Squabbles undermine China's billing as 'the new Klondike'

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The Independent Online
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Hyperbole is alive and well in Formula One. Yesterday Norbert Haug, the motor sport director of Mercedes-Benz, was moved to remark: "In my view this is a very important race, probably the most important race in the history of motor sport."

Given the glittering history that has embraced a world championship for 54 years, that is a little strong, but on the eve of the inaugural Chinese Grand Prix it is a telling indication of just how much the world's major car makers - those who are left in Formula One, that is - see China as a new Eldorado. It will be the major new hunting ground for them in the years to come, and the Grand Prix is just the thing to wind the market up to fever pitch.

"It is a new era and I think we will have more spectators worldwide for television than for any race before," Haug continued, "especially in America, I think, there will be a lot mentioned about the race."

His fellow countryman Mario Theissen, the director of BMW Motorsport, for whom China is the already fastest growing market, agreed. "In terms of market power, nothing so far compares with this race," he said. The troubled BAR-Honda principal, David Richards, likened it to "the Klondike, it's the new frontier".

The Chinese have embraced the project with tremendous enthusiasm. The German architect Hermann Tilke, who also created the Formula One tracks in Malaysia and Bahrain as well as one being built in Turkey, was the designer and walking round the purpose-built track at Shanghai is more akin to a trip to Disneyland. The buildings tower everywhere you look. The press room is suspended 40 metres above the track. Opulence oozes from every pore.

Unless you wished to be spiteful, you would not invite any members of the British Racing Drivers' Club, owners of beleaguered Silverstone, to come and see for themselves the face of Formula One's future. It would be too painful. This is a $240m (£134m) reminder that the past - even the present - is nowhere near as important as the future to the sport's heavy hitters.

So much so that things got a trifle tetchy at yesterday's press conference, where naturally people wanted to hear the views of Tony Purnell, the principal of the Jaguar team which Ford will axe at the end of the season, and of the troubled Eddie Jordan. This appeared to irk Renault's team principal, Flavio Briatore, who said: "I think this press conference makes no sense. Here we are in China for the first race and you start talking about the problem for Jordan. If Jordan has a problem and if Tony has a problem, I'm sure this is not the place to resolve the problem. Instead of being enthusiastic to come to this place, where the people have made a lot of effort to prepare for an incredible race, you guys try to turn things round as usual for no reason.

"Really, I don't like a press conference like this, talking about the problems for Formula One. Everybody has problems, not only in these areas. We need to resolve our problems. If somebody makes $300m or $400m investment in Formula One, I think this is very positive for Formula One, but you guys only like to look at the bad things. There's a lot of jealousy and you guys are part of that jealousy. I think this press conference is completely disgusting."

This graceless outburst merely demonstrated that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Self-interest currently overrides common sense in a sport that some believe is in danger of disappearing up its own multiple exhaust pipes, with some teams heading for penury faster than they go into the first corner at the start of a race, and no firm regulations for 2005.

Ignoring the problem - or, worse, seeking to muzzle the press so that they will not tell the outside world - is not going to make it go away.

Venues such as China and Bahrain, which also made its debut this season, and Turkey, which comes next year, are the future of the sport. But when Jaguar are on the rocks - "one team for sale: used, abused but ready to go," as their managing director, Dave Pitchforth, put it yesterday; and Bernie Ecclestone openly tells the BBC that he does not expect to see either Jordan or Minardi around next season - "I think in the end they are going to find it not easy to survive. It doesn't look too healthy at the moment," he said - you begin to wonder just who will be left to embrace that future.