Four wheels take over from two as F1 fever grips China

The motorsport circus finds itself at home in a city of brash superlatives and conspicuous consumption
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The Independent Online

Tickets for today's Formula One grand prix sold out like hot mooncakes weeks ago, but luckily another circus hit town this weekend.

Tickets for today's Formula One grand prix sold out like hot mooncakes weeks ago, but luckily another circus hit town this weekend. At the Shanghai Wild Animal Park, 300 representatives from 30 species across China are competing in the Third National Animal Games. To hoots of human derision, llamas try to steeplechase, an elephant suffers tug-of-war with teams of schoolboys, and two black bears, "Little Tyson" versus "Little Lewis", are gloved, dressed, forced to stand and made to box.

Such exotica as boxing bears still send the masses cycling home with a smile, but the nouveaux-riches riding an urban hyper-boom demand a stronger, faster stimulant. Formula One delivers a powerful dose of speed and status to a nation busily swapping two wheels for four. "When I heard the engines roar from outside the track, I ran all the way in with my heart racing," panted first-time spectator Zheng Baisheng at yesterday's qualifying session. "F1 will be very popular in China because we are buying cars now and we respect the latest technology." Zheng shows less respect for the speed restrictions when gunning his Shanghai-made Buick to 110mph on China's quickly lengthening motorways.

Jaded Europeans may wince at the sport's arrogance, draped in tacky, leggy 1970s-style "glamour", yet F1 still seduces vast audiences. Elitist, exploitative, backed by tobacco barons, it could fit modern China as snugly as Schumacher's driving gloves. Far from the spoilsports of the West, the bosses of F1 have found the last frontier, and the potential makes them gasp.

In bitumen, steel and concrete, on the marshland of suburban Shanghai, workers have carved the greatest calligraphy on earth - a 3.4 mile, £200m racetrack in the shape of shang, "to rise", the first character of Shanghai and a signpost to the future of motor- sport, and the world. Hyperbole comes easy in this city of brash superlatives. Besides the world's fastest train and tallest hotel, the globe's highest building will soon stretch above an already congested skyline.

Down at street level, conspicuous consumption feeds a brand frenzy. Mooncakes with gold leaf filling sell for £700 or more ahead of this Tuesday's Mid-Autumn Festival. Hustlers tempt pedestrians with faux Gucci and Prada, but the new elite prefer the real thing. Louis Vuitton opened a massive flagship store this week with the same film celebrities and Olympic stars who dazzled at Friday's Grand Prix ball, where the "F1 babes" went down a storm.

In a skin-tight little black dress, 27-year old Sun Wen decorates an F1 chassis at an exhibition in the People's Square, central Shanghai, and dreams of buying her first car. "I earn 200 yuan [£12] a day doing this," Sun revealed."Not much is it?" In three days, she could afford a Ferrari baseball cap from the official merchandise stand. In three weeks, so could the average Chinese worker.

"Ten years ago, I didn't dream of owning a car," admitted 41-year-old businessman Rocky Qiang, "but now I've got two!" Rocky is the dream of every Western firm banking on China's future. At weekends, he swaps his Honda Accord for a Toyota Landcruiser to join a club of off-road enthusiasts, walk his golden retrievers on the Great Wall and enjoy an evening barbecue.

Despite environmentalists' fears that China's swelling middle classes will exhaust the planet's resources, China declares the auto sector a "pillar industry". The humble bicycle has already been banned from some Shanghai streets, while the government enforces a road and construction boom without precedent on earth. Yet "prestige projects" like Formula One are not without detractors, even at the highest level. The magnetic levitation wondertrain is haemorrhaging money. Beijing's displeasure at impetuous, money-mad Shanghai is clear from the recent halt it called to the city's planned horse racing track, and a Universal Studios theme park.

Some Chinese seek deeper significance in the rampant materialism driving their society. "Most white-collar workers will be content with their car and apartment, but others will want more fundamental rights," predicted a Beijing commentator. "The authorities promote democratisation through the rule of law and protecting private property. Once we get a leader who can drive a car himself, that will mean democracy is close."