glory of China is a sufficient justification for the expenditure.
In that respect, the timing of the Formula One circuit's arrival in China could hardly have been better.
The Chinese press has been filled with enthusiastic commentary about the event, while questions about its cost, when raised at all, have been raised subtly, squarely between the lines.
In online discussions, carried out in anonymity, there were harsher criticisms. "Another maglev?" read one comment on a popular Internet bulletin board, comparing the F1 track to Shanghai's costly and underused high-speed airport shuttle.
Another comment was more indignant. "On the one hand, many poor children have no money to go to school and hope for help," the author wrote, citing the money allocated to the project. "The central government only allocated $60 million for Sichuan's flood - is that fair?"
The residents' comments raise enough questions to make any promoter anxious about what might happen after the novelty of the first big race rubs off.
"This is a symbol that a growing metropolis like Shanghai will sooner or later reach for," Zhou Yunfei, a 30-year-old computer programmer said proudly, though adding that he was not really interested in the sport. "Still, it is not as important as Beijing getting the Olympics."
He Xiang, a 28-year-old migrant worker from Anhui Province sat nearby, a living reminder that hundreds of millions of Chinese dream more about being able to make a comfortable living than about grand entertainment. "I've heard people talking about F1, but I don't like it," he said. "I don't understand it, and I don't have time to pay attention to it. First, I have to find a stable job."