Britain accelerates in race to win Chinese billions

As F1 drivers take to the Shanghai circuit, UK trade ambassadors will woo the country's businesses. By Russell Lynch

British driver Lewis Hamilton won pole position for today's Shanghai Formula One Grand Prix, but away from the track his compatriots were attempting to put UK plc at the front of the grid.

It's one of the busiest weekends of the year for UKTI, Britain's trade and investment body, charged with pushing British businesses into China and capturing inward investment from the cash-rich nation.

As the likes of Jenson Button and Hamilton flash around the circuit at 200mph in front of more than 100,000 spectators, UKTI's consul-general, Brian Davidson, and ambassador, Sebastian Wood, will entertain more than 100 chief executives, politicians and business folk, plugging some of Britain's biggest names. It's all about getting Britain's nose in front in the "global race" oft cited by David Cameron. "We're doing nothing but pressing the flesh for three days," says Mr Davidson.

Shanghai's $450m (£293m) International Circuit – turned from swampland into an F1 racing circuit in just 18 months in 2003 – is a symbol of the stunningly rapid investment phase which fuelled China's breakneck growth in the past decade. But the exhibition outside the centre and the host of British brands on display are emblematic of the future of China's economy, with an emphasis on consumer spending. With China by far the world's fastest-growing luxury market, it is ripe with potential for British firms.

In between gawping at the grid girls, F1 fans – many of them big spenders – will see a host of British names, from the car makers Bentley, Morgan and Aston Martin, to high-end luxury brands like Savoir Beds, and the royal milliners Lock & Co. The interior designer Clive Christian – seller of the world's most expensive perfume, at £1,300 an ounce – is also on display to tempt those hunting the ultimate status symbol.

"Economic development in China is now moving in the direction of our strengths," Davidson adds.

It's not all about Shanghai luxury. To coincide with the F1 circus, UKTI has been pushing Britain's advanced engineering expertise at three events in smaller cities: Nanjing in Jiangsu province, Hefei in Anhui and Hangzhou in Zhejiang. These so-called "second tier" cities each have populations of more than five million and are growing at a faster rate than the major coastal hubs. HSBC, Standard Chartered, RSA and Willis are expanding in Nanjing as the high-speed rail link puts the financial centre of Shanghai within 90 minutes' journey time. "British firms need to be looking more closely at second-tier cities because there is double-digit growth," Davidson says.

He has also been in talks with Zong Qinghou (left) the head of the food and drinks giant Wahaha and China's richest man, worth $11.6bn. He is looking to invest in British technology and bring UK brands to his retail malls.

The UK is currently number two behind France in terms of inward investment from China, although Cameron made it a priority after his 2010 visit. The UKTI is closing the gap with the help of a £300m budget. "We started a long way back but are rapidly catching up," adds UKTI's head of trade, Clive Allcorn. Britain is around two-thirds of the way towards a target of increasing bilateral trade with China to £100bn by 2015.

Davidson is optimistic Britain can take the chequered flag in this global race for China's billions: "Everybody is here but by being proactive we can still steal a march on the others."

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