x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The hustle and bustle is missing from the Chinese Grand Prix

Street hawkers are apparent but not everyone in China seems to embrace Formula One.

The flags were flying and fans cheering at the Chinese Grand Prix yesterday. But the colourful scenes are a far cry from downtown Shanghai.
The flags were flying and fans cheering at the Chinese Grand Prix yesterday. But the colourful scenes are a far cry from downtown Shanghai.

Outside the sprawling, soulless Shanghai International Circuit, 40 kilometres from the neon madness that is the city's downtown district, the famous Chinese entrepreneurial spirit is as omnipresent as the stifling pollution.

Hawkers of every age imaginable scuttle around trying to sell their wares. A haggard old woman offers earplugs for 10 yuan (Dh5). If you barter for a few minutes you can get them for two yuan. If you walk though the circuit's gates, you can get them even cheaper - they are distributed free of charge.

Along the street from the haggard haggler, a small boy no older than six sells binoculars to anybody who notices him tugging at their coat tails.

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More on the Chinese GP

Victorious Hamilton ends Vettel charge in China
Formula One Q&A: Adrian Sutil
Formula One notebook: After the Chinese Grand Prix
A stop-start day has Ferrari's Massa frustrated

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"One hundred yuan!" he shouts at you, forgoing any opening pleasantries.

Middle-aged men in slimline suits use fanned tickets to cool their faces under the midday sun: "Hello friend. You need VIP?"

The scene is a stark contrast to downtown Shanghai where any potential moneymaking from this weekend's Chinese Grand Prix appears unexplored.

"You'd struggle to find much promotion in downtown Shanghai," said Martin Whitmarsh, the chairman of the Formula One Teams' Association (Fota), who alongside the race organisers are responsible for promoting the event.

"We have to do more. We have fantastic worldwide TV audiences, but we have to work harder at the circuits. It's a similar story in Istanbul, which is where we go next. Go around Istanbul on a Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday and tell me how many billboards or advertisements you see."

In China, there may be no billboards, no flagpoles and no post-race entertainment, but the belief there is no interest was belied yesterday by the spectators who negotiated past the hawkers and through the circuit's gates.

Xiao Long, a 28-year-old racing enthusiast dressed in a black T-shirt sporting the slogan "Danke Schumi", said he believed 115,000 spectators had attended yesterday. More conservative estimates put the attendance at around 35,000. Either way, it was more than last year. Organisers, who have watched their gate receipts steadily drop since the inaugural race eight years ago, had out-charged their own countrymen in 2010 by demanding between ¥3,500 and ¥4,000, which the International Herald Tribune reported as the average monthly salary in Beijing. This year, race officials dropped prices by more than 30 per cent.

Xiao Long said he paid ¥2,000 for his passport into the grandstand, a colossal stretch of seating that overlooks the start-finish straight and claims a capacity of 29,000.

The stand is designed in such a way that, even when empty, it looks crowded courtesy of its scattergun approach to coloured seats.

Yesterday, while the grandstand in Shanghai appeared full and in motion, secondary support stands were covered in huge tarpaulin advertisements and sceptics spoke of Chinese military servants being bussed in from lands afar.

Regardless of such accusations - and the car parks full of battered green buses would indicate some element of truth - the genuine Formula One fans are, said Lewis Hamilton, exactly that: fanatic.

"Every year I've come here, the fans have been just incredible," he said. "We don't have too many - the grandstands are not full - but every year, the fans come to the airport. They are at your hotel, they are outside the restaurant at night, they are at the hotel when you come back. It's absolutely unbelievable. I've never seen anything like it."

With the United States returning to the F1 calendar next season and Russia scheduled to host its inaugural grand prix in 2014, Whitmarsh and Fota will have to improve their marketing abilities in countries that have not shown a pedigree for Formula One.

"F1 is used to going to new venues that don't really understand F1, but we are not good at promoting our sport in new territories," Whitmarsh said. "F1 needs the US; the US does not need F1. We need to learn that lesson before we go back into the US market. "

Evidently, downtown Shanghai does not need Formula One either. But on yesterday's showing there is profit to be made were the city to embrace it as ebulliently as the hustling street hawkers.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae