Motor Racing: China going straight for big prize: Formula One may come to world's most populous nation. Jeremy Hart reports from Zhuhai

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The Independent Online
SIU WAI-HUNG can be pleased with his weekend's work. On Friday night, the part-time racer was a complete unknown. On Saturday afternoon, he made sporting history by becoming the first winner of the first motor race held in China.

China has staged rallies such as the Hong Kong-Peking series in the mid-Eighties and last year's 27-day Paris-Moscow-Peking marathon, but until this weekend had yet to hold a race meeting.

Now, almost 100 years since the world's first motor race, the most populous country in the world has joined a united nations of motorsport which spans the globe from Mozambique to Monte Carlo.

China may have been late off the line, but the country's governing body of motor racing, the China Motor Sport Association, is keen to make up for lost time. Within three years, it is predicted that the country will stage its first Formula One Grand Prix. If so, no other country would have jumped so fast from nothing to motor racing's front rank in such a short time.

Normally, a race meeting for amateur drivers and riders, most of whom had only travelled the 36 miles from Hong Kong to Zhuhai, would merit little attention. But China is about to take motor racing as seriously as other sports and Zhuhai is likely to be the conception of the most important new market for motor racing in decades.

This weekend's two-day event was held on a 2.5-mile city centre track, which with pounds 300,000 of investment, rose from the wide bumpy concrete boulevards of Zhuhai, one of China's economic boom towns.

Only a matter of hours before the first screeching race engine was fired up in the paddock, the car park of the Zhuhai Hotel, riders of Flying Pigeon bicycles and drivers of dilapidated Russian Moskva cars were still dicing between the barriers erected around the streets that made up the course.

Like a call to the faithful, the cacophony echoing around the drab concrete city centre drew tens of thousands to line the 10 corners of the circuit. These were not passers- by, stopping to gawp at Westerners at play. The organisers had sold 100,000 tickets at HKdollars 50 ( pounds 5) a piece for the spectacle, no mean feat when you realise that the average monthly wage in Zhuhai is estimated to be HKdollars 450.

Like actors playing to an eager audience, Hong Kong's racers who had come to the port of Zhuhai to make history, put on their best show for the Chinese. Even a car missing a corner and laying enough rubber to make two bicycle tyres drew cheers. Accidents sent them into hysteria. A grand prix would have sent them into orbit.

Only two Chinese racers got to join in with Hong Kong's best. Both were bikers, competing in an exhibition race. With the Hong Kong Automobile Association co- ordinating the racing, a Hong Kong racing licence was obligatory. Even so, some of the 127 racers came from as far as Taiwan, New Zealand and Britain.

The plan is to hold the same event in Zhuhai next year, but by then a group of Malaysian businessmen hope to have begun work on turning four square kilometres of rice paddy fields north of Zhuhai into a Formula One standard permanent race track.

With a budget of pounds 25m, approval from the CMSA and a positive reaction from a meeting in London with Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's most influential decision-maker, the Lamdeal Group is convinced that now is the right time to build the track.

'The objective is to have a Formula One race at Zhuhai,' said Laurence Loh, the designer of the three-mile circuit. '1995 is our target.'

The hope for a Chinese Grand Prix in or soon after 1995 is echoed by Qi Jin-cheng, the secretary general of the CMSA and Chinese motor sport's most senior official. 'Interest has been shown in having a grand prix in China,' he said. 'But it depends on Fisa (the international governing body). If Fisa say yes, then it will be a good thing for everyone.'

Already involved in promoting an Asian Touring Car Championship, Phil Taylor, the clerk of the course at Zhuhai, is confident that China will soon be on the grand prix calendar. 'The vibes are such that if (the Chinese) could put on a Formula One event it would happen. At least now after Zhuhai the ice has been broken, and reasonably successfully.'

(Photograph omitted)