Foreign joyriders fire the public's imagination

Sunday's race is a test run for the greatest coming-out party of all time - the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

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In the good old, bad old days of Old Shanghai, bored expatriates made up for the lack of foxes with the "paper chase", a horseback romp through the fields of Chinese peasants - with barely a thought for the damage and distress they left strewn in their wake. Once the Communists took over in 1949, the expats fled and the concrete People's Square carpeted over Shanghai's famous racetrack, as horse racing and gambling of every sort were banned.

Having a flutter is still illegal in a nation that thirsts desperately to lay bets, but this weekend the foreign joyriders are back by invitation as the world's premier racing circus roars into town. Formula One and Michael Schumacher, or the "Prince of Cars" as he is known in Mandarin, has caught the public imagination. They grabbed far more media inches and screens than the news this week that the Communist Party boss Hu Jintao replaced Jiang Zemin as army chief.

For sport is a greater draw than politics in today's People's Republic. Sporting heroes have long replaced Mao's model workers, while the paper Soccer Weekly easily outsells the austere People's Daily, faithful mouthpiece of the party. But do not imagine this is sport without politics. Sunday's race is a test run for the greatest coming-out party of all time - the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Athens 2004 was a wonderful appetiser for the Chinese people. The record medal haul there has raised the bar of expectation to nothing less than topping the table in four years' time, thereby overhauling the Americans, once thought invincible. At the same time, China's sudden rise has also reminded an often suspicious West that the days of state-sponsored sport did not die with East Germany.

Reflex disciplines such as table tennis and badminton were always an East Asian domain, and even an arm of Maoist foreign policy, but recent success in sports as diverse as tennis, hockey and athletics revealed the benefits of a massive population content to be groomed for success. Promising youngsters are reared in specialist institutes where the whiff of turtles' blood and other traditional medications has sometimes raised concerns. If they fail in competition there is no safety net, but riches and fame await the victors.

The hurdles gold medal and joint world record of Liu Xiang was a breakthrough of Olympian heights, justifying China's "gold medal" policy, and the estimated $700,000 (£391,000) spent by his state to speed him that far. Not every Chinese is cheering, however. "It is wrong that so much money is spent on minority sports just to win medals,'' a local businessman complained. "Formula One and the Olympics are both 'face' projects the Communist Party does to impress its citizens and the world.''

However you do the F1 maths, from the £200m track to the annual £30m fee for holding the race, the sums do not add up to an investment return within the seven-year contract Shanghai signed. But this is more about prestige than payback, and buys another calling card in China's long march towards international acceptance. China's citizens are constantly reminded of the historical sleights and heavy wounds that other countries have inflicted on them and sport offers a peaceful vehicle for revenge.

Formula One will thrive in China if it fast-tracks the careers of young drivers like 20-year-old Cheng Congfu, who recently test-drove a McLaren-Mercedes. Their future success will expunge the memory of those paper-chasing foreigners riding roughshod over China's sovereignty.

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